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A Loft Cause

Sixty-two tenants are exploring the wide-open spaces of their newly built lofts above shops in downtown Brea.

February 17, 2001|VIVIAN LETRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ever since Skip Rogers moved into his loft in downtown Brea, he's developed a habit of redecorating.

The latest creation of this grade-school computer teacher and aspiring photographer hangs in his living room. It involves 2-foot-tall wall sculptures of a pair of Twinkie snacks, a stadium hot dog in a bun and Planters' Mr. Peanut.

Rogers' sofa seat cushions are wrapped in woven coffee bags. And his dining table is an outdoor patio set with bench seats and a massive green umbrella.

When you live in an unusual space, it's a challenge to do something unconventional with it, said Rogers, 38. His space--in which natural light bursts through large, double-paned windows that reduce the street noise below--has inspired his creativity.

He is one of 62 tenants living in loft spaces on the second to fourth floors above retail stores in three buildings on Birch Street, home to theaters, restaurants and shops.

The live-work apartments attract mostly young and single entrepreneurs, career artists and aspiring actors with incomes of $35,000 to $50,000. They pay $900 to $1,200 a month to rent about 800 square feet of open space.

Brea, with its population of 36,400, is among a growing number of small to mid-size cities encouraging movement into such spaces. Orange and Santa Ana have small loft communities, and developers are eyeing Huntington Beach and Anaheim for future sites.

New Urbanism--a mix of residential and retail units stacked next to each other--is beginning to find advocates as outlying land values and the cost of housing push upward.

Although traditional loft apartments in New York City's Soho and Greenwich Village, Seattle's Pioneer Square, San Francisco's China Basin and South of Market, and Downtown Los Angeles are housed in renovated historic buildings, many new spaces are being built from the ground up.

Brea hired Hollywood-based CIM Group to build the lofts, which opened in May 1999.

"We've attracted people who normally wouldn't rent in an old loft but they want to try someplace new," said Julie Kleinick, director of property management for CIM, whose other projects include Old Town Pasadena, the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica and the Gaslamp Quarter in San Diego.

Sam and Paula Carrigan moved into their immaculate Brea loft a year ago. It's a dramatic change from previous rentals.

"Everything we lived in before was run-down or broken down," said Paula, 24, who teaches in Orange. She marvels at the loft's sparkling dishwasher, refrigerator, oven, and the pristine tea-green counter top and light carpet.

The loft "was the next best thing to having a new home with white picket fences. It's definitely what you have to do at one stage in your life."

The trend for new, upscale loft apartments is a departure from the original intent of artist lofts--to reclaim old buildings and turn them into cheap studios for work and sleep.

But the need for affordable, convenient spaces is great. City planners relish the chance to foster a 24-hour pedestrian environment where retailers, shoppers and residents commingle. And those who live there love the convenience.

"A lot of places are built for a car and it's a very dehumanizing experience as you walk down sidewalks with no trees, wide intersections and multilane roads that are hazardous," said Scott Bollens, professor of urban planning at UC Irvine.

A community that is awake around-the-clock also helps reduce crime. "It's a return to the way neighborhoods used to be," Bollens said. "It's a statement we've had enough of the bland, postwar, mass-produced, homogenous suburban developments."

The Carrigans said they enjoy living in a safe place where shopping and dining out are only steps from their front door.

"I don't like running around," said Sam, 26, a pastor and amateur photographer. "In a place as huge and vast as Los Angeles and Orange County, it's nice to feel that you're part of something and you're not minuscule and insignificant."

The couple's favorite hangouts are a Chinese restaurant, an ice cream parlor and a clothing store. They get fresh daisies from the farmer's market on Tuesdays, attend concerts in the park on weekends and catch matinees almost daily at the movie theater across the street.

"It's a community atmosphere where you know everybody and everyone knows you," Sam said. "So it has that neighborly, small-town U.S.A. feel, like from 'The Andy Griffith Show' or Mayberry or something."

Rogers' loft is behind the city's downtown clock. When the clock strikes two, it points to his window. His only complaint is that the assigned parking garage, where he parks his candy-apple-red Beetle, is a block away.

"This is definitely an alternative to the megaplex apartments," said Rogers, who has maximized the space in his loft by building up. He literally climbs into bed, which is on 8-foot-high industrial-steel racks and is only accessed by a ladder. Underneath is his office area.

Rogers is not the only resident who sees the unfinished space as a blank canvas for letting his imagination run wild.

Nick Sciacca's loft has a swank feel. Martini glasses line his black kitchen cabinet with the stainless-steel trim. His walls are painted in canary yellow, navy blue and burgundy. The Red Sox baseball fan is pursuing an acting and screenwriting career and describes his loft as being on the big screen.

"I like looking over the rooftops and signs. It has a movie feel to it," said Sciacca, 28, who's also a part-time waiter who manages the Brea loft buildings. His wall-size window overlooks a movie theater and a Mexican restaurant.

"I like the noises of the street, the sounds and people-watching," Sciacca said. "There's a city feeling to it without the hectic energy of a city. My friends who come visit say I have it made."

Vivian LeTran can be reached at (714) 966-5835 or by e-mail at vivian.letran@latimes.com.

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