LONG BEACH — Scott Walker has spent a good deal of his real estate career and a lot of advertising money telling people how wonderful their lives would be if they lived in a new housing tract in some far-flung bedroom community. These days he has a new tune--downtown.
Walker, vice president of a real estate marketing firm, is selling the pleasures of living among the office towers and shops of downtown Long Beach and walking to work. "Every time I read about gridlock, I jump for joy," chortled Walker, whose company, CoastCo Inc., is based in Long Beach.
He is not the only one. Although downtown's tawdry past of Navy dives and X-rated theaters is not that distant, the area is attracting a growing, if still small, number of middle-class residents. They are drawn by ocean views, five-minute commutes to work and housing prices that are--by Southern California's inflated standards--relatively cheap for a beach town.
Developers who five or 10 years ago would have hooted at the thought of $500,000 condos on Ocean Boulevard are now building them, professionals are painstakingly restoring Victorian houses in the Willmore City area on the northwestern edge of downtown, and inexpensively built condos in the shadow of the World Trade Center are being snapped up by first-time buyers.
"There is clearly a trend developing," observed Mackey Deasy, a local architect whose firm is designing a couple of mid-sized condominium projects in the greater downtown area, which stretches from the Los Angeles River channel on the west to Alamitos Avenue on the east and from Anaheim Street south to the waterfront. "If you look at what's happening in downtown Long Beach, there's a lot of new housing under construction."
City planners have wanted to boost downtown's population as part of their decade-long redevelopment efforts. If people live downtown, the theory goes, they'll shop there and fill the streets at night. "We are looking to approximately double the population downtown," from about 25,000 to 50,000, said Robert Paternoster, city planning and building director.
To encourage developers to build housing in an area that had not seen new residential construction for decades, the city has increased density limits and in some cases sold land assembled by the Redevelopment Agency at below market value.
Moreover, as the fruits of commercial redevelopment become more evident with towering new office buildings and a brightening restaurant scene, putting up downtown condos and apartments no longer seems quite the risky venture it once did.
"I think there is continuing developer interest," said Long Beach real estate broker Elaine Hutchison. "Although with the present economic situation, there will be caution."
On the still largely poor and rough west side of downtown, $100,000 to $150,000 condos are selling out while still under construction. The renovated Breakers Hotel just reopened as a residential complex for senior citizens. Nearby on Ocean Boulevard, the 225-unit Harborplace condo high-rise is nearing completion and several other similar projects are planned in the vicinity, including one on the site of the razed Pacific Coast Club. Another 1,000 residential units are planned for the sprawling seaside development approved on the site of the old Pike amusement park just south of Ocean Boulevard.
Whetting developer appetites is the recent success of the beachfront Ocean Club high-rise condos just east of downtown, as well as the conversion of the International Tower, a round-shaped downtown high-rise, from apartments to condos four years ago. "Two high-rises back to back that were sellouts . . . so far it looks like there's (buyer) acceptance," remarked Walker, whose firm handled sales at the 116-unit Ocean Club on Ocean Boulevard and is also the agent for the 22-story Harborplace, where condos will sell from $150,000 to $500,000.
"In Southern California, mentioning the word downtown doesn't necessarily invoke a great feeling," conceded Walker. But talk about "village" life and walking to the beach or your boat slip, he continues with a wave of his salesman's wand, and "all of a sudden that sounds good."
Bob Treese, a member of the city Redevelopment Agency board, first moved into International Tower at the corner of Ocean and Alamitos Avenue a decade ago. In 1987, when the tower was converted to condos, he and his wife bought two apartments and combined them into a 2,700-square-foot condominium on the 19th floor.
"The view along the ocean front in the high-rises here is spectacular," declared the 49-year-old manufacturer. "Fortunately, a lot of people don't know that yet."
During his early years in the tower, Treese recalled, "There wasn't much downtown that was appealing to me. I would drive in and I would drive out and I would never walk around."