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Downtown LA starting to feel like a neighborhood

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  • 7/12 Los Angeles Times
    Published Saturday, July 12, 2003, in the Los Angeles Times Rebirth of Core Values It s no Manhattan, but with more full-time residents moving in, downtown
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 12, 2003
      Published Saturday, July 12, 2003, in the Los Angeles Times

      Rebirth of Core Values

      It's no Manhattan, but with more full-time residents moving in,
      downtown L.A. is starting to feel more like a real neighborhood.

      By Roger Vincent and Marla Dickerson

      Back in the 1960s, the Music Center on Grand Avenue was supposed to
      revive downtown Los Angeles. A decade later, the Convention Center 12
      blocks away was going to be the draw. In the late '80s, billions of
      dollars of skyscraping office towers were sure to do the trick.

      None of them delivered. Then, two years ago, Jon and Jolene Fisher
      moved out of a house in Van Nuys and rented an airy loft in a
      99-year-old building on Spring Street. They became reverse Angelenos:
      living in the central business district and commuting to teaching jobs
      in the San Fernando Valley.

      The Fishers take the Red Line subway and buses to work. They walk to
      see the Los Angeles Philharmonic perform, to buy groceries and to go
      out to dinner. The birth seven months ago of their son, Jon Robles
      Fisher, didn't cramp their inner-city style: It made them appreciate
      it all the more.

      "I don't have to put him in the car every time I want to go
      somewhere," Jolene Fisher said recently. "Most of what we need is
      within walking distance."

      Today there are at least 8,000 people like the Fishers, renting or
      owning homes in downtown L.A., where sidewalk cafes, coffee shops,
      flower stalls and food markets have started to thrive even on
      weekends.

      That doesn't make it Manhattan or even San Francisco. But there is an
      approaching critical mass of residents. After decades of fits and
      starts, the central business district ? 4.4 square miles spreading out
      from the junction of Main and Alameda streets, where the city was
      founded 212 years ago ? finally is starting to have the feel of a
      real, 24/7 neighborhood.

      The trend is expected to accelerate. The stock of market-rate housing
      units downtown is expected to grow 44% in the next 18 months,
      according to statistics compiled by the Downtown Center Business
      Improvement District, which represents downtown property owners. More
      than 2,600 units are under construction, the group said, and
      developers of an additional 2,200 have received building permits or
      submitted plans to city officials for approval.

      Why now? The simple answer is supply and demand: There are too many
      people chasing too little housing in the metropolitan area.

      Weary of long commutes and shocked by the sticker prices of L.A.'s
      tonier addresses, home buyers have been reclaiming neighborhoods near
      the core. Echo Park, Angeleno Heights and Silver Lake have all
      experienced residential renaissances since the mid-1990s.

      Downtown, flush with vacant, vintage buildings and receptive to
      growth, is the latest target for developers guided by a Willie
      Sutton-like maxim: That's where the space is.

      "It was almost inevitable," said Los Angeles real estate consultant
      Larry Kosmont, president of Kosmont Cos. "You've got mounting
      opposition to almost any kind of development in many outlying suburban
      areas and a glut of space in the city center from all the corporate
      downsizing. The path of least resistance leads downtown."

      For longtime central city residents, there's a downside. Computer
      artist Lisa Gibson said the rent on her loft at 7th and Alameda
      streets, where she's lived for 10 years, jumped almost 40% to $1,600
      last October.

      "It's kind of depressing to me," she said. "They're forcing out
      everybody who actually makes the economy run around here."

      The 35-year-old Gibson has no plans to leave, though, because her
      gritty neighborhood still appeals to her.

      "I grew up in Orange County," she said, "where everything is poured
      out of the same tube."

      In downtown Los Angeles Gibson found a home in a building dating to
      1884 that she believes is a former hayloft and stables for the Los
      Angeles Police Department. "I absolutely love it," she said.

      Most lenders aren't so enthusiastic. Developers say banks are
      reluctant to finance residential construction downtown because the
      area historically has been a money pit. So builders routinely rely on
      funds from local, state and federal programs set up to encourage the
      reuse of older buildings and the creation of rental housing in urban
      areas.

      Downtown believers, meanwhile, predict the banks will soon come
      around. Dan Rosenfeld, a principal at Urban Partners, a Los Angeles
      developer and landlord, says it's inevitable. Downtown's revival, he
      said, is no less than "the reversal of 50 years of centrifugal
      sprawl."

