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A Tale of Two Hotels -- and the Future of a City

One has been renovated to serve L.A.'s neediest. The other, nearby, may become a fancy address.

November 01, 2005|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

While the pace of development in downtown Los Angeles is generating excitement and momentum, the fortunes of two stately early 20th century hotels symbolize the political challenges of melding the old and the new.

The renovated St. George Hotel, with its ocher and beige modernist exterior, could pass as a smart new hostelry catering to the trendy and the famous. That it sits at the edge of skid row and houses formerly homeless people augurs well for those who believe such low-rent single-room-occupancy hotels are essential to stem the tide of homelessness.

A few blocks away at the Bristol Hotel, formerly homeless residents were evicted so it could be converted into a luxury boutique hotel.

The area is undergoing a makeover with new cultural institutions, an influx of residents and demand for residential lofts and swanky visitor accommodations. At the same time, it hosts one of the nation's largest concentrations of homeless people and services that aid them.

The city's policymakers are trying to navigate a path that meets the needs of downtown's most vulnerable residents without blunting a renaissance that could reshape the skyline and add billions to the area's value.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa last week said he would work to put a $1-billion bond measure to support affordable housing before voters, and he proposed using $50 million in city funds to develop low-income housing, including the rehabilitation of low-rent residential hotels.

Meanwhile, the City Council is considering a one-year citywide moratorium on the demolition of single-room-occupancy hotels -- often the housing of last resort -- until it can develop a preservation strategy.

"We've never gone through such a sustained recovery period, with projects in the pipeline that will bring jobs to this area," said Councilwoman Jan Perry, who proposed the moratorium.

Perry represents part of downtown's financial district as well as the poor neighborhoods of skid row and south Los Angeles. "But we have a window of opportunity, and I didn't want to waste that. It's entirely possible to create projects with mixedincome [residents] living side by side."

The building industry is viewing the proposed moratorium cautiously.

"We always want public officials to recognize we're in a housing deficit and, as they're making policies, to think about the impact on the entire range of housing," said Holly Schroeder, chief executive officer of the Building Industry Assn. of Greater Los Angeles and Ventura.

Downtown's once sporadic attempts at enlivening its core have taken flight in the last two years, with residential building conversions and new restaurants and nightspots. Developers have announced plans for L.A. Live, a massive hotel and entertainment center near Staples Center, and a residential, cultural and entertainment corridor on Grand Avenue.

Trend-spotters are awaiting the opening of the Gansevoort West, a luxury hotel at 9th Street and Grand Avenue. And loft conversions are planned at the El Dorado-Pacific Grand Hotel and possibly the ornate Alexandria Hotel.

The Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., a private business leadership organization, is studying the financial repercussions.

"Our sense is that the impact on jobs and tax revenue of the downtown gentrification or renaissance has been significant and will continue to be significant," said Jack Kyser, senior economist at the corporation.

Such benefits will be hard for policymakers to ignore. A year ago, Villaraigosa, then a City Council member, co-sponsored a motion to begin exploring how single-room occupancy hotels might be preserved. At a recent news conference to praise the economic engine that is the entertainment industry, Villaraigosa said he would wait to see the specifics of a preservation ordinance before offering support or opposition.

"These issues are complex and multi-pronged," he said. "You have to bring everyone in, solicit their views and find common ground."

The city previously has imposed moratoriums on demolition and conversion of single-room-occupancy hotels. The last one expired in 1994. Since then, according to the Los Angeles Housing Department, at least 10 single-room occupancy hotels with more than 1,087 units have been demolished, closed because of nuisance claims or converted to upscale lofts.

Meanwhile, housing officials are monitoring an additional seven buildings, with 2,270 units, that could be earmarked for conversion to luxury lofts or hotels.

The typical resident of a single-room-occupancy hotel is an African American man who receives public assistance of about $221 a month. Only about 10% are employed, and many suffer from chronic diseases, substance abuse, mental illness and other disabilities, according to the housing department.

Monthly rent for these units ranges from $280 to $350, but federal subsidies allow some residents to pay only about 30% of their monthly income for rent.

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