Sept. 30, 2001
You can live in Los Angeles for a long time without encountering the downtown of legend, a fashionable district that was the center of city life for half of the last century. Plush flagship department stores and glamorous movie palaces filled South Broadway with activity day and night. Ornate bank buildings and office blocks formed a beaux-arts canyon of marble and terra cotta down Spring and Main streets, south from City Hall.
Trolleys rattling in from the beach and suburbs, overnight trains from the Midwest and buses carrying salary men to their office jobs converged in a few sardine-packed square miles of downtown as overrun with urban bustle as the Manhattan scenes in those 1930s movies.
Today, the old downtown core seems to have vanished. The truth is more complicated. In the shadow of gleaming office towers atop Bunker Hill, the grand edifices of old downtown stand largely intact, disguised as discount shops or jewelry and toy outlets on the street level. The upper floors often sit vacant, seen only by movie location crews who love the Art Deco-esque stylings. At night the sidewalks are virtually deserted except for the wandering homeless and a few die-hard clubbers.
Some romantics openly pine for downtown to rise again as the city center, but it never takes hold for immutable reasons. The new Walt Disney Concert Hall and Cathedral of the Angels notwithstanding, Los Angeles' social, cultural and financial life is elsewhere now. There are better stores in the malls, a greater choice of top restaurants on the Westside, more movie screens and even corporate boardrooms in the San Fernando Valley.
That said, something big and surprising is going on downtown. As Los Angeles' outward growth bumps up against its physical limits, old downtown's charms are being rediscovered. The Southern California Institute of Architecture dedicated a new campus this month in a derelict freight depot in the artists loft district near the Los Angeles River. A Standard Hotel is set to open soon, not on Bunker Hill but on Flower Street at 6th Street in the former Superior Oil Building. Around Staples Center, media mogul Rupert Murdoch and Philip Anschutz (owner of the arena, the Kings and a growing empire of movie theaters) plan a 27-acre entertainment complex with a performing arts theater and hotel. A performance center is also in the works for the former St. Vibiana's Cathedral on Main at 2nd.
Most surprising of all, given many people's view of downtown as a dead zone after dark and on weekends, is what's happening in the vacant landmark buildings of the recently named Historic Core, a 36-block area bounded by 3rd and 9th streets on the north and south and Main and Broadway on the east and west, where much of the city's commerce once got done. Along Spring and Main and other streets, abandoned offices on the floors looking down on skid row's sidewalks are being gutted and reinvented as living space. To a growing slice of the renter world, this weary section of downtown has become the best place in L.A. to find untraditional digs.
Most of the converted units are loft-style spaces with the sort of Raymond Chandler period details that appeal to the educated and fashionable -- high ceilings, polished concrete floors, gargantuan windows -- and updated with modern amenities such as granite counter tops, slate-clad showers and stainless-steel appliances. The renters of these demi-lofts are not mainly artisans desperate for lots of room at a bargain price; they discovered the more industrial warehouses on the eastern edge of downtown, now the Artist District, years ago, and many of those industrial buildings have already been developed. And they aren't the destitute who haunt the sidewalks in front of the homeless missions and seedy hotels.
Mostly, the tenants are middle class, since the rents are comparable to those in Hollywood or Silver Lake. Typically, the new Historic Core residents are young or single, and, in an unexpected twist, many didn't move downtown to be close to their jobs. In a Historic Core development called the Old Bank District, a block of 4th Street between Spring and Main streets, 80% of residents commute to work out of downtown. They come home to skid row and walk their dogs on the gritty streets in order to live in dramatic spaces on the urban edge. It's not for everybody, but in a city starved for modestly priced but interesting apartments, developers can't supply enough lofts to satisfy the demand. After many failed efforts, by the Community Redevelopment Agency and others, to engineer a live-in downtown by offering security condos aimed at Bunker Hill's corporate types, a more street-wise neighborhood is sprouting. Imperfect, edgy, but a neighborhood even so.