      Urban Partners is managing the development of a handful of projects,
      including some nonresidential developments that Rosenfeld believes
      will make the district more interesting. One is a new office for the
      California Endowment, a nonprofit health foundation that plans to move
      from Woodland Hills to a site next to the former Terminal Annex post
      office on Alameda Street. Construction on a 150,000-square-foot
      building is scheduled to start early next year.

      There are many new businesses on the scene. Pete's Cafe & Bar, a New
      York-style bistro, opened on a once-forlorn corner of Main Street late
      last year. Across the street, shopkeeper Maryam Jaghori sets out
      umbrellas and stacks boxes of fruit in the window of her Old Bank
      General Market and delicatessen every day. Around the corner is a
      Quizno's sandwich shop in a century-old office building that had been
      boarded up for more than a decade before developer Tom Gilmore built
      apartments upstairs.

      Merchants are negotiating leases in other "new" buildings, including
      the General Petroleum Building, onetime headquarters for Mobil
      Oil. The 13-story office building opened in 1949 and was designed by
      Welton Becket, architect of several Los Angeles landmarks, including
      the Capitol Records building, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the
      Cinerama Dome.

      After sitting vacant for 12 years, the General Petroleum Building has
      been reborn as the Pegasus apartments. The building is at the corner
      of Wilshire Boulevard and Flower Street ? practically ground zero in
      the city's financial district.

      "We're talking to yoga instructors, small grocery stores, juice
      stores, banks," said Robert Hart of Beverly Hills-based developer
      Kennedy Wilson. He said negotiations were underway with a restaurateur
      who wants to open a white-tablecloth restaurant and bar.

      Kennedy Wilson and co-developer KOR Group started leasing the first of
      the 322 apartments last month. Rents start at $1,200 a month and go as
      high as $6,000 for two-bedroom penthouses.

      At more than $2 a foot, the rents are higher than what most downtown
      office buildings command.

      The building is almost 30% leased, said Greg Schem, president of KOR
      Realty Group, and about 90% of the tenants who have signed leases work
      downtown. Many are in their mid-30s and single and work in such
      businesses as banking, insurance, architecture and the law, though
      there are students as well.

      Another apartment building opened with 135 units this week at 2nd and
      Main streets. The Higgins Building, a former office tower built in
      1910, also will include a restaurant and other retail tenants, said
      developer Jeremy Davey of Albion Pacific Property Resources.

      In what is viewed as a major sign of downtown's rebirth, a Ralphs
      supermarket is slated to open in 2005 in a complex under construction
      on Flower Street that will house 1,171 apartments, condos and retail
      outlets.

      For all the progress, downtown has a way to go before it will have
      widespread appeal. There is little in the way of parks or schools,
      though a 40-acre former rail yard just north of downtown known as the
      Cornfield may eventually include both.

      At night and on weekends, much of downtown can be a ghost town. There
      are empty buildings, deserted blocks and stretches often taken over by
      homeless people. Police Chief William J. Bratton vowed at a news
      conference after he took office last year to curb their sometimes
      threatening behavior.

      "Aggressive panhandling scares the hell out of people," he said,
      recalling how he and his wife were asked for money three times while
      walking from their downtown hotel to the Original Pantry restaurant on
      Figueroa Street near Staples Center.

      Police have since conducted two major sweeps of skid row ? a
      multi-block stretch just east of the financial district ? and stepped
      up arrests of parole and probation violators in the area.

      The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild sued
      the city and the police, saying people's constitutional rights were
      being violated in the process. The suit is pending; Bratton vowed in
      May to continue to crack down on illegal street behavior. (Bratton's
      concerns notwithstanding, the police report that the Central Division,
      which includes downtown, has had the fewest violent crimes this year
      among its 18 divisions.)

      Jerry Sullivan, editor of the Los Angeles Garment & Citizen, which
      chronicles the area's doings, says it will take more than a few raids
      to clean things up. He figures it will require a massive, sustained
      commitment of law enforcement and social service resources that are
      only going to get harder to come by with the economy in the doldrums.

      Advocates for the homeless defend downtown as a refuge for the
      destitute, who have few other places to turn. Merchants and residents
      complain that their neighborhood has become a dumping ground for the
      region's down and out. Hospitals have been known to drop off indigent
      and mentally ill patients there while thousands of parolees annually
      are steered to the Nickel, as an area of low-cost hotels on East 5th
      Street is sometimes called, upon their release.

