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Home is where the condo is

January 24, 2006

EARLIER THIS MONTH Westwood-based KB Home, the prototypical suburban homebuilder, announced that it is a partner in a plan to build a 50-story hotel-and-condominium development downtown. About the only thing more surprising than KB Home's involvement in this project would be its absence. The "B" in KB Home, after all, stands for co-founder Eli Broad, local philanthropist and longtime champion of the downtown revival.

But family trees aside, the notion that KB Home is setting its sights downtown is astonishing. Founded in 1957, KB Home became the fifth-largest homebuilder in the nation by mass-producing affordable homes for first-time buyers in the 'burbs. It's known for modest cul-de-sac communities in the exurbs, not luxurious skyscrapers spitting distance from Staples Center. KB Home is cozy, not cutting edge.

For a company that fetish-izes sprawl to bet that building 250 luxury condos will help keep its stock price climbing (in spite of Wall Street fears that the housing boom may be sputtering to an end) is testament to the momentum building downtown.

It would be great if KB Home's presence helps make downtown living more accessible. It won't be great if the company repeats its past mistakes in doing so. Critics have often complained that KB Home's assembly-line approach produces cookie-cutter, sometimes shoddy houses. In a downtown market that's pricier per square foot than Beverly Hills and attracting sophisticates, McLofts just won't do.

What's more, vibrant urban communities thrive on public space and lots of in-your-face contact with neighbors, rich and poor alike -- in many ways the antithesis of the "Leave It To Beaver" suburban ideal. For this Levittown-meets-Chinatown experiment to work, KB Home needs to take some bold steps in a new direction.

The $600-million hotel-condo development will be part of L.A. Live, the much-ballyhooed $2.5-billion "sports-entertainment" complex that billionaire Philip Anschutz's AEG Group is building near Staples Center. KB Home's leap into the project is actually something of a retreat from its initial downtown derring-do. The company had planned to build 700 luxury condo units on Figueroa Street -- a more purely residential project in partnership with rival homebuilding company Lennar Corp. The future of that development is uncertain.

But mostly the signs are encouraging. Two hundred fifty units in a high-profile high-rise is nothing to sneeze at. The company is taking its new downtown experiments seriously enough that it has created an independent division, KB Urban. Here's hoping that KB Urban will home in on downtown dwellers' needs and tastes and come up with creative ways to satisfy them. Maybe it'll even help build a greater downtown, much the way Broad helped build the suburbs nearly 50 years ago. Only better.

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