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Architect Firms Moving In on Downtown L.A.

Designers and their staffs are relocating to the central city, lured by abundant space and affordable rents.

March 27, 2001|JESUS SANCHEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bargain rents and the prospects of an urban revival have prompted a small but growing group of architects to set up shop in the skyscrapers and lofts of downtown Los Angeles.

The newcomers--ranging from start-ups to established players--will bring hundreds of designers, engineers and support staff to the central city and inject new energy into downtown's architectural community.

"We feel fortunate to be here," said architect Ronald A. Altoon, who slashed his rent and gained more elbowroom by moving his 75-person staff from Miracle Mile to the top of a downtown skyscraper. "Many firms want to be part of the [downtown] revival."

Downtown Los Angeles is home to the cutting edge Southern California Institute of Architecture, which last year moved from Marina del Rey to the artists' loft district. In a few weeks, an architectural bookstore--Form Zero--will open downtown after leaving its high-rent Santa Monica location.

"It's been a very strong migration," said Chris Martin, whose firm, AC Martin Partners, has been located downtown for nearly a century. "We are building a real good community of architects."

One firm that has its sights set on downtown is Daniel, Mann, Johnson & Mendenhall, one of the area's largest architectural and engineering firms. The firm is close to signing a lease for more than 125,000 square feet of space at Arco Plaza, according to people familiar with the deal. About 500 employees would be relocated.

Company spokeswoman Leslie Grant declined to comment on any lease negotiations. But she said the firm has long been interested in moving to downtown and its lease on its mid-Wilshire district headquarters expires in September.

"We want to be part of the urban fabric of Los Angeles," Grant said. "Moving downtown would be representative of our commitment to the city."

In addition to large firms, the low prices, unique spaces and urban feel have proved particularly popular with a younger generation of firms. After Joey Shimoda's year-old architectural practice outgrew his Echo Park home, he found a 1,200-square-foot loft space with the industrial aesthetic he preferred and a monthly rent below his expectations. "We found a perfect space for what we do . . . and certainly at the price we wanted to pay," Shimoda said.

Many of the firms that have moved or are looking at downtown space are seeking refuge from rising rents on the Westside, home to Los Angeles' biggest concentration of architectural talent and such stars as Frank Gehry, Jon Jerde and Eric Owen Moss.

"Our rent was skyrocketing," said Andrew Liang, whose firm Studio 0.10 and Form Zero bookstore were on Santa Monica's trendy Main Street. "It was getting out of control."

Now, Liang and seven other partners and employees work out of a former industrial building above the bustle of downtown's Fashion District. His rent is one-third of what it was in Santa Monica.

Many architects are surprised by how far their dollars will go downtown. Rick Keating of Keating/Khang Architects said he is negotiating to sublease an entire floor in one of downtown's tallest and most prestigious towers for less than the roughly $3 a square foot the firm pays on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica.

"As we grow larger the rent becomes a bigger deal with us," said Keating. "It's hard not for us to do this."

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