Building on Success

Written by Cheryle Besemer
Originally published June 1989 in the San Diego Executive

Lee Stein is a man with a mission. Or perhaps hes just taking the sage advise he attributes to his grandmother: “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”

In 1984, the current president and chief operatinig officer of Seaport Village began working with its founder and developer, M.B. Taubman, to tackle the gargantuan task of heading up a $50 million expansion of this citys most popular waterfront shopping and entertainment complex.

It was an enormous challenge for Stein, 35, but one that he is uniquely qualified For. Always possessing what he calls a good “business acumen,” Stein graduated college with honors and has degrees in both accounting and law. Originally from New York, he is a member of the bar in both Pennsylvania and California, but says he never really wanted to work as an attorney.

After earning his law degree from Villanova University School of Law, Stein decided to get some hands-on corporate experience and went to work as a tax specialist for a large international accounting firm.

Later, he founded and operated an entertainment business management company in Los Angeles with his wife, who is also a CPA. It was at this point he met Taubman, who recognized that the combination of Steins skills made. him well-equipped to coordinate the huge undertaking of the Seaport Village expansion.

“Seaport Village is on a special, waterfront property,” Stein says. “The original design envisioned the creation of a place where visitors could go to have an experience while shopping. They could come here to feel good, and it would always be enjoyable, fun and safe. The expansion will build on that philosophy, as well as being geared slightly more to local residents than to tourists.”

Formidable Task

The expansions master plan has been in development for four years. It began when the city announced the relocation of the existing police department, which is set on 11 acres contiguous to the north of the Seaport property. In order to proceed, Seaports owners had the formidable task of relocating two major traffic arteries — Pacific Boulevard and Harbor Drive– as well as gaining the approval of more than 13 separate governmental, private and public operations including the city, the port district, the Public Utilities Commission, the Convention Center Corporation, Centre City Development Corporation and the Santa Fe Development Co.

After almost five years of chipping away at each obstacle, the project recently received conceptual approval from the San Diego Unified Port District as well as the other necessary organizations in order for it to move ahead. The plan took off when financing was approved by Bank of America. Construction has already begun on the realignments of Pacific Boulevard and Harbor Drive. Grand opening is tentatively set for spring of 1991.
“The theme of the expansion is water, water everywhere,” says Seaports founder M. B. Taubman.

“It’s designed to make Seaport Village the Tivoli Gardens of the United States. The result will be a pedestrian oriented entertainment, dining and shopping village within a park-like setting in the heart of the city on San Diego Bay.”

The plan includes redeveloping the old police headquarters and linking it to Seaports existing site with gardens, waterways and other public areas that will provide additional access and view corridors to the harbor. It will keep the stations historic tower in the architectural plans. Total retail space will go from 90,000 to more than 250,000 square feet on 24 acres.

According to Stein, “The expansion will have four times more landscaped lakes and waterways than currently exists.”

A special feature of the new development will be an entertainment complex called Night Court. The 24,000-square foot area, located on the old police station grounds, will be within walking distance to major hotels and the new convention center. Visitors will pay a cover charge to visit a series of lounges, clubs and restaurants. They will hear jazz, blues, Dixieland, visit a Mexican cantina, a piano bar, a sing-along club or a techno-pop night spot.

“Night Court will bring a whole new dimension to the downtown entertainment scene,” vows Stein.

Another fun element of the expansion will be the market plaza, set alongside a man-made lake. Leasing plans will provide a month-to-month program for individual, fully-fixtured stalls where San Diegans can display new products or concepts without the overhead of a larger retail space.

A six-screen movie theater, a 300-seat open-air amphitheater with lawn seating for 1,000 and its own restaurant, and a new parking structure will round Out the majority of the expansion site. The amphitheater will be available for use by community and civic groups.

“We see the stage and surrounding area as a place for civic groups to perform, as well as a place for children and the community to always be welcome,” Stein says.

