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DOWNTOWN LIKE NEVER BEFORE | INNER LIFE

Reinventing itself

The waiting is over. The center of the city is bursting with new lofts and luxury apartments, drawing new residents who are bringing it alive with promise.

October 16, 2003|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Art Astor describes himself as "a city boy at heart." And so, at 78, he and his wife are returning to Los Angeles -- to live downtown. What's more, Astor, who owns three radio stations in San Diego and another in Ontario, is making the move in high style.

He recently bought a $1.1-million "super-penthouse" in the just-opened Flower Street Lofts, directly across from the Staples Center and a short distance from the USC campus (he's an alumnus and ardent Trojan fan) and the new Walt Disney Concert Hall (he's also a classical music buff). He'll be decorating his 2,700-square-foot space with his prized collection of Art Deco furnishings and objets that evoke both his favorite design era and downtown's pre-World War II heyday. Astor and his wife, Antonia, plan to spend three or four days a week downtown and split the rest of their time in homes in Tustin Hills and Marin County. After three decades of being away, he says, "I still love L.A."

And after years of delays, false starts and greatly exaggerated rumors of its rebirth, downtown shows every sign of being -- at long last -- on the verge of a major boom. Practically everywhere you turn, it seems, another hulking industrial building or marble-clad edifice is being converted into loft apartments. And, in perhaps the most telling sign of downtown's arrival as a burgeoning residential community, a 50,000-square-foot Ralphs supermarket is due to open on Flower Street in 2005.

According to figures issued last month by the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, there are 19 new market-rate residential developments under construction downtown and 30 more in various stages of receiving building permits or being reviewed by city officials -- big numbers, big money and big expectations to match.

Bank lenders, City Hall bureaucrats and a legion of developers and investors are betting that downtown market-rate housing is reaching critical mass. Some analysts predict that downtown's total number of market-rate housing units will swell from its present 6,070 to more than twice that number within 10 years. At present, downtown has more affordable than market-rate housing, but the balance is beginning to shift. "The good news about a downtown is it can handle the density. It likes the density," says Carol Schatz, president of the Central City Assn., a business group.

Eric Owen Moss, director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture, or Sci-Arc, which two years ago moved its campus from Marina del Rey to a former freight depot on downtown's eastern edge, thinks the center city's time has arrived for shaping a new identity.

"For a while it was Westwood. Now Westwood is pretty dead on a Saturday. Then it was Melrose, or Old Town Pasadena, or somewhere else," Moss says. "Los Angeles is downtown, right now. I think it has the potentiality for the most intense and diverse and contradictory energies. You've got everything flying in all directions."

Not so long ago, the pickings were pretty slim for Angelenos living downtown. For many it came down to a choice between a bare-bones loft in a drafty warehouse miles from the nearest dry cleaner or supermarket or else a concrete high-rise atop Bunker Hill.

Today, loft apartments mere paces from skid row are commanding about what you'd pay for a trendy one-bedroom in West Hollywood or Santa Monica. New luxury condos are going for six- and seven-figure sums.

Innovative architects such as Wade Killefer have been hired to transform battered industrial zones and former sweatshops into suave urban showcases. Neo-Hollywood Regency designer Kelly Wearstler, who outfitted the Kor Realty Group's swanky Viceroy hotel in Santa Monica, Maison 140 in Beverly Hills and Estrella in Palm Springs, was recruited once again by Kor to concoct the cool, minimalist interiors of its new Pegasus apartment complex in the former Mobil Oil headquarters at the corner of Flower and 7th streets (next door to the Standard Hotel, one of the latest bicoastal hipster hangouts in L.A.).

As another indication of downtown's dramatic makeover, restaurateur Adolfo Sauya and designer-du-jour Dodd Mitchell, the duo behind the ultra-fashionable Zen Grill & Sake Lounge in Westwood, will be giving a serious upgrade to the Bristol Hotel, a 1927 Art Nouveau landmark at 8th and Olive streets. Sauya says the renewed establishment will consist of a hotel with between 80 and 100 rooms, an Asian-themed restaurant, a bar and a nightclub. He expects it to open in mid-2005.

"We can't go west anymore because we have the ocean," Sauya says. "We can't go in the middle [of L.A.] because you can't buy a piece of dirt for less than $3 million. The only place we can go is east."

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