Retired bond king Bill Gross was famous for thinking outside the box, an aptitude that earned billions for him and his Pimco clients. But his infamous dispute with a Laguna Beach neighbor over a controversial lawn sculpture seems to have him relying on an old saw.
Sometimes it’s best to declare victory and go home — or more precisely in this case, declare victory no matter what the outcome.
Gross and his wife, Amy, issued a news release this month announcing they were “pleased” with the city’s approval of the glass artwork.
“Amy and I are relieved we can finally enjoy our art in peace and in full compliance with the City of Laguna Beach,” read the statement, which took a final pot shot at neighbor Mark Towfiq, a wealthy tech entrepreneur, and his wife, Carol Nakahara.
It alleged their neighbors had attempted to “sully” his reputation, adding: “The approval by the Laguna Beach Design Review Board and City of Laguna Beach exposes their true intent in this rather ludicrous situation.”
There was one major issue with the declaration, which had the tone of a victory lap: The original dispute was about not the 22-foot-long creation by blown-glass artist Dale Chihuly but the netting Gross put up to protect it. In the manner of all things Hatfield and McCoy, the conflict escalated from there.
The sculpture, erected in 2019, “wasn’t necessarily our style,” Towfiq testified under oath during the clash, which ended up in court the next year But the real problem was the netting: The couple said it was ugly and obscured the view from their seaside mansion on an exclusive stretch of South Coast Highway. Nakahara testedified it was “legitimately like a big soccer net.”
The outcome? Gross not only removed the netting but also withdrew plans to install a permanent glass-and-steel cover in order to win a city permit for the sculpture in January. Now, the sculpture Gross claimed was worth $1 million is sitting unprotected near towering palm trees that apparently damaged it once before, according to city documents.
What’s more, the blue glass arrangement of marlin, fishing globes and cobalt-colored reeds can’t be illuminated later than 10 pm after Towfiq and Nakahara complained about the glare.
That hardly seems like the stuff of victory after a dispute that drew worldwide media coverage when Towfiq accused his billionaire neighbors of playing the theme of “Gilligan’s Island” on a loop to harass him after he complained to the city about the installation. In response, Gross tried to paint Towfiq as a “dangerous” weirdo and “Peping Mark” obsessed with him and his future wife, accusing Towfiq of directing an iPhone camera at her while she enjoyed the backyard pool.
An Orange County Superior Court judge sided with Towfiq and Nakahara in a trial over requests for competing restraining orders. She found the Gross couple had harassed their neighbors and required them not to violate the noise provisions of the Laguna Beach municipal code. In October, the judge found Gross and his wife in contempt of court for violating the order, sentencing them to the community service.
While it’s hard to call that a victory for Gross, Towfiq and Nakahara didn’t get everything they wanted either — as their demands widened from just taking down the netting.
Despite Towfiq’s testimony during the civil harassment trial that he had no real issues with the artwork, the couple’s attorney made removal of the artwork a condition of settling the case.
When Gross and his wife seek permits for the art installation in January from the Laguna Beach Design Review Board, Towfiq and Nakahara persisted. They asked the board to reject the project even though the netting had come down and Gross withdrew the proposed glass cover. Towfiq said that the sculpture should be moved to another location.
Even when the board approved only the sculpture and stacked on lighting limits, the couple appealed the decision to the California Coastal Commission. Commission staff found in February “no substantial issue” worthy of the agency’s review, prompting the couple to withdraw the appeal and making the Laguna Beach review board decision final.
Towfiq and Nakahara haven’t issued a victory statement despite achieving their original goal. Their two sets of attorneys declined to comment despite a New York Post headline based on this month’s news release declaring the billionaire had won the “art war.”
Disputes between wealthy and celebrity neighbors are a staple of Southern California life that draw tabloid attention. However, amid a turbulent world of inequality, pandemic and war, they seem more distasteful than ever.
Gross made a similar argument when trying to settle the dispute during the first trial, citing pandemic hardships. It was rejected by Towfiq’s and Nakahara’s attorney, who called it self-serving given how poorly the trial was going for the billionaire couple.
In a war (between neighbors) there are no winners, goes another old saw — especially among those with deep pockets for legal fees who create unseemly spectacles.