This trend had been predicted for years, but only now is the hype getting real. And the smart money is swooping in. "The standard L.A. apartment, the standard stucco box, is not that much fun to live in," says Santa Monica architect Wade Killefer, who has been retained by newly enthusiastic developers to design hundreds of loft conversions. "There's a huge unmet need for some kind of an alternative. L.A. is full of people who want to be cool, and that's what is going to make this go. Downtown's time has come."
Among believers in the rebirth of old downtown, there's a tendency to see only good and glorious things happening. Not so those who took the bet and just want it all to work out -- and the sooner the better. Newcomers such as Marie Condron, whose sunny seventh-floor loft above the corner of 6th and Main is in the epicenter of the fledgling neighborhood. Outside the building, a man reeking of urine and losing a battle to keep his pants hitched up stumbles to the sidewalk and eyes everyone who enters. Upstairs, on a floor that once housed Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad offices, soft classical music plays on the stereo, and the loft's cats, Pidge and Athena, loll on the sofa as Condron explains how she became an urban pioneer, by L.A. standards.
Condron and her partner, Ian Trivers, moved west three years ago from Washington, D.C. There they lived near busy DuPont Circle and enjoyed having restaurants and bars nearby. Here they found their first neighborhood in West Hollywood lacking in street life. At a party in the penthouse of the Alexandria Hotel on Spring Street, they discovered a colony of young urbanites like themselves living downtown. Last year, Condron, 27, and Trivers, 25, moved into the Santa Fe Building.
At one end of the L-shaped, almost-2,000-square-foot corner loft is their spacious bed area, at the other end an airy kitchen and comfortable sitting area filled with art books. In between is the desk and storage shelves where Condron and Trivers run their online boutique, www.supplycurve.com. Operating a business in their apartment is atypical of the new downtowners, but the living environment is a prime example. It's a large open space, with light pouring in through unshaded windows that reach almost from floor to high ceiling, a clean modern bathroom, even a small balcony overlooking downtown. On the downside, the ancient window glaze is too wispy to muffle the sirens and groans of the street below, and the balcony is really a fire escape landing. The unit lacks central heat. The couple run an air filter to ease Condron's asthma. There's no greenery for miles. But for now they are happy.
"We really like it here. We've made friends, and we're very interested in seeing the neighborhood evolve," Condron says. To that end, she and Trivers opened their loft this summer for a sold-out tour staged by the preservation-minded Los Angeles Conservancy. They organized an activists group and monthly salons to be held in varying locations, beginning with their loft. Already, as many as a few dozen downtown dwellers meet every Wednesday evening for drinks at Cole's P.E. Buffet, the 6th Street eatery noted for its French dip sandwiches and status as the city's oldest continually operated restaurant (at its current spot since 1908). Several of the attendees volunteer in nearby homeless shelters.
It takes more to build a neighborhood, so Condron and Trivers also administer an e-mail list and Web site, www.newdowntown.com, that has become the fledgling community's favorite news forum. E-mails exchange information on new sources of takeout Chinese (few restaurants will deliver downtown), publicize art openings and performances and vent about rising rents. The e-mail group, with about 290 members, puts out the word on milestones, such as the opening of a Rite-Aid drugstore on 7th, the offering of Saturday morning yoga classes in the architecturally noteworthy Farmers and Merchants Bank building (L.A.'s oldest bank) at 4th Street and Main and a monthly flea market held in Harlem Alley behind the bank.
Part of the impetus behind newdowntown.com is survival, and not just from the perils of skid row's meaner streets. Living in the rawer section of downtown is not as scary as some might think, Condron says: "You just use the street smarts you would use in any city"--meaning walk with a purpose and a bit of a scowl, and avoid trouble spots. For Condron, a bigger problem is a lack of social amenities that make a neighborhood enjoyable: a convenience store open at midnight, a supermarket for staples, friendly coffeehouses and bars that stay open late. "The real issue is: There aren't enough places to go at night," she says. "That needs to change."
It's a theme repeated often in the new downtown: We need more restaurants, a supermarket, a newsstand. There's much interest in the progress toward luring a Ralphs to 9th and Hope streets, long promised but still elusive.
