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Crossroads Nears in Downtown Loft Boom

As L.A.'s converted units fill, the city is working to expand the revival. But growth faces obstacles.

June 20, 2005|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

Climb the grand spiral staircase at the century-old Pan American Building at 3rd Street and Broadway and you enter offices left vacant since the 1960s that workers are busily converting to luxury lofts.

The buzz of their drills and pounding of their hammers mix with the sounds of traffic, a familiar melody these days along the streets of downtown Los Angeles, where long-neglected structures are springing back to life as homes for downtown's new urban dwellers.

But the boom in residential development -- which has been at the heart of downtown Los Angeles' recent revival -- is reaching a critical crossroads. Of the 50 historic buildings preservationists and developers identified five years ago as candidates for housing, 44 either have been converted or are near completion.

This has city officials and developers mapping out the next phase of downtown's renewal. They are considering more modern office towers, from the 1960s, '70s and even '80s, as potential condos and lofts. At the same time, they are looking at downtown's wealth of parking lots as potential spots for new construction while eyeing prewar buildings south and east of the traditional downtown historic core for renovations.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 30, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Downtown lofts -- A June 20 Section A article about the conversion of downtown Los Angeles buildings into residential lofts said the Eastern Columbia Building had been mostly vacant since the 1950s. According to Alan Sieroty, a member of the family that owned the building, it was mostly occupied until it was sold in the late 1980s.

The shift also is prompting a debate about how far the residential boom will go. The number of residents downtown has grown in the last few years from 18,000 to 24,000, and most of the new lofts have long waiting lists that suggest the demand for housing remains strong.

But some developers acknowledge that downtown still has drawbacks that could cool the market. Among them: The area lacks the kind of shopping found in more suburban areas, a deficiency that officials vow to address in the coming year.

Residents who like the urban feeling of downtown nonetheless complain about having to drive into Pasadena or the Miracle Mile area for gourmet supermarkets and to suburban malls to shop for clothing and gifts.

Crime remains a problem, with more than 10% of the city's drug arrests occurring in downtown, more than any other area counted by the Los Angeles Police Department. With many of the new lofts rising in and around skid row, builders worry that panhandling and overnight encampments -- if not addressed by the city -- will eventually turn off residents.

The very success of downtown is also proving its own challenge. The initial round of conversions early in the decade produced mostly rentals, attracting people with modest incomes and a sense of adventure.

But as real estate prices have soared, developers increasingly have found that the only way they can finance the purchase and refurbishing of old buildings is to immediately sell them as condos. Today, a loft in a historic building can go for anywhere from $350,000 to more than $1 million.

Rents are rising, and some early loft residents fear they will eventually be priced out.

"I really enjoy it ... but I can't afford it," said graphic designer Jason 71, who moved into the old Hellman Building four years ago as a renter. "I'm really kind of leery.... There's a lot of money being dumped into downtown, it just feels like it's forcing too much in too small a space."

Jason 71, who said he uses this name both professionally and personally, pays about $1,000 a month for an 800-square-foot loft. But he said he has watched anxiously as rents for similar spaces have doubled over the last few years and equivalent condos have sold for $450,000 or more.

"We're at a real interesting point," said Tom Gilmore, who has renovated the Hellman and a group of other buildings around Main Street, once the heart of Los Angeles' banking district.

"The urban agenda, the transportation agenda and the social agenda all intersect in the city here in downtown. You have to pay attention to them in a balance that makes sense."

In the mid-1990s, Gilmore and a few other developers saw potential in the ornate but dilapidated buildings near skid row, many imposing stone structures built as banks before World War I. Previous downtown revivals, including the one attempted in the area now called the Artist district, just east of Alameda Street, failed amid rising crime.

Gilmore and the others bought the buildings for as little as a few dollars per square foot and begin to renovate them.

The fledging effort received a major boost in 1999, when the city adopted rules making it much easier for developers to convert office space into residences. The rules cut red tape, eased parking requirements for buildings and loosened other zoning rules in the historic core area.

The rules attracted more prominent developers into loft conversions, in part because Gilmore's first lofts were drawing unexpectedly strong interest.

"If Tom Gilmore can build skid row-adjacent and rent those units

By 2003, the downtown revival was well underway, stoked by a burgeoning art scene and the opening of Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Standard Hotel.

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