You won’t find his name in many articles, and he doesn’t like to be known publicly, but at 34, Leo Pustilnikov is already one of the Los Angeles area’s biggest real estate developers.
“It’s by design that I’m a virtual unknown,” he said on a recent afternoon at R10 Social House near Redondo Beach’s International Boardwalk. “If you look at me you’ll probably find three articles about me. I don’t like the notoriety. I don’t like being in the news. I don’t have an ego.”
An ironic statement, of course, to make to a newspaper reporter. But it was, after all, his first interview.
Pustilnikov is the proposed buyer of a roughly 70-year-old AES power plant and the 50 acres of prime Redondo Beach real estate that surrounds it. The deal is expected to close next month and Pustilnikov plans to be the front man for a new project once the power plant shuts down, which could be as early as the end of next year.
As opposed to other development deals he has been a part of, Pustilnikov will handle the day-to-day operations of this one, mainly because he’s excited about it.
“With this project I will be involved in the community meetings. I’m the one who deals with the city,” he said. “My name is going to be out there with this project whether I like it or not.”
What he plans to do with the AES site will be the subject of intense political debate, as have several failed attempts to develop the property in years past. Ballot measures, needed to approve any commercial or residential development on the property, failed on two occasions by slight margins. They include Measure B in 2015 and Measure A in 2013, not to mention the failed Heart of the City project going back to 2004.
So what makes Pustilnikov’s idea different?
Rather than focus on housing, Pustilnikov describes his vision as an “amenitized office campus,” a combination of office space, retail, restaurants and a corporate hotel. He expects to unveil a draft plan of the project in October following the Jewish holidays.
Originally from Odessa, Ukraine, Pustilnikov came to Los Angeles with his family at the age of 4. They lived first in West Hollywood near other families from the Soviet Union. He graduated from UCLA with a political science degree, but said he was bored with school and did not get good grades. Now he lives in Marina Del Rey and visits the Redondo Beach Pier often.
Unifying the waterfront
While redeveloping the AES site is his biggest endeavor, Pustilnikov said he has plans for the entire waterfront and eventually wants to own the leaseholds that are tied up in litigation with CenterCal.
For now, Pustilnikov has closed on a piece of property across the street from the power plant, also owned by AES, where the SEA Lab aquarium was located. There he plans to develop a market and food hall with outdoor dining.
He also recently closed on buying the leasehold to the Monstad Pier, the oldest section of the Redondo Beach Pier furthest to the south that includes the main pier plaza. There his company is working with a restaurant group to remake the second floor of Maison Riz and turning it into a restaurant/bar. The smaller building where Pacific Fish is located, he wants to carve up into smaller food vendors so there are “more offerings than ice cream, churros and fish,” he said.
“What I want to do is improve the pier and show the citizens what hopefully AES and the rest of the waterfront can be like,” he said.
No pictures please
Since his proposed purchase of the AES site became public in October 2018, many requests have been made for an interview, even a phone call, and all of them were rebuffed. While he’s met with city officials and his name comes up often, sitting down with Pustilnikov Thursday represented his first virtual introduction to the citizens of Redondo Beach.
He did not, however, submit to a photo.
“Not after what happened to Fred,” he said, referring to Fred Bruning, president of CenterCal Properties, who endured personal attacks throughout his campaign to redevelop the Redondo Beach waterfront in 2017. Bruning claimed activists resorted to harassment and character assassination.
“I don’t want people knowing what I do,” Pustilnikov said. “I enjoy spending time with family and friends without this becoming an issue and a topic of conversation.”
Pustilnikov, with thinning hair and admittedly 40 pounds overweight, does not look the part of a multimillionaire developer. He doesn’t wear fancy watches or bracelets. Dressed in a V-neck T-Shirt and with a laptop bag slung over his shoulder, he’d fit in well with the IT crowd.
He said he has a partner in the AES deal, a friend he wouldn’t name. He said they share expenses 50-50. His wealth, he said, was made through a series of successful real estate deals worth millions, often with different partners and different firms. His family did not have money growing up. Pustilnikov said he remembers recycling cans and his parents working nights.
He explained how through a series of real estate deals—condominium complexes here, an office park there—he was able to amass enough wealth to reinvest in the AES site with a business partner.
Pustilnikov talks slowly and concisely, thinking through each word. He said he sees things in investment deals that other developers do not.
The most publicized deal Putsilnikov was involved in to date was the proposed redevelopment of the Sears building in downtown Los Angeles in which Pustilnikov at the age of 27 became a partner. The deal has yet to come to fruition and the property will likely be sold.
“To have just turned 27 being a partner in one of the largest buildings in L.A. and 25 acres around it, that’s not too bad,” he said.
Seeing what others don’t
So far at least, Pustilnikov is winning good favor by some of those who led the charge against past development efforts such as Mayor Bill Brand, who called Pustilnikov “smart with great vision.”
“His ability to work with the public will be critical to his success,” Brand said. “But he will also have to navigate the Coastal Commission, the city process, win a public vote and time it all with adequate financing. Without having seen any of his plans, many are eager to get started and want to help.”
Pustilnikov said he’s heard the concerns that Redondo Beach has a shortage of office space and people are resistant to anything that would increase traffic.
“I’ve learned that saying housing in the city of Redondo is like yelling fire in a crowded room,” he said.
Projects proposed for the AES site in the past were defective, Pustilnikov said, because they were too big with too much housing.
“I have the sense that the city is in dire need of the waterfront being redone for the citizens of this city."