While most Angelenos can't yet think of skid row as a neighborhood, that's precisely the premise behind the Historic Core Bugle, a free monthly newsletter published by loft dwellers in the San Fernando Building at 4th and Main. The Bugle acts like a neighborhood crier, offering an event calendar and tips on where to find groceries--there's Grand Central Market or shops in Little Tokyo and Chinatown, and a Vons up on North Alvarado, several miles outside of downtown. The Bugle also runs advice on how to coexist with skid row's traditional inhabitants, including this police tip: "Number one, avoid areas where you know drug dealing is occurring--avoid eye contact when possible."
The suggestions help, says co-editor Perri Cole, a downtown newcomer who avoids the intersection of 5th and Main one block away, where the crack trade flourishes in the open: "I look forward to the day when I can walk from here to Cole's [P.E. Buffet] and not feel scared."
At least for good coffee she now only has to go downstairs. On the ground floor of the San Fernando, Acapulco Gold serves fresh espresso and lattes, pastries and other snacks, with fashion magazines for sale. Sidewalk tables add to the sense of a neighborhood forming at the historic corner where, until last year, the buildings sat vacant, empty relics of a past time.
These new evidences of neighborhood are no accident. The coffeehouse, yoga classes and flea market were all started or encouraged by developer Tom Gilmore, who kick-started the Historic Core loft-apartment boom by converting the San Fernando and the Hellman Building across the street. The Continental on Spring Street at 4th was slated to open this month. Merely turning old offices into lofts won't transform downtown, say Gilmore and his partners. "Sure, people want to see pipes. They want to see the guts of the building. They want windows, and if they can get them, dramatic windows," says partner and former Times columnist Robert Jones. "But the sidewalk is crucial."
That means putting more people on the street, people with jobs and cash in the bank. Encouraging them to keep dogs helps; there are about 50 dogs in the Old Bank District already, leasing director Hal Bastian says. Urban hipsters walking their dogs makes skid row feel less threatening. Markets, bars and coffeehouses are essential.
"There are none of the amenities of a livable city here now," Gilmore says of the Historic Core. After struggling to find an operator willing to join his venture, he plans to put a restaurant, tentatively called Gypsy, this fall on the first floor of the San Fernando, built in 1906 by James B. Lankershim of the wheat-growing and town-building family that once owned half the San Fernando Valley. The Hellman Building, the former Rapid Transit District headquarters, will get a convenience store.
Gilmore himself will live in the Continental, for 50 years the tallest office building in Los Angeles. He currently resides in the Hollywood Hills. In all, his three buildings hold 240 lofts, ranging in size from 585 to 2,320 square feet and in price from $790 to $3,050 a month. The prices are typical of the new downtown's lofts, though the $6,000 a month tab for the Continental penthouse is not, provided Gilmore can find someone to take it. He has no worries about the other units. They tend to get snatched up as soon as they become available, with scheduled tours for prospective renters every Saturday.
Some of his tenants complain that the promised amenities such as markets and restaurants have been slow to materialize, and about balky elevators and hot water lapses. "There have been some problems," says Chris McCoy, founder of The Bugle. But being first has its rewards. Developers coming into downtown behind Gilmore credit him for seeing the potential and showing the way. The emerging competition is good, Gilmore says: "It means we were right. We were very, very lucky pioneers." His plans for downtown include 180 more loft-style apartments on Spring, a 125-room boutique hotel also on Spring near 5th Street, and more lofts to be built in his remodeling of St. Vibiana's, which Gilmore purchased from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese.
Some of the more ambitious plans are coming now from other developers. An intriguing project to many new downtowners is already transforming the vacant Pacific Electric Building, former home of L.A.'s vaunted Red Cars, which takes up the block formed by 6th and 7th streets and Los Angeles and Main streets. Designed in 1904, the 10-story brick and terra-cotta structure was the home of Southern Pacific Railroad and the private Jonathan Club, and its Establishment interior details remain. Features include mahogany doors and trim, mosaic tile floors, marble wainscoting on the upper corridors and a rooftop atrium and garden. The 350 lofts under construction will take advantage of the old styling. Owner ICO Investments of Beverly Hills sat on the relic for years, renting it for movie productions until the loft boom made conversion feasible. Plans call for auto parking underneath on the old Red Car platforms, with shops and restaurants on the street level.
