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Sign of a market on fire

Construction is set to begin on a red-hued West Hollywood tower, a mark of the region's commercial building boom.

March 29, 2007|Roger Vincent | Times Staff Writer

Most everyone who has been to West Hollywood knows the "Blue Whale," that huge blue glass office building that opened at the Pacific Design Center in 1975. And you can't forget its bright green neighbor that came along in 1988.

Now it's time for the red one -- really red, like a new Ferrari.

Today, the $160-million office building starts to take shape with renowned architect Cesar Pelli on hand as decades of plans and dreams and skepticism give way to the formal groundbreaking.

"When I started this I was a kid," joked Pelli, who is 80 and designed all three buildings. "This is the longest project I've ever done, by far."

The new building is far more than a red dot on a brown landscape. It also symbolizes an unfolding office building boom in Southern California not seen in more than a decade.

On Wednesday, developers announced plans to proceed with another tower of the Howard Hughes Center complex near Marina del Rey off the San Diego Freeway. CarrAmerica Realty said it would start on the five-story edifice in October.

It's one of several office towers and complexes getting underway on the Westside and in Hollywood, Burbank and Orange County. There's even talk of a new skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles.

The red glass structure will be on San Vicente Boulevard, just south of Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. Anticipated for years, it would be one of the nation's few bright-red office buildings -- practically unheard of in the buttoned-down commercial real estate world that favors muted shades guaranteed not to offend the sensibilities of potential corporate renters.

"This is probably the only place in the world you could get away with it," said dapper New York builder Charles Steven Cohen, owner of the Pacific Design Center and the man betting that business owners will pay good money for a spot in a flame-colored building.

Better known for retouching New York's skyline, Cohen is among a handful of developers now kicking off the burst of office development.

"It was an incredibly dry period" for office construction, said former Los Angeles Planning Director Con Howe, who is now a consultant for the Urban Land Institute. "Conditions are finally improving."

With new buildings, of course, come traffic and potential parking issues, but the current round of construction is already on planners' radar, Howe said

"Virtually all of these projects were approved in the early 1990s and their traffic impacts and required mitigations were anticipated," Howe said. At Howard Hughes Center, for example, developers were required to add an offramp to the San Diego Freeway.

A growing office shortage in Hollywood has prompted some landowners to consider building new space.

Owners of the historic Columbia Square broadcast studio unveiled plans this week for an office tower as part of a 1-million-square-foot addition to the former CBS broadcasting center on Sunset Boulevard.

Last week, developers announced that work would start later this year on a $130-million building in Burbank, and a fancy 12-story office tower recently was completed in Century City.

Construction began this month on the first two of several office buildings totaling millions of square feet coming to the nearby Playa Vista development, where mogul Howard Hughes once ran his aviation empire and where thousands now live.

In Orange County, Broadcom Corp. employees started moving into a new eight-building office complex near UC Irvine last week, and a 22-story office high-rise was recently proposed near Angel Stadium.

So far, development is sparse enough and business expansion is healthy enough that new supply of office space in desirable locations shouldn't overwhelm demand, said Stan Ross, chairman of the Lusk Center for Real Estate at USC. Builders, though, have a habit of being overly optimistic about their prospects.

"Historically our building community is good at adding inventory too quickly." Ross said. "They are optimistic about the ability of the market to absorb their projects."

Vacancy rates are dropping and rents are rising all across America, said John Cushman, chairman of real estate brokerage Cushman & Wakefield. Office space is getting harder to come by in most big cities except Chicago, where developers have been too aggressive, he said.

The market should be able to handle most of the country's new space, he said. "I don't see an out-of-control cycle."

Even the office skyline of downtown Los Angeles may see an addition after years of stasis.

Rob Maguire, one of the region's biggest landlords, insists that he will soon build another skyscraper that would be the first for downtown since 1992. "I'm very bullish," he said.

Maguire is also impressed with the Red Building, where construction gets underway this summer. "I wish I could buy it."

Red, architect Pelli said in a recent interview with The Times, is an especially hard color to incorporate into building materials. "Red paint fades very fast because ultraviolet light attacks it."

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