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Downtown Housing Demand Feeds a Bloom in High-Rises

August 08, 2005|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

Downtown Los Angeles -- which hasn't seen a skyscraper built since Tom Bradley was mayor and the Raiders were playing at the Coliseum -- is in the midst of a growth spurt that promises to significantly alter its skyline in the coming years.

The building boom marks the fourth time since World War II that a spate of construction has altered the downtown landscape. But although previous booms focused on commercial space, this one is different: The vast majority of the new high-rise space is for housing.

The phenomenon mirrors patterns in Chicago, Las Vegas, San Diego and Miami, where residential towers are going up at a rapid clip. Architect Santiago Calatrava recently announced plans to construct the nation's tallest building, a 2,000-foot residential and hotel tower called the Fordham Spire, in Chicago.

From 1986 to 1992, almost two-thirds of towers 20 stories or more built in the U.S. were for office use, according to McGraw-Hill Construction, which tracks projects nationwide. But recently, said McGraw-Hill economist Jennifer Coskren, "this has really flipped."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 10, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Downtown high-rises -- An article in Monday's Section A about the boom in high-rise housing in downtown Los Angeles said the 1974 skyscraper now known as the Aon Center had 68 stories. It has 62.

Between 2003 and June 2005, about 84% of new towers were for residential, multifamily use -- an indication, said Coskren, of "this investor and consumer appetite for multifamily condo development. Luxury high-rises are what's being demanded."

The return to tall towers will be a marked change for downtown Los Angeles, whose last new skyscraper was the 750-foot, 52-story Two California Plaza, completed in 1992.

At the south end of downtown, two residential towers already under construction near Staples Center will be joined by a 55-story hotel and condominium complex scheduled to break ground later this year.

To the north, near Walt Disney Concert Hall, at least five skyscrapers are slated for construction as part of the Grand Avenue project, including a 40- to 50-story building to be designed by architect Frank Gehry and scheduled for completion in 2009.

The changing skyline should begin to take shape in the next three years, when the first five buildings that have already won city approval are completed. They include a 33-story loft building at 9th and Flower streets.

In all, 32 towers are on the horizon for downtown, though some still need city approval as well as financing.

Twenty are considered skyscrapers because they climb more than 240 feet, or about 20 stories. One of the most talked about is a proposed 50-story Asian-inspired tower at 3rd and Hill streets.

Together, said author and historian D.J. Waldie, they represent "an enormous transformation of the city we know to something unknown."

Most of the new residential spaces that have opened so far have been quickly swept up by buyers and renters.

But there are lingering concerns that the downtown residential market could suffer the same fate as office space did in the early 1990s, when far more new buildings went up than were needed. Rents plummeted, buildings sat vacant -- and it took a decade for downtown to recover.

Some also question whether downtown's sometimes narrow streets and limited infrastructure -- everything from its lack of parks to its aging sewer system -- can accommodate all the new towers and residents who will follow.

Waldie says he thinks city planners are "failing to connect the dots."

"They're allowing a neighborhood texture to arrive where one had been lost for 50 years," said the author of "Where We Are Now: Notes From Los Angeles." "They're putting in even taller high-rises ... but down on the ground, where are the resources to make that into a place to live?"

The new construction could also push out the underclass that has long called downtown home.

Orlando Ward of the Midnight Mission said he was optimistic that the influx of residents would ultimately help the area, but he thinks it could be a rough transition.

He's particularly worried that new residents expecting an urban wonderland will instead find social problems like homelessness and crime.

"There are certain streets you can't go down or won't go down," Ward said. "That's bound to cause resentment or potential backlash.... We're most concerned that there isn't a knee-jerk reaction by policymakers to Band-Aid or push the problem out of sight of our affluent neighbors."

*

Downtown Los Angeles has seen several distinct flurries of tower development since City Hall, at 28 stories, became the city's first high-rise in 1927. It wasn't until the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, that the city began to have true skyscrapers, such as the 68-story building now called the Aon Center, completed in 1974.

During the last major construction boom downtown, from 1988 to 1992, investors poured billions of dollars into the area. Eight million square feet of office space was added --enough to fill Century City.

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