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YOUR MONEY : HER VIEW

City Riches

Lofty living pays sweet dividends

July 27, 2008|Julie Makinen | Times Staff Writer

For years, Los Angeles has been a big city without a city, a town known for its endless suburbs and single-family homes. Reach out your window and pick an orange. Hop in the car and drive to the supermarket for a carton of milk. Subway? What subway?
But with developers converting vintage downtown office towers into lofts, and gas prices still painfully high, the original heart of Los Angeles has become a new urban environment for people bored with the suburbs and sick of the freeway.
For a glimpse into what the new downtown lifestyle is all about, The Times turned to two of its Business section editors, Julie Makinen and Patrick McMahon, who are among the new wave of downtown denizens.
Although they hail from different generations, both were intrigued by the prospect of living in a dynamic community -- and commuting on two feet.

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Something wonderful and completely unexpected has been happening since I moved from the hills of Sherman Oaks to a downtown loft this winter: My wallet has been getting fatter.

Part of the windfall has come from trading my hourlong, 20-mile morning crawl down the 101 Freeway for a leisurely 1.4-mile stroll or bike ride to work. That means $160 less in gas expenditures each month. Cha-ching!

But keeping Big Oil's grubby paws off my hard-earned cash isn't the only benefit. There are so many other financial upsides to moving closer to the office and downsizing one's living quarters that it's a challenge to tote them all up.

Downsizing may even be an overstatement. I've cut back from 1,800 square feet to about 1,400, which still seems bigger than Rhode Island.

Consider these savings:

* My water and power bill has dropped by more than two-thirds, as has the natural gas bill.

* Cable and Internet? My bill has fallen by more than 80%, thanks to the special rate my building negotiated.

* Adios monthly parking pass; you don't need one when you don't drive to work.

And my gardener? No longer necessary -- I can handle the half-dozen plants on my balcony myself.

Without a patch of grass to call my own, there has been one major new expense: a dog walker who gives my Labrador, Larry, a stroll every afternoon while I'm at work. That's setting me back $60 a week. Yet, even with that factored in, I'm still more than $300 ahead each month.

So why, then, has my balance sheet been showing even bigger gains?

New shopping habits

Back in the Valley, my shopping routine went like this: Hop into the car on a weekend afternoon. Spend hours on the typical suburban circuit of Trader Joe's, Vons or Ralphs, Target or Costco and maybe the mall. Load up the shopping cart, check out, repeat. Stuff the trunk with a half-dozen bags containing provisions for the next week or two.

No more. Now that my primary modes of transport are my feet, my bike and the bus, I'm shopping Euro-style -- stopping for groceries on the walk home and buying only what's needed for the next few meals.

Since my spending is limited to what can be carried the two long blocks to my building, that means giving up on heavy cases of wine and bulk packages of toilet paper the size of small igloos. But it also means fewer impulse purchases -- and, overall, less cash forked over at the checkout stand.

Downtown's surprising array of farmers' markets help keep my produce expenses in check. I buy mainly at Thursday's market at City Hall. There's a Wednesday market on West 5th Street, and another Friday at the Bank of America Plaza. And Grand Central Market is open daily.

Once you get past food, downtown shopping has its limits. If you adore South Coast Plaza or think the Grove is the bee's knees, chances are you won't dig the area's retail scene, which can be a bargain but rough around the edges.

If you're like me, though, and would rather be poked in the eye with a sharp stick than spend an afternoon at the Beverly Center, then downtown might have just what you're looking for.

Who needs Barnes & Noble when you've got the Central Library? If I want to take a nice bouquet to my friends' party, the Flower District has endless choices that will always be bigger, fancier and fresher than what I would find at a florist -- at half the price.

For my wardrobe, the Fashion District offers cutting-edge styles at cut-rate prices. Need an interesting gift? There are the shops at MOCA, Disney Hall and the Japanese-American Museum in Little Tokyo. (Oh, and if something a little more vanilla is called for, there's a Macy's near Metro Center. Two, in fact.)

Hard as it is for me to believe, it's been five months since I set foot in Target. With the nearest store more than eight miles away in West Hollywood, I've looked for alternatives closer to home. Food 4 Less has my dog food for the same price. The 99 Cents Only Store has basic cleaning and paper supplies. And neither stocks any of those wickedly tempting designer housewares that tend to fly right off the shelves, into my red cart and onto my credit card statement.

Night life

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