Profile/29″/Cw1st/mark2nd Snapshot: Mee H. Lee Title: Vice president, development Company: Douglas, Emmett & Co. Born: 1957, Seoul, South Korea Education: B.A., Latin American history, UCLA; law degree, Southwestern Most Admired Persons: Parents Personal: Engaged, but hasn’t set a date By SHELLY GARCIA Staff Reporter At one end of Mee H. Lee’s desk in her office at the Sherman Oaks Galleria is a collection of beanie babies. Two hard hats are stacked at the other. The vice president of development for Douglas, Emmett & Co. moves comfortably between such contradictory images. She is the only woman on a team of architects, builders, engineers, electricians and plumbers working to overhaul the Sherman Oaks Galleria, and she is the executive in charge of the project, overseeing everything from entitlements to construction and community relations. Lee began her career as a deputy to former Los Angeles City Councilman Marvin Braude, spent several years with the Community Redevelopment Agency, and was recruited by Warner Bros. to oversee the studio’s expansion plan prior to joining Douglas, Emmett when the company acquired the Galleria more than a year ago. The Galleria, which is being transformed inside and out from a traditional shopping mall to a complex of offices, movie theaters, restaurants and retail shops, is Lee’s largest project yet. Tower Records will replace Robinson’s May as the retail anchor, several restaurants will be developed, and the movie theater will be expanded from five to 16 screens. The project is expected to be completed toward the end of next year. Lee is the first to admit that the road has not always been easy. The community had been openly hostile to the project, and being a woman in charge of so high profile a development has had its challenges. Question: What are some of the stereotypes you’ve encountered, and how have you handled them? Answer: Some people that don’t know me, they look at me first and they see I’m five foot three. I speak English pretty well, but I am an Asian woman, and there are some preconceived notions about how they think I am or how much they think I know. I’ve gone through it enough times that I can see it coming a mile off. I know what the end result is going to be. I know what it’s going to take to get there. It’s a matter of trying to decide how I’m going to handle it more than it is about knowing whether I can. I try to take advantage of who I am and how people see me. It doesn’t always hurt to be a woman, and it doesn’t always hurt to be all of those things that make me up. Q: The decision to completely overhaul the Galleria was pretty radical. What made Douglas, Emmett decide to forego the traditional mall concept? A: For one, there’s a real need for class-A office space in this part of the Valley. Sherman Oaks is very convenient to people who live on the Westside, who live north of us, east of us, west of us. Secondly, there are other shopping centers around that have department-store anchors that make it a little difficult for us to compete. There’s Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s within very close proximity, so it was going to be difficult for us to get department stores of that caliber here. Then on the other end, (we looked at what) was lacking here. There are some very good restaurants on Ventura Boulevard, but they are sort of spread apart. A lot of restaurant people said, “Well, you know what? If you are able to get that much square footage of office, then it makes a lot of sense for us to be here.” People are going to want to walk over to lunch or to dinner rather than having to get into their cars and drive somewhere. Q: Plans by the previous owners of the Galleria drew strong opposition from neighbors, especially the proposal to expand the movie theater. How were you able to allay those concerns? A: Financially, we have an interest in making sure that we build a project that is going to be frequented by and used by that community. The minute we had acquired the property, we sat down with everyone and said, “Honestly, this is a new day. It is a chance to start over, so if you had the chance to start over what would you like to see here? And what would make you a supporter versus an opponent?” And it wasn’t an easy process. We were sitting down with people who for years said they hate this project. At the end of the day, when we put our package together, it included all the things people talked about. Q: Were you actually able to eliminate all of the things the community objected to? A: We weren’t going to do certain things because we had to balance a lot of things out. If we were only going to put in eight screens, we knew that competition-wise, the theater wasn’t going to make it. A class-A tenant like Warner Bros., they want certain amenities. They don’t want their employees to have to drive to lunch, so we listened to everything everybody had to say. Not just the community, but the tenants we were courting. Q: What do you think ultimately made the community more accepting of the number of movie-theater screens? A: I think there were other things that added fuel to the fire in the previous entitlements. For example, an arcade. We’re not going to have an arcade. We don’t have a food court here that we would have had with a mall. I think that the clientele that the community envisioned coming here is very different than the one they envision coming here now. It’s not going to be that inexpensive to go see a movie with a date and then go to the Cheesecake Factory. I don’t know what that will cost, maybe $50, but that’s different from going to the theaters and going to the food court. Q: What about your background helped you to negotiate through this process? A: I came here when I was 8. I didn’t speak a word of English, and in those days there was no bilingual education, so you learned a language because that was the only way that you could survive. My parents also gave up a lot to come here. My dad was getting his Ph.D., and we were always going to go back to Korea. My dad died when I was a senior in high school and all of a sudden here we are, five kids and my mom, who had never really worked outside the home. We ranged in age from 5 to 19. And so things happened early in my life that really gave me the kind of drive that I think I might not have had if those things had not happened. Q: The job you do seems to require two entirely different styles, a sensitivity to the needs of the community and assertiveness to manage a team of professionals and laborers. How do you balance the two? A: I only know how to be a team player. I don’t get my job done by bullying and threatening. Even on the construction end of it, I get it done by convincing people that they want to be a part of this team, and they want to be a part of success, and they want to be a part of helping me get a job done. That is very, very tough. There’s a certain art to that. You have to know enough of what you’re doing to have people around you have enough confidence (in you) that they want to be a part of your team. You have to have enough of a sense of humor where you can laugh through some moments that would otherwise make you want to cry. I have many moments like that where I just want to throw everything down and say, “I can’t do this. I don’t want to do this.” But they’re very fleeting. Because then what kicks in is, I know I can do this.