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Upstairs Downstairs: THE NEW COMMUTE

Mixed-use neighborhoods with residences above ground-level shops are making a comeback.

May 07, 2000|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Newport Beach hairstylist Suzanne Finamore decides to call it a day and head for home, she doesn't have far to go. Just up one flight of stairs, to be exact.

Finamore lives over her Studio La Rue salon, one of six business owners who live above their shops on the 400 block of 31st Street.

Several owners also lease the residential space above their antique stores, art galleries and other shops to tenants, creating a small colony of 15 residents on her street.

"We have our own little community within the street," Finamore said. "In the morning I'll come downstairs, and everyone will be out sweeping, landscaping and saying, 'Good morning.' Then we start business. It's like a little European village."

Finamore's neighborhood is a throwback to the days before strip malls and automobiles, when it was common for people to live in buildings above shops that lined their town's Main Street.

Such neighborhoods have become rare in the United States, except in a few cities such as San Francisco and New Orleans, where city dwellers still occupy condos and apartments atop dry cleaners, grocery stores, pubs and other retailers on the street level.

"The historic model of Main Streets was shops on the ground floor of buildings and apartments on the second floor," said Robert Harris, director of graduate programs in architecture at USC. "It's part of our national heritage, but it's increasingly disappeared."

During the 20th century, most modern communities went the way of Orange County and Los Angeles. They became dense, business-only urban hubs surrounded by suburban sprawl. City planners drew clear lines separating business from residential areas.

"There was an assumption that people wanted to live in the suburbs. The basis of zoning was to keep unlike uses apart," Harris said. "And in the days when industry was quite noxious, it was a good idea."

In the last couple of decades, as land became scarce and smog-belching industrial plants moved out of the cities, urban planners have shown greater interest in creating mixed-use areas where people live and work.

Harris served as chairman of the Downtown Strategic Planning Committee for the city of Los Angeles. It approved a plan in 1993 to promote mixed use for "miles and miles of commercial streets in Los Angeles because of the surplus of commercial buildings and the shortage of residential."

Some mixed-use projects are already in place and "a lot more are coming along," he said.

There's housing above the Museum of Neon Art on Olympic Boulevard and the Grand Central Market on Broadway in downtown L.A. and above the shops on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, to name a few.

Developers are modifying historic buildings on 4th Street in L.A. that will feature housing above retail sites on the ground floor.

Small pockets of mixed-use neighborhoods can also be found throughout Orange County, including in downtown Huntington Beach, San Clemente and Orange.

Mixed zoning gives people the opportunity to live near their work.

Harris lives in Bunker Hill Tower in Los Angeles. His building has a grocery store and dry cleaner on the first floor, offices on the second, third and fourth floors and condos on the remaining 32 floors.

His home is eight minutes from his office and close to restaurants, parks and other amenities. "It's very convenient," he said.

"Of course, it's noisier, and if you don't like diversity, you might not like living downtown. We have every ethnic and economic background. I find that fantastic. But others want to be with people just like themselves."

Finamore has spent 20 years buying condos and houses, renovating or rebuilding them, then selling and moving on. She likes the work so much that she's studying for her contractor's license.

Still, she didn't want to give up the camaraderie and creativity of working as a stylist. "So I decided to combine everything under one roof," she said.

Finamore selected 31st Street as the site for her home and salon because the neighborhood was already part of the Cannery Village business district approved for mixed use by Newport Beach in the 1980s.

Residences are also allowed in several other commercial areas of the city, including sites around the Balboa and Newport piers.

Finamore bought the land two years ago when it was a parking lot. "I'd come here to look at antiques, and the shop owners would say, 'Oh Suzanne, you should build something here.' "

Working with an architect and subcontractors from 30 trades, Finamore spent eight months creating a French-style building that would match the street's European ambience.

She owns another salon nearby in Newport Beach, and she would visit the building site "eight to 10 times a day" to oversee the work.

The three-story building, completed in fall 1999, consists of a 1,000-square-foot retail space on the ground floor and a 2,500-square-foot private residence on the upper two levels; it cost between $120 and $175 a square foot.

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