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As more of L.A.'s historical buildings are converted
to residential units, people are leaving the sprawl
of suburbia for the diverse and vibrant heart of downtown.

The Lure of the City

March 04, 2001|KAREN LINDELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Doug Collins, an avid bicyclist who grew up in Florida near orange groves and horse pastures, always wanted to live in the city. So, after 19 years in an apartment on the Miracle Mile, Collins has moved to a surprisingly trendy urban environment: downtown Los Angeles.

Last August, Collins moved into the San Fernando Building, at the corner of 4th and Main streets, one of four Old Bank District buildings in downtown's historic core being converted into upscale lofts.

"I love the sense of history and the architectural integrity of the buildings downtown," said Collins, 43, a television development executive who works six miles away in Hollywood.

"It's great being close to Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Olvera Street and MOCA, and on weekends I can bike from one end of the city to another," he said.

Collins is part of a growing group of urban pioneers convinced that downtown L.A. is a desirable place to live.

"L.A. is experiencing the trend that every other great downtown has--a move back from suburbia," said Carol Schatz, president and chief executive of the Central City Assn., a downtown advocacy organization. "People are tired of the commute.

"L.A. is still not a 24-hour downtown," added Schatz, "but thanks to Staples Center, the Music Center, MOCA and great restaurants, it's no longer a 9-to-5 town, either. It's a 9-to-11 town."

Downtown living is not for families in search of green lawns and neighborhood parks. But the area is attracting downtown workers, young professionals, artists, empty-nesters, students and people who enjoy the urban experience.

Other than luxury developments on Bunker Hill, downtown is not known for its upscale housing. The majority of available apartments are "affordable" (geared toward low-income tenants), said Schatz, but that will change over the next few years to include more "market-rate" units for middle- and high-income tenants.

The rapid leasing rate at one new luxury development, the Medici apartment complex west of the Harbor Freeway at 7th and Bixel streets, suggests that upscale housing is in demand downtown. The Mediterranean-style Medici developed by G.H. Palmer & Associates, which opened last year, appeals to high-income tenants (many of them downtown executives), featuring such amenities as a rooftop swimming pool, a putting green and a private park. Seventy-five percent of the 658 apartments already have been leased.

According to a survey released in December by the Los Angeles Downtown Center Business Improvement District, 12,571 apartments and condos now exist in downtown L.A. (8,235 affordable, 4,336 market-rate). By January 2004, the survey forecasts 18,399 housing units will be available. Of those, 8,501 will be affordable, and 9,898 market-rate.

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Many of the new units will be located in renovated historical buildings. A survey released last July by Killefer Flammang Purtill Architects, the Los Angeles Conservancy and Degenkolb Engineers found 50 buildings suitable for conversion to housing in downtown's historic core (bounded by 3rd Street on the north, 9th Street on the south, Main Street on the east and Broadway on the west).

Among the first historical structures to be converted in this long-neglected area are developer Tom Gilmore's Old Bank District buildings along 4th, 5th, Main and Spring streets.

Gilmore's San Fernando Building, which opened last August, is 93% occupied; and the Hellman Building, which opened in January, is 60% full. The Continental Building will open this spring, and the Rowan Building (a mix of market-rate and affordable housing) will open in 2002.

The buildings all contain lofts--large, open spaces with high ceilings and no walls except those separating the bathroom--ranging from $790 to $6,000 (for a penthouse) per month.

According to architect Wade Killefer, designer of the Old Bank District buildings, "What lends these buildings to residential use is lots of windows and high ceilings, offering wonderful light."

Because all of the units have polished concrete floors, residents are allowed to have dogs and cats.

Gilmore, a transplanted New Yorker, is determined to transform this area a block away from Skid Row into a vibrant community by adding restaurants, coffeehouses, art galleries and other retail establishments on the ground floors of his properties.

"I was intrigued by what Gilmore is doing--restoration and reuse of historical buildings," said San Fernando Building resident Collins, who rents a 700-square-foot loft for $1,000 per month.

"I really believe in a few years this will be a self-contained community," he said.

Living in the area offers many advantages, said Collins, including easy freeway access, great public transportation and more than 50 restaurants nearby.

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