The national accounting and consulting firm of Laventhol & Horwath estimates the regional economic impact of Seaports expansion to be $100 million by its third year of operation.

“Getting the expansion project moving was a significant task and a great accomplishment,” Stein says. “Seaport Village has been successful since it opened in 1980. San Diegans think of it as theirs. And when the expansion is completed, it will be more than just another shopping center, it will be an interactive, vibrant part of the downtown area.”

Seaport Village has enjoyed 100 percent occupancy from the beginning, Stein notes. Retail sales have increased an average of 10 percent a year, with the 1988 figure peaking at $43 million.

"Feel Good" Image

One of Seaports major coups lies in boosting its “feel good” image in the community by hosting some of San Diegos most memorable parties. Stein played a major role in coordinating what the local press billed as “the biggest and most successful community event ever,” which was the 1988 Super Bowl party– held the night before the big game. One hundred and fifty thousand people gathered at Seaport to celebrate and to watch the impact of 500 pounds of fireworks bursting in the sky above the bay.

“The incredible part of that was, with all of those people here, there wasn’t a single incident,” says Stein. “That takes a tremendous amount of preparation and organization.”

Another Stein brainchild was utilizing Seaport as the “Americas Cup Village” where live telethons, ongoing parties and entertainment made watching the races firsthand far more enjoyable for visitors. It drew nearly 400,000 people in six days.

The village also hosts the Holiday Tree Lighting at Christmas, the Parade of Lights and the New Years Eve fireworks display, all geared toward local families spending time together, says Stein.

Spending quality time with his own family is probably what Stein would list as his favorite pastime.

The intense, dark-haired business whiz lives with his wife and two children, ages 2 and 7, in Rancho Santa Fe. When asked if he has any other hobbies, he says, simply, “No.” Friends say its not unusual for Stein to bring Serena, his 7-year-old daughter, to work with him during the summers. Hes been known to interrupt business meetings to briefly tend to her needs–setting her up with books and lessons to work on while dad solves million-dollar problems.

Stein does enjoy annual family ski vacations in New Mexico, where Serena likes to thinks shes the hottest skier in the family. Stein smiles and says she might be right.

Though he is much more comfortable talking about business or Seaport Village in general, than about his personal life, Stein admits that he is as dedicated to community service as he is to being a successful executive. This is a philosophy he shares with Seaports chairman M.B. Taubman.
His commitment to meaningful community involvement may date back to when he lost a close friend to cancer at the age of 29.

“All of his friends got together, and we decided that we had to do something about it,” Stein says. “So we set up a foundation at the University of Pennsylvania where he died and built a cancer research lab there in memory of him.”

Stein is still active on the local board of the American Cancer Society and will host the organizations annual Council of Hope at a dinner at his home this summer.

He’s also a member of the board of directors of the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce, an Executive Committee member of the Downtown Marketing Consortium and a member of the board of directors of the Central City Association. In addition, he was appointed by Mayor Maureen O’Connor as a member of the Centre City Planning Committee and as chairman of the marketing committee for the Soviet Arts Festival.

“I really feel that theres a responsibility to give back to a community,” Stein says. While the Seaport expansion moves forward, Stein is still very much involved in the day-to-day, business-as-usual activities of the existing village. He’s got high hopes for the new look and future of the operation. With a 50-50 blend of tourists and locals taking advantage of the Seaport Village “experience,” Stein sees only sunshine on the projects horizon.
As for his place in the company once the expansion is complete, however, Stein is hesitant to make any commitments.

“Its been wonderful working with Mr. Taubman, and we’ve put together a great corporate team here,” Stein says.

“But once all the pieces are together and the expansions finished, any good executive can run it.

“Im not sure what the future will bring for me. I know it will have to include whats best for my family and where the best environment is for them to grow up. San Diego is great for that.”

One thing is definite. This shrewd businessman will still be taking his grandmothers advice.

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