Meet Donald Trump’s biggest donor (he also loves to build walls)

Property developer Geoffrey Palmer has made his fortune building luxury fortresses in LA microcosms of Trumps vision for a sealed, affluent America

Even on balmy days in downtown Los Angeles, Americas second-biggest metropolis, the sidewalks around the Da Vinci luxury apartment complex are deserted.

You can tramp around the entire perimeter of the 75,000 sq ft, seven-storey complex, which promises a unique lifestyle in the heart of Americas most dynamic city and encounter not a soul.

The medieval brick buttresses which ring the complex, combined with the absence of shade or anywhere to sit, plus the forbidding black-tinted glass doors, all locked, suggest the absence of people of outside people is a design feature.

By his own admission, the builder, a tycoon named Geoffrey Palmer, is in the fortress business. He has erected half-a-dozen similar faux-Italianate citadels across LA, all facing inward, acting as bulwarks against outsiders.



figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Da Vinci apartment complex in Los Angeles. Photograph: Rory Carroll for the Guardian

The complexes have made Palmer the citys biggest developer and may help explain why he has just become Donald Trumps biggest donor, giving $2m to a pro-Trump group known as Rebuilding America Now, according to Federal Election Commission data. Palmer, estimated to be worth $3bn, is not well known in donor circles and has not previously made donations of that size, according to Bloomberg, which first reported the donation.

Why now, and why to Trump?

Palmer declined an interview request for this article, saying in a brief email: We dont do interviews.

Having made his fortune walling off chunks of LA to insulate his tenants from undesirable locals, perhaps it is logical to fund a Republican presidential candidate who wants to deport 11 million undocumented people and wall off the USs southern border to insulate Americans from supposed disease-carrying thieves and rapists.

Like Trump, Palmer enjoys his wealth. The headline on an Architectural Digest profile of his Beverly Hills estate, a $16m pile which boasts Louis XIV Boulle commodes, was Affinity for opulence.

Like Trump, he rewrites history: he claims Italians settled LA before the Spanish.

Also like Trump, Palmer has a reputation as a bulldozer who smashes through obstacles and does things his way. His company owns about 10,000 apartments in Los Angeles County, a third of them downtown. Admirers call Palmer a visionary who led downtowns revival.

Critics call him an ersatz monster who destroys heritage and displaces the poor. Such is the loathing some cheered when an arsonist burned down Da Vinci, then half-built, in 2014, causing $100m in damage.

Investigators say the alleged arsonist, Abdulwali, wanted revenge for police shootings of African Americans. Little is known about Abdulwali, who is due to go on trial later this year, but that did not stop Pamela Geller, a far-right blogger, branding the arson fire jihad committed by a Muslim convert.

The first phase of the complex, which has 526 apartments, opened in 2015. The second phase opened in April and is already mostly occupied.


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Street view of the Da Vinci apartments and skybridge. Photograph: Rory Carroll for the Guardian

Palmer discovered profit in safety, or perceived safety, in the wake of the 1992 LA riots, putting him ahead of a political curve which made make America safe again a slogan at this weeks Republican convention in Cleveland.

Step inside any of the Renaissance Collection complexes Da Vinci, Medici, Lorenzo, Visconti, Piero, Orsini and a blanket of security and comfort enfolds you, keeping the city outside at bay. They are arguably microcosms of Trumps would-be America: sealed, affluent strongholds.

Weve had no major incidents. Its very secure, said a Da Vinci leasing office agent as she showed a prospective tenant around this week. We have convenience cameras all over. And convenience guards who patrol on the hour.

A lobby of white tiles, cream walls and piped classical music led to courtyards with fountains and rooms with recessed lighting, Italian marble vanities and double-paned windows.

A skybridge over Temple street connects two wings of the complex, allowing residents to remain in the Da Vinci bubble and walk over any pedestrians, including homeless ones, who may appear on the sidewalks below.


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Street view from the Da Vinci complex skybridge. Photograph: Rory Carroll for the Guardian

The website and brochure, illustrated with a castle logo, underline security by highlighting the complexs electronic door entry, closed-circuit camera system and 24-hour doorman.

Those who can afford to live here a single bedroom unit starts from around $2,240 a month enjoy bountiful amenities, including a business centre, an ATM, a cinema, a basketball court, swimming pools, gyms and jacuzzis.

With so many security layers Palmers buildings can be difficult to get into but once youre in its very welcoming. You understand why theyre filled up, said David Abel, publisher of the Planning Report, an urban planning trade publication.

The property magnate pioneered his citadel model in the wake of the Rodney King riots, which left 55 people dead and $1bn in property damage, and continued with the same design even as the riots faded into history and downtown became a gentrified hub for business, arts and entertainment.

Twenty years on, the whole experience in downtown LA is the difference between night and day, said Abel. Yet he continues to build the same fortress-type complexes. Every one of [his] projects outwardly has no connection to the street. Its a unique model. The residents are focused internally.

Palmer himself has reportedly referred to his complexes as fortress-like, but he also says they possess timeless beauty and award-winning classical designs.

Impact on street life can be dramatic. While the rest of LA hummed during afternoon rush hour this week there were only fleeting signs of human presence on sidewalks near Da Vinci, which fills an entire block.

Rappers use empty streets to shoot video in front of Da Vinci. Photograph: Rory Carroll for the Guardian
On Fremont avenue some youths used the empty cityscape to shoot a rap video. On Dewap road, Albert, 55, a homeless man who declined to give a last name, complained of an urban desert. Theres no life here, no way to tell what season it is. You dont see people, just cars going in and out.

The blog LA Curbed has branded Palmer the citys worst developer. His squat, nearly-identical fortresses, with embarrassing names … arent just ugly (although they are very ugly), theyre vacuums designed to suck the life out of a neighborhood that has worked so hard to become lively in the past decade.

Housing advocates bristle that Palmer has twice overturned city rules about including low income units in his complexes. We think that Palmers developments are exactly the kind that add to, not alleviate, the citys displacement and housing crisis, said Walt Senterfitt of the LA Tenants Union.

Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, a non-profit, is fighting to change Palmers Lorenzo complex, said Joe Donlin, the groups director of equitable development. Architecture has an impact on the community in terms of how people feel. They see a building and can think, Im not welcome here.


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Albert, a homeless man, dislikes the empty streets around the Da Vinci complex. Photograph: Rory Carroll for the Guardian

Palmer started his career developing land tracts in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys in the 1970s.

Notoriety followed. Employees of his company, GH Palmer Associates, unlawfully contributed funds to a political action committee and to an LA city council member, prompting a $30,000 fine, according to LA Magazine.

While clearing land for the Orsini complex downtown Palmers workers demolished an 1880s Queen Anne cottage, the last original building on Bunker Hill. It was supposed to be moved but workers said they had to destroy it after a bulldozer accidentally backed into it. Palmer paid $200,000 to settle the suit.

That pales beside a<a href=”” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”> $20m lawsuit the city filed earlier this year for not having an adequate fire protection plan for the Da Vinci. The blaze was so intense it melted signs on the 110 freeway.

Abel, publisher of The Planning Report, said Palmers generosity towards Trump reflected a willingness to gamble and follow instinct.

Hes an iconoclast and libertarian in his approach. He bet on downtown when no one else was betting on downtown. The tycoon had a pragmatic relationship with LAs Democratic-dominated city authorities, said Abel, but in backing Trump he possibly had some scores to settle. He doesnt like being muscled by liberals and activists who have ideas about what he should do.

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