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Rebirth for Old Office Buildings

Postwar structures could be turned into desirable housing in L.A.

February 08, 2003|Dale Yonkin | Dale Yonkin is executive vice president and director of the office and residential division of a Los Angeles-based architectural firm.

In the last few years, real estate investors have renovated long-neglected pre-World War II office buildings in Los Angeles' historic downtown core into much-needed apartments and condominiums. Now Angelenos have discovered another valuable resource to alleviate our region's severe housing shortage: outdated and increasingly vacant post-World War II office buildings.

Several thousand apartments and condominiums could be created throughout Greater Los Angeles, particularly in the mid-Wilshire corridor between Vermont and Western avenues, along Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley, and in downtown Los Angeles. Already, the former Sanwa Bank building on South Flower Street, a 13-story 1949 office building at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard, is being transformed into 230 residential units.

What makes post-1945 office buildings good candidates for housing conversions? First, many buildings have reached the end of their practical economic lives for office users. The 30- to 40-year-old building systems (heating, ventilation, air conditioning, electrical, plumbing, telecommunications) are obsolete or badly in need of repair. The buildings' basic structural frames, however, are usually still sound and ready to support conversions.

Second, these office buildings are often convenient to transit, jobs, shopping and cultural and entertainment venues, which makes them attractive to residential tenants and buyers. The mid-Wilshire corridor, for example, has three Red Line subway stations, and demand for housing in the area is strong.

Third, the recession has left many postwar office buildings with significant vacancies, which puts financial pressure on owners to find alternative uses for these properties and makes these buildings easier to empty out for conversion.

This strategy, however, faces several roadblocks in Greater Los Angeles. Most postwar office buildings, for example, don't have the historic character that has lured apartment tenants and condominium buyers to the pre-World War II former office buildings in downtown Los Angeles. Instead, postwar buildings usually have large glass facades that shout "office building," not "residence."

How do you create the architectural character that housing tenants and buyers want?

To start, balconies can be cut back into the building, and fixed glass replaced with residential-style windows. Some units can be treated as lofts by placing the living and dining areas along the windowed facade and locating the kitchen and bedroom nearer the core, but separated by low walls from the living room to bring in light and ventilation.

The depth of the loft-style apartment or condominium can also be reduced by moving back the exterior windows, thereby converting some of the interior space into exterior balconies or terraces.

Post-World War II office buildings offer an exciting opportunity to alleviate Los Angeles' growing housing shortage. Conversions also would bring new life to often-dormant commercial districts and generate significant revenue.

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