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Change checks in at a skid row hotel

As money and tourists return to downtown L.A., the hip and the near-homeless meet in the lobby of the 80-year-old Cecil.

January 25, 2008|Ari B. Bloomekatz | Times Staff Writer

Check-in at the Cecil Hotel had to wait a few minutes because Kerri Torrance, the clerk working the graveyard shift one night in November, had to deal with a heist.

A man staying on the 10th floor had called down to report that a woman had grabbed his money and bolted.

After the woman dashed through the lobby and burst out the front doors onto Main Street, Torrance called police while a handful of guests waited.

"She's right out there . . . you see . . . well . . . he said they were doing drugs, cocaine or something," Torrance told police officers.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, February 02, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Downtown hotels: An article in Section A on Jan. 25 about the Cecil Hotel said there is a Million Dollar Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. The Rosslyn Hotel downtown, which the article also mentioned, has sometimes been known as the "Million Dollar Hotel," but there is no separate Million Dollar Hotel.

Then she cupped the receiver and mouthed, "I'm sorry, just a minute."

This was not the type of greeting the new owners of the Cecil desire as they try to "re-brand" the 80-year-old hotel between 6th and 7th streets. "We are not a missionary, we are not a halfway house, we are a tourist's hotel," Torrance explained.

In its early years, the Cecil and hotels such as the Million Dollar, the Alexandria and the Rosslyn catered to the city's elite out-of-town visitors, and lavish parties were held in their grand ballrooms.

When the wealthy abandoned downtown during the Depression, the Cecil and others like it became residential hotels that for generations housed those who were one step above homelessness.

But downtown is becoming a hip destination again, and these hotels are sought by developers who say they can turn a profit by luring university students, working professionals and tourists.

A few weeks before the drug robbery, the new owners of the Cecil removed the fuzzy bulletproof glass from the check-in window. Dozens of new lightbulbs glow from antique chandeliers that hang from high ceilings in the renovated lobby.

Torrance said the robbery was unusual -- remnants of the "old" Cecil Hotel.

That "old" Cecil had quite a reputation. In the 1940s, it was one of the first public meeting places for Alcoholics Anonymous. It was later the sometime home of serial killers Jack Unterweger and Richard "Night Stalker" Ramirez, and is included on a bus tour of eerie Los Angeles crimes.

Some long-term residents, such as 77-year-old Saverio "Manny" Maniscalco (14 years) and 30-year resident Michael Sadowe, still call the Cecil "The Suicide" because over the years a number of people have plunged to their deaths from the building.

But the real crime now, skid row activists say, is that longtime residents can't afford the higher rents. One group, the Los Angeles Community Action Network, has sued owners of the Alexandria Hotel over what they allege are prejudiced and illegal housing practices. Earlier this month, one of the group's supporting law firms sent a letter to the new owners of the Cecil, saying that they must stop their redevelopment or face similar legal action.

But the Cecil's owners say they are not halting their effort to revive the hotel, which they bought last summer for about $26 million. They have promised to spend an additional $9 million on renovations.

A branding firm hired to recast the hotel's image even came up with a possible new name: the Pearl.

"There's been a big turnaround of clientele, we're getting so many more tourists," Torrance said. "We are changing with downtown, we are changing with the times."

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The website booking.com gives the Cecil two stars -- by comparison, the Best Western Hollywood Hills Hotel on Franklin Avenue gets three stars -- and says "if you want to stay at a fun, colorful hotel in an up-and-coming trendy loft area, with cool restaurants and hip shops, you can stay in one of Cecil Hotel's 600 rooms, and save big bucks."

Rooms usually cost $50 to $60 a night, depending on whether guests want their own bathrooms. Larger suites can cost about $100 a night.

But the rates vary depending on which website is used to book the rooms or whether guests have affordable-housing vouchers. When asked what the rates are, Torrance said they are "moderate" and "appealing" but would not give exact prices.

Fresh Monet, Picasso and Kandinsky posters hang on the vivid yellow, red and blue walls next to the elevators on each floor. But around the corner, reality hits: The rooms are small, bugs scamper across the floors and in the dim hallways, one sometimes encounters guests who have been using drugs or alcohol. Fred Cordova, the hotel's new owner and director of the building's renovation, said more changes are coming.

He pulled out a map showing buildings north and east of the Cecil that in recent years had been converted into lofts or downtown attractions for the middle class. The Cecil was the last in a string of developments leading south down Main Street.

"There is a great need for quality affordable housing downtown," Cordova said. "It'll be classy."

Cordova hired a security firm for the Cecil to replace guards who had carried chemical Mace, handcuffs and batons.

The new guards wear crisp blue blazers and dark khakis, carrying only a walkie-talkie and badge.

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