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A Homey Look for Red Car Terminal

Landmark building in downtown Los Angeles is being converted into 277 apartments.

May 17, 2003|Roger Vincent | Times Staff Writer

A developer is spending $65 million to convert a downtown Los Angeles building where commuters used to wait for Red Car trolleys into a home for people who don't want to commute.

Empty for more than a decade, the Subway Terminal Building, constructed in 1925 above the city's first subway station, is being turned into 277 apartments by Forest City Residential West Inc. Work is set to begin next month and will be completed by September 2004.

The project is part of a wave of residential construction underway in the city's urban core. More than 4,000 housing units are in various stages of development downtown, with 85% of those in historic buildings, according to the Los Angeles Conservancy, a preservation organization. Among them is the Pacific Electric Building, another former rail station at 6th and Main streets, where 314 apartments will be built.

Other historic properties converted to housing, including the Million Dollar Building and the Old Bank District buildings, are nearly fully leased. Forest City is betting that demand for downtown residences will continue to grow as people look to shorten their commutes and take part in the downtown's growing cultural scene.

"The hip neighborhoods are moving closer and closer to downtown. It's the next logical step," said Kevin Ratner, senior development manager for the Cleveland-based Forest City.

The Renaissance Revival-style Subway Terminal Building overlooks Pershing Square and offers such unusual features as a bronze by sculptor Auguste Rodin and the remains of an eerie underground hospital and of a rail tunnel that goes under Bunker Hill.

It was completed in 1925 by Pacific Electric Co. and the Subway Terminal Corp. -- a group of local business leaders headed by Joseph Sartori, the founding chairman of Security Pacific Bank. Pacific Electric, Henry Huntington's famous trolley company that once boasted 1,000 miles of track, dug the subway and operated the terminal.

The one-mile tunnel excavated with pneumatic drills and dynamite was expected to relieve traffic congestion downtown, while the large office building over the station was intended to attract riders and anchor other businesses to the area.

"It was designed as a premier office building above an urban transit mall, a concept that was used in New York and applied here in a very first-class way," architect Christopher Martin said. "Nothing was shortchanged in its original concepts."

Martin's Los Angeles firm, AC Martin Partners, is architect and engineer for the renovation of the building that will be called Metro 417. The name is a reference to its urban location and its address: 417 S. Hill St.

Apartments in the 350,000-square-foot office building will have finished interiors with walls and hardwood floors, unlike the open loft-style units common in other converted historic properties downtown. There will be a rooftop garden, movie screening room and gym.

Forest City expects to attract tenants in their 20s and 30s who want a bit more elegance than they would find in an unfinished loft and are able to pay monthly rents of $1,300 to $2,500, Ratner said.

One of the existing elegant touches is the lobby, with its mosaic tiles, marble columns and bronze of Rodin's "The Thinker" on a marble pedestal -- all the height of 1920s style and craftsmanship. Upstairs are small floors with large windows that were designed to maximize natural light and ventilation in the days before air conditioning.

"It's an ideal candidate" for conversion, Martin said.

Time has been less kind to the massive subway terminal itself, which is not part of the current makeover. After the last trolley car rolled out in 1955, the federal government took over the space.

Most of the ramps and spiral stairways were filled in with concrete to create new floors that were used first by the Social Security Administration and later as a medical facility by the then-Veterans Administration. Underground hallways lead past dark examining rooms that date to 1970. At the bottom of one ramp is a dirty cavern and a creaky conductor's station where the Red Cars once arrived from the San Fernando Valley and the Westside.

Possible uses for the 150,000-square-foot former concourse and terminal include stores, theaters or perhaps an underground nightclub, said Duane Cameron, president of System Property Development Co., a Los Angeles parking lot operator and co-owner of the terminal space with Forest City.

His company will wait until the apartments are finished before deciding what to do with the space, Cameron said.

The Subway Terminal block at Fourth and Hill streets is "the physical hinge of all of downtown," said developer Dan Rosenfeld of Urban Partners, which also has housing projects in the central city. "That's where the historic business district turns the corner around Bunker Hill and merges with the new financial district," he said.

Forest City also owns the Metropolitan apartments downtown and is building Met Lofts, a 264-unit housing and retail complex at 11th and Flower streets that will be completed next year.

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