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Rebirth of Core Values

It's no Manhattan, but downtown L.A. is starting to feel like a real neighborhood. For many, it's simple: That's where the housing is.

July 12, 2003|Roger Vincent and Marla Dickerson | Times Staff Writers

Back in the 1960s, the Music Center on Grand Avenue was supposed to revive downtown Los Angeles. A decade later, the Convention Center 12 blocks away was going to be the draw. In the late '80s, billions of dollars of skyscraping office towers were sure to do the trick.

None of them delivered. Then, two years ago, Jon and Jolene Fisher moved out of a house in Van Nuys and rented an airy loft in a 99-year-old building on Spring Street. They became reverse Angelenos: living in the central business district and commuting to teaching jobs in the San Fernando Valley.

The Fishers take the Red Line subway and buses to work. They walk to see the Los Angeles Philharmonic perform, to buy groceries and to go out to dinner. The birth seven months ago of their son, Jon Robles Fisher, didn't cramp their inner-city style: It made them appreciate it all the more.

"I don't have to put him in the car every time I want to go somewhere," Jolene Fisher said recently. "Most of what we need is within walking distance."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 17, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Downtown L.A. -- An article in Saturday's Section A about the growing number of full-time residents in the central business district incorrectly stated that Los Angeles was founded 212 years ago. It was founded 222 years ago.

Today there are at least 8,000 people like the Fishers, renting or owning homes in downtown L.A., where sidewalk cafes, coffee shops, flower stalls and food markets have started to thrive even on weekends.

That doesn't make it Manhattan or even San Francisco. But there is an approaching critical mass of residents. After decades of fits and starts, the central business district -- 4.4 square miles spreading out from the junction of Main and Alameda streets, where the city was founded 212 years ago -- finally is starting to have the feel of a real, 24/7 neighborhood.

The trend is expected to accelerate. The stock of market-rate housing units downtown is expected to grow 44% in the next 18 months, according to statistics compiled by the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, which represents downtown property owners. More than 2,600 units are under construction, the group said, and developers of an additional 2,200 have received building permits or submitted plans to city officials for approval.

Why now? The simple answer is supply and demand: There are too many people chasing too little housing in the metropolitan area.

Weary of long commutes and shocked by the sticker prices of L.A.'s tonier addresses, home buyers have been reclaiming neighborhoods near the core. Echo Park, Angeleno Heights and Silver Lake have all experienced residential renaissances since the mid-1990s.

Downtown, flush with vacant, vintage buildings and receptive to growth, is the latest target for developers guided by a Willie Sutton-style maxim: That's where the space is.

"It was almost inevitable," said Los Angeles real estate consultant Larry Kosmont, president of Kosmont Cos. "You've got mounting opposition to almost any kind of development in many outlying suburban areas and a glut of space in the city center from all the corporate downsizing. The path of least resistance leads downtown."

For longtime central city residents, there's a downside. Computer artist Lisa Gibson said the rent on her loft at 7th and Alameda streets, where she has lived for 10 years, jumped almost 40% to $1,600 last October.

"It's kind of depressing to me," she said. "They're forcing out everybody who actually makes the economy run around here."

The 35-year-old Gibson has no plans to leave, though, because her gritty neighborhood still appeals to her.

"I grew up in Orange County," she said, "where everything is poured out of the same tube."

In downtown Los Angeles, Gibson found a home in a building dating to 1884 that she believes is a former hayloft and stables for the Los Angeles Police Department. "I absolutely love it," she said.

Most lenders aren't so enthusiastic. Developers say banks are reluctant to finance residential construction downtown because the area historically has been a money pit. So builders routinely rely on funds from local, state and federal programs set up to encourage the reuse of older buildings and the creation of rental housing in urban areas.

Downtown believers, meanwhile, predict the banks soon will come around. Dan Rosenfeld, a principal at Urban Partners, a Los Angeles developer and landlord, says it's inevitable. Downtown's revival, he said, is no less than "the reversal of 50 years of centrifugal sprawl."

Urban Partners is managing the development of a handful of projects, including some nonresidential developments that Rosenfeld believes will make the district more interesting. One is a new office for the California Endowment, a nonprofit health foundation that plans to move from Woodland Hills to a site next to the former Terminal Annex post office on Alameda Street. Construction on a 150,000-square-foot building is scheduled to start early next year.

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