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The new urbanists

Even in a soft market, buyers are still chasing that city vibe.

July 29, 2007|Diane Wedner | Times Staff Writer

Living in suburbia is as appealing to Katherine Winston as a prime-rib dinner is to a vegetarian.

"There will always be people with suburban tastes," said the 30-year-old television-marketing manager. "I definitely am not one of them."

That's why she and her Realtor husband, Darren Winston, 30, are moving into Kor Group's Sunset Silver Lake loft-style condominiums in Los Angeles, one of several new residential projects in Southern California geared to what marketers are calling "nouveau" buyers -- those roughly between the ages of 25 and 45 who want an urban environment but don't necessarily dig downtown.

This shared desire to be urbanists while avoiding the urban hub has been recognized by the building industry, which is jumping onboard with condo conversions, lofts and apartments in areas once considered residentially undesirable. In the vicinity of Hollywood and Vine alone, 2,500 upscale condos and apartments will soon be available.

"Urbanists can walk or take a bike to restaurants, pick up their newspaper downstairs, but don't have to deal with the inconveniences of downtown blight," said Randy Jackson, president of the Planning Center, a private urban-design firm in Costa Mesa.

For this emerging niche market of buyers, decisions about where they live far outweigh what they're living in.

"There's been a sea change in preference, from product to place," said Shyam Kannan, director of research and development for RCLCO, a nationwide real estate consulting firm. "Place is much more important."

In Southern California, those "places" filling the bill include Silver Lake, Hollywood, Marina del Rey, Fullerton and Pasadena -- towns boasting hip, higher-density living in pleasant surroundings.

These buyers -- mostly Generation Xers (ages 27 to 42) as well as adventurous boomers (43 to 61) and some from Generation Y (26 and younger) -- want neighborhoods with ethnic diversity; flexible indoor space; communal outdoor living areas; ground-floor retail; nearby bars, clubs, restaurants and culture; and a place to grab coffee on a Sunday morning that's just a few steps away.

"These are educated, sophisticated buyers who want to connect with neighbors," said Lupe Sanchez, marketing manager for John Laing Homes Urban, which broke ground in March 2006 on Ma- drone, a 180-unit development of studios, flats and penthouses ranging in size from 700 to 2,300 square feet just south of the Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue junction. "They care about the lifestyle, not which counter tops and flooring they're getting."

It's a movement that appears to be gaining momentum. According to a 2006 analysis of housing-preference estimates by Arthur C. Nelson, director of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech, 38% of today's consumers prefer attached housing, compared with 25.4% historically. And although 54.2% of today's occupied homes are single-family detached structures on large lots, the percentage of consumers who actually want that is as low as 25%.

"Across demographics, people of all ages living in large homes in spread-out neighborhoods said they don't like it," RCLCO's Kannan said of the analysis of thousands of respondents. "People are seeking others to socialize with."

Although plugged in by computers and cellphones, Katherine Winston says that her peer group wants to be part of a social network and "not just the 500 friends on MySpace. We want to actually live close to our friends."

The Winstons recently bought a 1,324-square-foot, two-bedroom loft for $650,000 in Silver Lake. The new development is made up of 43 single-, two- and three-level units in four buildings connected by landscaped courtyards and featuring patios and balconies. Two of Katherine's work colleagues live in Silver Lake, so she can carpool to work, a bonus.

A stone's throw from Sunset Junction -- the area where Sunset and Griffith Park boulevards come together -- the Winstons will have access to the weekly farmers markets, annual street fair and the nearby Casbah Café, where they can dine alfresco and mingle with neighbors.

"We've always been adamant about living in or very near the city," Winston said.

If Silver Lake is high on the coolness curve, then Hollywood and Vine is off the charts. Clubs, restaurants, theater and history converge there, attracting condo buyers to the converted Equitable office building.

The fabled corner also is where the Kor Group has turned the landmark Broadway department store, built in 1927, into Broadway Hollywood, a 96-unit loft complex set to open early next month. Most of the lofts are 1,300 to 1,400 square feet, with expansive windows that take in views of the Capitol Records building, the Hollywood Hills, the Pantages Theater and the Westside. Katsuya restaurant and a Pinkberry will occupy part of the ground floor. The building will have a doorman and valet parking. All but five of the units have been sold.

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