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Mixing it up in L.A.

City life is at hand when your downstairs neighbors are shops and clubs.

May 18, 2003|Morris Newman | Special to The Times

A busy day for George Shohet involves work, exercise, nightlife, a meal out and errands -- all accomplished without getting into a car.

The 43-year-old lawyer and film producer works at home in his condominium at Venice Renaissance, a white building near the beach that is filled with stores and restaurants at street level and housing above. After the slender 6-footer finishes a jog on the beach, his housekeeper arrives at 9 a.m. with fresh coffee and the dry cleaning, both of which she has picked up from businesses downstairs.

For lunch, he has the choice of nine restaurants below and can spend an afternoon hour at a yoga studio downstairs. At night, he can opt to prowl what he describes as "three or four of the hippest clubs," all within a mile of home.

Shohet is one of the few hundred urban pioneers living in residential mixed-use complexes in Southern California. The number is expected to multiply. After decades of discussion, mixed use is about to become a widespread reality. Nearly a dozen projects are in the works throughout the region that combine housing and commercial space -- bringing urban ambience and pedestrian activity to streets that formerly had few people on foot.

"This is New York living in Los Angeles," said Shohet, who grew up in Jackson Heights, a suburb of Queens. He has lived in the Venice Renaissance complex for 13 years.

Driven by the scarcity and high cost of land, mixed-use development is one sign that housing is changing in Southern California. The concept is less tested in the region compared with other urban centers. But the low-density, suburban model of the Southland's postwar years is giving way to an increasingly dense, vertical and urbanized way of life.

While greater L.A. seems unlikely to become another Manhattan, the vogue among young professionals here for urban living, with its echoes of East Coast or European cities, will offer thousands of people a housing choice beyond traditional single-family homes and conventional apartment buildings.

"A whole range of sites make sense for mixed-use projects, especially those that are located in accessible, pedestrian-oriented areas," said developer John Given, a senior vice president of CIM Group. L.A.'s commercial boulevards, he noted, are "full of underused sites."

In January, the Los Angeles City Council approved an ordinance that allows developers to add extra square footage if they build apartments or mixed-use projects on "underperforming" commercial streets.

The law "makes it easier and encourages developers to transform commercial corridors into something more neighborhood-oriented," said Jane Blumenfeld, Los Angeles' principal city planner.

Two or three generations ago, "living above the store" was the custom for blue-collar grocers and shoemakers, not middle-class professionals. Today, mixed-use housing is attracting adventurous souls who apparently value the convenience and excitement of city life despite the noise, occasional smells and potential merchant-resident conflicts that can befall urban dwellers.

"Consumers are voting with their dollars," said Robert Champion, president of Champion Development Group, which is building 150 units of rental lofts above office and retail on South Lake Street in Pasadena.

Champion's project was originally planned as entirely office space. "The office market in Pasadena is currently weak," he said. "But when we observed the success of Paseo Colorado," a project featuring 391 apartments atop an open-air mall and multiplex cinema, "we decided in midstream to convert the office buildings to mixed use."

Encouraged by the market acceptance of mixed-use buildings, developers are scrambling to build them. But the actual number of such developments is not available because cities do not maintain a separate category for mixed-use building permits.

CIM Group of Los Angeles, which has already completed mixed-use projects in Brea and San Diego, last week started construction on 250 apartments atop a Ralphs supermarket to be built near Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. Other areas with projects in the works include Beverly Hills, Hollywood, West Hollywood, Brea and Long Beach.

Young urban professionals aren't the only ones attracted to mixed-use living. Retirees can also benefit from living in a place that provides stimulation and a convenient place to walk.

Mary Antonello, a green-eyed grandmother of four, lives in Silver Winds senior housing in Burbank, which occupies a portion of the Burbank Media Village project. The starkly sculptural building, which recalls the white-walled buildings of a Greek village, contains a Brazilian restaurant, a ballet school, a golfing goods store and a public parking structure.

Antonello walks to the Media City Center mall and St. Robert Bellarmine's Church, both within a few blocks of home.

"During the summer, in the evenings, some of us go around the block and go window shopping," she said. "It encourages us to get up and move."

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