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Builder's Vision Divides

Developer Geoff Palmer is admired for his upscale downtown Los Angeles homes and criticized for allegedly shunning the poor.

June 07, 2003|Julie Tamaki | Times Staff Writer

To many in downtown L.A.'s business and real estate circles, Geoff Palmer is the urban trailblazer who helped inspire an upscale housing boom in the city's long-neglected core.

To advocates for low-income housing, however, Palmer, president of the Brentwood-based firm G.H. Palmer Associates, is the developer who fights tooth and nail to keep the poor from settling in his elegant, suburban-style developments. "Why should one developer be responsible for all of society's ills?" he once asked.

And to preservationists, he's the guy who recently demolished the Giese house, the last 19th century home in Bunker Hill.

On Monday, the Los Angeles city attorney filed two misdemeanor counts against Palmer for demolishing the house without a permit and failing to obey an order by the Department of Building and Safety, said Frank Mateljan, a spokesman for the city attorney.

The department has also scheduled a hearing Thursday to consider whether to invoke the "scorched-earth ordinance," which would bar construction on the site for five years, said David Keim, head of the department's code enforcement bureau.

The Giese house, built in 1887, stood across the street from Palmer's Orsini development, a 297-unit apartment complex under construction at West Cesar E. Chavez Avenue and Figueroa Street.

His best-known downtown development, the Medici, has more than 600 units at 7th Street and the Harbor Freeway. A 481-square-foot studio apartment there was recently advertised for $1,479 a month.

Fans credit the Medici with demonstrating to the investment and development community the fresh demand for downtown living.

The Medici "was one of the first residential projects to be built [downtown] without a nickel of subsidy," said Carl Muhlstein, a senior vice president at Cushman Realty Corp. "Now there's nothing short of a building boom that has followed right behind it."

Palmer "deserves a tremendous amount of credit for helping to turn downtown around," said David Zoraster, a downtown real estate specialist.

Palmer, who grew up in Mar Vista and graduated from the University of Colorado and Pepperdine University School of Law, declined requests by The Times for an interview.

In some ways, Palmer, known as a methodical, hands-on developer with an analytical bent, is a fish out of water as a Republican dealing with a city government dominated by Democrats. The 53-year-old developer has chafed at social housing rules imposed on builders by City Hall and has described some supporters of such measures as "poverty pimps."

"I'm a businessman. I want to build what the market dictates," Palmer said in a 2001 interview with The Times. "Don't tell me who we should build for."


A Conundrum for City

His unyielding position has given rise to a growing number of detractors and created a conundrum for housing-hungry Los Angeles officials.

"If you look at where his parcels are located and look at the view from them into downtown, it's a tremendous view," said Councilman Ed Reyes, who has wrangled with Palmer over low-income housing rules. "Whoever is behind them is going to be blocked. He's maximized heights and he's maximized density, but he doesn't want to allow affordable housing."

"If [Palmer] has to house people at less income than market rate, he's going to get less rent," said Tony Salazar, president of the West Coast office of McCormack Baron Salazar, a real estate development firm that specializes in redeveloping urban neighborhoods. "Is that detrimental to the development? Probably not. If he wanted to get there, he could."

Low-income-housing activists have been Palmer's loudest critics since he opened the Medici in the summer of 2000. He attracted their attention after city officials negotiated a deal with his firm that resulted in 65 of the Medici's 658 units being set aside for moderate-income tenants.

That was a departure from the area's so-called "inclusionary-housing" rules that require 15% of new housing to be earmarked for low-income tenants in lieu of paying a hefty fee.

The deal upset activists, who picketed outside the Medici in 2001 -- the same year Palmer bought a $21-million spread in Beverly Hills. They pushed city officials to apply the more stringent standard to the Visconti, a 300-unit apartment complex proposed by Palmer's company for 3rd and Bixel streets just west of downtown.

The firm challenged in court a city decision to enforce the housing rules, prompting settlement talks that appear to be wrapping up.

Palmer will soon expand his collection of Italian Renaissance-themed downtown developments with groundbreaking for the Piero, a 220-unit, market-rate apartment complex on St. Paul Avenue near the Medici.


House Demolished

Palmer, whose company owns and operates more than 6,000 apartments in Southern California -- the majority of them in the Santa Clarita Valley -- recently landed back in the hot seat.

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