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Manager turned developer touts entrepreneurial spirit

NEWTON --The year was 1992. Four police officers had just been acquitted in the Rodney King beating, captured on home video. South Central Los Angeles went up in flames.

The smoke reached the home of Michael Striar, and he and his wife, Laurie, made the decision that would turn their lives around.

"When that happened, 'Oh, man, we are out of here. Let's go,"' he said recently, explaining their thinking. "I know LA very well, but it's not a good place to raise kids."

The Striars and their two children moved back to the home where he grew up in Newton. After several years of promoting rock acts, Striar resumed his work in the family's real estate and development business. Today, he is taking a partial break from it while running for mayor.

The jump from one career to the next makes sense to those who know Striar, 47. Wealthy enough to finance cataclysmic shifts in his life, Striar is driven and passionate. When he talks about his belief that Mayor David B. Cohen is a bad manager, Striar's face turns pink.

On the campaign trail, Striar stresses the state of city finances during Cohen's eight years in office. Striar also focuses on one glaring lapse during Cohen's tenure: Newton North High School.

"I'd gladly have lived the rest of my life being an entrepreneur and not being involved in politics if I didn't feel a genuine need in Newton to have somebody with a fresh perspective come in and replace Mr. Cohen," Striar said. "That's my motivation."

Striar still retains the look of a rock 'n' roller: metal earrings, shaved head, sometimes no socks. Despite the appearance, he is no slacker. Striar is one of four siblings who manage millions of dollars in family holdings, experience that he believes is a plus for the city.

The family money comes by way of Striar's father, Daniel, who at one time owned enterprises as varied as a country club, a chemical plant, and a psychiatric hospital. Described as one of the largest private landowners in Southeastern Massachusetts, Daniel Striar has been honored for his philanthropy. Among other things, he started the Jewish Community Center in Stoughton that bears his name.

Before his death in 1998, the siblings gradually joined the businesses.

Michael Striar managed the Glen Ellen Country Club in Millis for five years, but then moved into entertainment.

A onetime partner fondly remembers working with Striar. Promoter David Werlin said he and Striar put on two concerts in 1980 featuring Southside Johnnie & the Asbury Jukes, Bonnie Raitt, and Tom Rush at Temple Mountain in Peterborough, N.H..

"He's a good guy," said Werlin, of Great Northeast Productions in Townsend. Werlin called Striar "an idealist, a hard worker," with "high ethics."

Once Striar left entertainment, he took a leaf from his father's book and diversified. In addition to owning a gym franchise in Natick, he is involved in a number of projects: cleaning up the site of the family's Middleborough chemical plant so it can be redeveloped, housing in Sharon, and a performing arts center in Avon on family-owned property.

Striar says a similar performing arts center could be built in Newton, coupled with developing air rights over the Massachusetts Turnpike. It is one of several of his proposals to generate tax revenue.

Striar's family has run into community opposition with two affordable housing projects in Sharon. The more controversial of the two is on Rattlesnake Hill, where the Striars have been trying to obtain permission to construct 250 houses on 340 acres of undeveloped, forested land. The point man on the project is Michael's brother, Steven. But Michael Striar said he regularly consults with his brother.

The town tried to buy the land, but could not raise the Striars' $16 million asking price, according to Benjamin Puritz, Sharon town administrator. The Striars applied under Chapter 40B, the state law that allows a developer building affordable housing to skirt many local zoning requirements.

Striar sees no contradiction between his family's development of Rattlesnake Hill and his criticism of Cohen for supporting Avalon- Bay, a 294-unit Chapter 40B on Needham Street in Newton.

Striar said AvalonBay is far denser than the Rattlesnake Hill proposal. Were he mayor, he added, he would have a working knowledge of Chapter 40B "to make it very difficult for a developer who wants to build something like Avalon."

Striar has pledged to oppose an override in the next four years. Still, mindful that the city might need additional revenue, he has proposed instituting two other revenue generators: a 1 percent sales tax and a meal tax.

While taxes like these are generally considered to fall most heavily on the poor, Striar does not agree. "The people who pay the most with my 1 percent sales tax are people who buy the most," he said. "Who are the people who buy the most? Families like mine. Families with school-age kids who are putting the most burden on the city, and here is a way that they can directly help."

Some of Striar's positions have received a poor reception from Jeff Seideman, president of the Newton Taxpayers Association, which opposes all tax increases.

"He's a nice guy, but he seems to be talking at odds with himself," Seideman said of Striar's tax proposals.

Striar made a splash last June when he rushed Cohen at a public meeting, yelling about the mayor's cuts in the fire service budget. Fran Capello, the firefighters union president, said afterward that he ushered Striar out of the hall quickly, telling him he had not chosen the proper way to register his opposition.

Stepping into such controversies is a learning process for him, Striar admitted. Before beginning his campaign two years ago, he was not a visible part of the political landscape.

Three years ago he was almost drawn into the Newton North controversy. He said that Dr. Michael Jellinek, president of Newton- Wellesley Hospital, asked him to join a task force formed after a dispute arose over whether students should be bused to other communities while the school was being renovated.

Striar said he refused the appointment because he "didn't want to be a patsy for Cohen."

Jellinek could not be reached for comment.

As it turned out, the task force recommended some reconstruction and some new construction, but Cohen later chose to support rebuilding the school.

Striar now agrees with the plan and has proposed that the new Newton North include commercial elements, such as a food court or hotel, to bolster the tax base.

Connie Paige can be reached at cpaige@globe.com.

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