      Prostitution, panhandling and drug sales flourish during the day, not
      half a mile from City Hall, while a tent-and-cardboard city emerges
      each evening. The area becomes so contaminated with human waste that
      city workers must hose it down daily and cart away the infectious
      runoff to keep it from reaching the ocean via the storm sewers.

      "This stuff wouldn't be tolerated for five minutes in Brentwood," said
      Tracey Lovejoy, executive director of the Central City East Assn.,
      which represents toy wholesalers and industrial businesses in the skid
      row area. "But it's the status quo down here."

      There are other challenges, including a lack of "user friendliness,"
      according to a June report by the Los Angeles County Economic
      Development Corp. The report said that "unfriendly" combinations of
      one-way streets and a shortage of signs telling people where to find
      attractions were among the drawbacks.

      Returning Figueroa, Flower and other streets to two-way traffic is one
      of the objectives of the Central City Assn. The downtown business
      advocates particularly want to spruce up the stretch of Figueroa
      leading to Staples Center.

      "When you ask for money for benches and streets, people look at you
      like you're crazy," saidassociation President Carol Schatz, "but you
      build communities from the ground up. That's what makes New York
      work."

      The association was a force behind the adaptive reuse ordinance,
      adopted by the city in 1999 to streamline the conversion of older,
      vacant commercial buildings into residential units by relaxing
      building requirements. The ordinance is credited with reviving the
      residential movement that lost momentum after a burst of development
      of lofts in what is now called the Artist District during the 1980s.

      The district east of Alameda Boulevard became home to the avant-garde
      Southern California Institute of Architecture three years ago and has
      become an anchor for homebuilders and merchants. Among the newcomers
      is developer Linear City, which is renovating a former six-story toy
      factory on Industrial Street into 130 condominiums that will open
      early next year and start at about $200,000.

      Sullivan and other downtown boosters say dreamers who envision L.A.'s
      central city becoming a sanitized, urban playscape in the mode of Old
      Pasadena are bound to be disappointed.

      Home to thriving toy, fashion, jewelry, produce and flower districts,
      Los Angeles boasts one of the most industrialized, and misunderstood,
      downtowns of any major city. The tattered Garment District may not
      look like much to outsiders, but insiders know that retail space in
      bustling. Santee Alley commands higher rents than Beverly Hills' Rodeo
      Drive.

      Shopping on Broadway ? with its mix of discount stores, bridal shops,
      botanicas, money-wiring houses and taco joints ? may not be a
      suburbanite's cup of tea. But the street is alive with Latino shoppers
      who jam its sidewalks on weekends.

      It's a funky patchwork that defies conventional notions of a
      success. The trick, says Lovejoy of Central City Assn. East, will be
      connecting the dots, adding the residential, entertainment and
      nightlife components without destroying unique and successful pockets
      in the process.

      "Look at Toy Town," said Lovejoy, referring to the thriving toy
      wholesaling district near 4th and Wall streets. "It's gritty and urban
      with ... too much trash. But it has high rents and no vacancies. So
      what if it's not perfect and sterile like Third Street Promenade?" she
      said, referring to the Santa Monica shopping district. "We have to
      accept that these are great resources for the city and build on them
      instead of trying to create something like everyone else."

      New arrivals John and Stasi McAteer see downtown as the antidote to
      suburban sameness. John, a 27-year-old doctoral candidate at UC
      Riverside, takes the train to school from their $1,100-a-month
      apartment in a converted office building on Main Street.

      "We weren't about to live in Riverside," said his wife, a former
      Chicagoan who works as a fund-raiser at USC. "I'll take concrete and
      skyscrapers over the country any day."

      The McAteers just renewed their lease for another year. "We're never
      wanting for something to do," Stasi said.

      Their frequent walks to concerts, movies or the Central Library are
      growing more pleasant, she said. "You can see positive changes. More
      people, less trash. Just a feeling in the air that it's safer."

      She isn't entirely satisfied: She would like downtown to have more
      bookstores, music shops and especially a great pizza joint.

      But, she added, "I don't want it to become too popular too fast. I
      don't want it to become Silver Lake. It's so diverse now and I love
      it. I would never want the whole flavor of the neighborhood to
      change."
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