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DOWNTOWN'S WEST BANK : Developers' Bet on 'Wrong Side' of Harbor Freeway Is Paying Off

November 23, 1987|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | Times Staff Writer

The skeleton of steel rising beside the Harbor Freeway in downtown Los Angeles represents something of a gamble for developer Shurl Curci.

For one thing, the Transpacific Center is a "spec" venture--developer jargon for a speculative structure without a major tenant lined up before construction. And the 33-story building is going up just west of the Harbor Freeway.

For decades, a few large corporate residents such as Unocal and Thomas Cadillac were lonely outposts on the west side of the freeway, an area once considered the wrong side of the tracks for development even though skyscrapers were popping up only a few blocks east.

Curci's $170-million gamble seems to be paying off. Transpacific Center, which will be finished late next year, is 46% leased, most of it to an Atlantic Richfield subsidiary. It's a "natural extension," he says, of what has been happening across the freeway.

Indeed, that broad stretch of meandering streets, deteriorating housing and sporadic office development west of the freeway finally is emerging as part of downtown Los Angeles--but not without great problems and some skepticism.

In the last few years, as the financial district has boomed, half a dozen new high-rise office buildings have leaped the freeway to an area that goes by many names such as the bureaucratic "Central City West," the historic "Crown Hill," the more tony "West Bank" and even, in the words of one large landholder, "Across the Great Divide." There is new talk of hotels, housing, retail space and millions of square feet of offices ahead for the area.

"All of a sudden, the freeway that used to be a barrier is now seen as a river," said R. Kevin Ketchum, real estate director for Thomas Investments, which owns the seven acres at the Thomas Cadillac site. "It's a hot area."

But there are also worries about where displaced low-income residents will live, whether West Bank growth will steal development from the east side, and how the crisscross of narrow streets will handle greatly increased traffic.

To answer those questions, the area's major landowners and the city recently began working on a comprehensive land use and transportation plan for the nearly 400-acre zone. It would, among other things, require builders to pay a fee for every commuter their projects bring to the West Bank.

If the plan is successful, participants say, the West Bank area could become a model of a development that could satisfy some of the concerns of the slow-growth movement as well as the needs of the city.

"I think we have the ability to create a good urban environment that is a livable environment that will establish us as the next growth area of downtown Los Angeles," said Ken Chang, spokesman for Crown Hill Development, a California corporation controlled by Asian interests that plans a large mixed-used project on its nine-acre parcel. "What we want to do is a serious planning process that is going to create long-term value."

The West Bank today is far different from the stylish suburbs that once graced the area. The homes on Crown Hill and in Westlake, the far west reaches of the city in the 1880s, rivaled the Victorian mansions on fashionable Bunker Hill. The area was also the site of the city's first oil strike when Edward L. Doheny and Charles A. Canfield hit it big near the intersection of Glendale Boulevard and West 2nd Street in 1892.

But, like downtown itself, the area deteriorated as residents and businesses moved ever outward. The renaissance of the Los Angeles central business district that followed in the 1970s and 1980s did not extend west of the freeway.

There, dilapidated housing brushes up against dated office buildings. Needed street improvements and other city maintenance have been postponed for years, landowners say.

"No doubt about it, the city has enjoyed a fantastic rejuvenation," said Nat F. Chavira, assistant counsel at Unocal, which built its headquarters west of the Harbor in the early 1960s. "But there are plenty of areas where if good solid development doesn't occur, deterioration will set in. It already has."

Major Landowners

Since 1980, feverish downtown construction has caused a spurt of land speculation in West Bank as investors sought to buy into future growth at lower prices than they would have to pay in the central business district.

"It's amazing how many things have been bought and sold over there in the last few years," said real estate broker Joe Faulkner. "The real rub is whether they're going to allow full development over there or not."

Some of the largest landowners west of the freeway are obvious and longstanding: Unocal, Good Samaritan Hospital, Thomas Cadillac, the Department of Water and Power, Pacific Telesis and First Interstate Bank. Others are less visible but have big plans. And, as in the central business district, Asian investors are well represented among the landholders.

Some of the possible projects, which will remain vague at least until the area's plan is finished, include:

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