Downtown LA starting to feel like a neighborhood
- 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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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