Luring merchants to any of the converted trophy buildings in old downtown has proven difficult, but Alexander Moradi of ICO is confident the time has come. "As more and more residents come in, the retailers will follow. There's a lot of people who want a city lifestyle."
The boom owes its existence to a shortage of rental housing around Los Angeles, the availability of historic preservation tax credits and grants and a 1999 change in city codes that relaxed the rules on "adaptive reuse" of older structures. Developers are spared expensive scrutiny by city planners and get a break on zoning requirements such as disabled access and parking. They only need to provide the same amount of parking as previously existed, though in practice, lofts without parking are harder to rent, and lenders generally won't finance them. The developer-friendly "adaptive reuse" ordinance helps the balance sheet for apartment conversions in older buildings, which often require extensive retrofits to give young city dwellers the cool kitchens and open space they demand.
Currently more than a dozen projects encompassing about 1,000 loft conversion units are in varying stages of completion around downtown. The largest, along Los Angeles Street in the Fashion District, would transform old sewing shops and offices into 600 rentals and remake alleys into a walking street of shops and restaurants. The Santee Court renovation has yet to begin, "but we are very committed," says Mark Weinstein of owner MJW Investments. Loft projects are targeted for Historic Core landmarks such as the Higgins Building on 2nd and Main, the Victor Clothing Building (noted for its oversize murals) on Broadway and 2nd and the Subway Terminal Building on Hill near 4th. The vacant Herald-Examiner building at Hill and 11th streets is among the other famed buildings coveted as lofts. Nearby, in the South Park neighborhood around Staples Center, Forest City Development is building an all-new loft building, rather than converting. If all the loft projects are built, their tenants would join the complexes on Bunker Hill and a few other scattered condo developments in creating a downtown population of about 25,000 within five years, says architect Killefer.
Will all get built? Almost certainly not, since financing remains a tough sell. Downtown as a residential neighborhood is still a dubious proposition to some lenders, after the earlier false starts. Money is available now, especially in concert with tax credits, but if the economy sours even more, the funding could dry up. And no one really knows how hot the demand for rental lofts will stay, since preferences could change. They only know that the market is sizzling now. "If we could throw 1,000 units up on the market tomorrow, they would rent," says Amy Anderson of the Los Angeles Conservancy, which embraces loft conversions as a prime way to give historic office buildings a new economic purpose and save them from demolition.
Anderson cites another looming threat to the success of old downtown's rebirth: property owners who hold out for inflated sales prices on buildings with the right bones to work as loft conversions. "There's a lot of overvalued property out there," she says. Speculation is prodding rents to rise faster than tenants see their street life improve. At the Santa Fe Building, some tenants left when some rents soared this year after its purchase by the Kor Group, whose principal, Brad Korzen, developed the chic Avalon Hotel and Maison 140 in Beverly Hills. "The [higher] rents aren't justified yet. The neighborhood still has a way to go," says Ian Trivers. "You can still can feel uncomfortable walking around at night."
As more lofts fill up, all the new arrivals out walking their dogs and going for coffee should make the sidewalks feel safer and more like home. There's still the potential for clashes with homeless activists who see the newcomers taking up valuable space and driving up prices, and tension between downtown veterans and some recent arrivals who'd like to swiftly reshape the area.
Celia Esguerra has lived downtown for four years; it was her party in the Alexandria Hotel penthouse where Condron and Trivers caught the downtown bug, and she has joined with them on newdowntown.com and a neighborhood steering committee. She likes having all the new and interesting people around. "It's become the hippest neighborhood in Los Angeles. It's edgy, and that's good," Esguerra says. Yet she notices that some of the newcomers drive everywhere rather than use the subway or walk. They complain too much about the homeless and the noise, as if it were the suburbs. "What did they expect? They don't seem to really want to be in a downtown environment."
Her advice for the new arrivals is to take downtown as it is: "This is not Hawaii, and you are not missionaries. You are not going to convert the natives."
©Kevin Roderick 2001