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Making Converts

Linda Dishman of the Los Angeles Conservancy explains the ins and outs of saving old buildings

October 01, 2006|Emily Young | Emily Young, a former editor for the Los Angeles Times Magazine, is now a contributing writer for Los Angeles magazine.

Question: When did L.A. get serious about adaptive reuse?

Answer: As part of a revitalization effort, the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance approved by the City Council in 1999 made it easier to convert vacant and underutilized buildings downtown to new uses. Until then, industrial and commercial buildings could be converted to residential spaces only for artists' lofts. What the ordinance did was streamline the process and allow anyone, not just artists, to live and work in these buildings.

Q: Were empty buildings facing the wrecking ball otherwise?

A: Most of downtown was not under active threat of demolition, but many buildings along Broadway, Spring and Main were sitting vacant and not being maintained. A vacant building is a red alert because it's always in danger of being torn down to put up a parking lot. With no residential street life, we had vandalism, graffiti and other problems. Certain elements like drug dealers and the homeless were coming in because there was no one else, no activity--like people walking their dogs three times a day--to create a safe, alternative presence.

Q: Besides downtown L.A., where is adaptive reuse taking place?

A: The ordinance now applies citywide, with incentives in Hollywood, Koreatown along Wilshire Boulevard, Lincoln Heights, Chinatown and Central Avenue between Vernon and the Santa Monica Freeway.

Q: In these neighborhoods in transition, is any obsolete building eligible and can anyone undertake such a project?

A: The building has to have been built before July 1, 1974. Newer buildings are considered through discretionary review by the planning department. The building also has to be underutilized. Adaptive reuse isn't about taking a fully occupied office building, kicking everyone out and putting in condos. You don't have to be a big developer either. There's opportunity for individual property owners to go through this process.

Q: So what if I want to revamp an empty building--say, a church--as my home?

What's the first step?

A: You should determine the zoning of the property to make sure what you're planning is feasible. You can do that simply by going to and typing in your address. Turning a church into a single-family home in a residential neighborhood would not be a problem because that's a compatible use. Of course, there are exceptions. If you wanted to put four housing units in that church or convert it to a beauty salon, you'd have to get an exemption from the planning department. You should also find out whether the property has been designated a historic building or a historic-cultural monument and whether it's located in a historic preservation overlay zone (HPOZ) or historic district. You can do that online or check with the conservancy. If you have a designated building, then you need to respect its historic character and make any changes to meet your living needs in an architecturally sensitive way. If the exterior is stucco, you want to keep it or replace it with new stucco. For repairs, you want to match the texture of the old stucco. Windows, whether they're wood or metal, you want to preserve or replace them in kind.

Q: Any potential pitfalls I should be aware of?

A: A lot depends on the previous use. If a building was a dry cleaner or a gas station, there might be toxic chemicals. But this can be remediated by digging out the contaminated soil and replacing it. It's something else on the to-do list, like redoing the electricity and plumbing. Installing heat and air-conditioning in a historic building is another consideration, but you can put those systems in place. Sometimes you can't even tell they're there. In other cases, people love the look of the exposed ducting. There's a lot of hard work to adapting a commercial building for housing, but I think people who would get frustrated with this process wouldn't begin it in the first place. The people who do it are people with gumption and tenacity who want to live in a unique building, even if it means living in a gritty neighborhood. They've often lived in Chicago or New York, and they want that building's past to be part of their everyday life.

Q: Are some types of buildings easier or more difficult to adapt for home use?

A: In L.A., the obvious candidates are big industrial buildings that can be carved up into individual spaces and office buildings with wide hallways and windows for ventilation. Those make for easy conversions. There's no building type that necessarily precludes adaptive reuse. But unreinforced masonry buildings do need to be retrofitted and brought up to current seismic code. And really large buildings are naturally more challenging to adapt for single-family use.

Q: What about the costs compared with building a house from scratch or remodeling an existing one?

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