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Small dwellings fill a niche

New York-style mini-apartments are catching on among renters who couldn't otherwise afford to live in choice neighborhoods.

May 29, 2010|By Roger Vincent, Los Angeles Times

Timm Freeman's Santa Monica apartment has 17-foot ceilings, granite countertops and collector guitars hanging on the wall. He's got a built-in microwave, dishwasher and central air conditioning.

All in 350 square feet.

Freeman's coffee table is also his dining table. His desk is three steps from his sitting room. And three paces from his stove.

"Everything is within three steps of the next thing," said Freeman, 40, a graphic designer.

Southern California, meet the Manhattan-sized mini-apartment. In a region known for its sprawl, diminutive dwellings are finding a toehold among renters who couldn't otherwise afford to live in choice neighborhoods.

Freeman's apartment may be smaller than many suburban master bedrooms, but rents in his Olympic Studios complex are comparatively small too — $1,110 a month at the low end — and the beach is just a mile away.

Prospective tenants need to sign up for a waiting list: The 165-unit Olympic Studios has been filled since it opened in late 2008. Its developers are now building a similar complex nearby, and a pint-sized apartment project is also planned for the Palms neighborhood of West Los Angeles.

The units are about the same size as a large recreational vehicle and have the same design imperative: Fit as many features as possible into a small space, but don't make it claustrophobic.

"It's like a Rubik's Cube," said Jim Andersen of NMS Properties, which built Olympic Studios. "It's a geometry problem."

Freeman's living areas — kitchen, desk area and TV nook — flow from one space to the next, unimpeded by doors or hallways. The only interior door is to the bathroom. He climbs 14 carpeted steps to a landing big enough for his double bed and a closet. A wide ledge over his stove and refrigerator holds some of his paintings.

"It feels like more than it is," Freeman said. "It's just right for me."

When Freeman's 7-year-old son Gear visits, he sleeps on the fold-out couch.

"He's got his own little space with dedicated shelves for personal stuff," Freeman said.

Still, there are challenges. When Freeman hosted a rehearsal for his ukulele band, the Ooks of Hazzard the nine members took up the length of his apartment, from front door to window. The backup singers had to perch on the stairs.

"It was very full," Freeman said. The close quarters made it "kind of fun," he said, although he hasn't hosted another practice since.

Freeman, who is recently divorced, also had to pare down his clothes and other possessions before moving in. Residents can rent a storage cabinet in the underground garage for $60 to $100 a month, but he didn't feel the need.

"Getting rid of stuff I didn't need helped me untether myself," he said. "It was a gift, rather than a punishment."

There wasn't room to keep Freeman's collection of 12 guitars in a closet, much less on stands on the floor like he used do, so he hung them on the walls. "It turns out I like guitars hanging up like artwork instead of hidden away in a closet," he said. "I dig it."

Nontraditional families like Freeman's were in the minds of the Olympic's architects. "Families are not two and a half kids and a dog anymore," said Wade Killefer of Killefer Flammang Architects.

Creating the smallest possible units was a competitive game in the Santa Monica firm, Killefer said, with his fellow architects challenging one another to shave off a foot here or there on the design. They started by allotting space for the necessities.

"You've got to have a couch, a stove, a bed, a place for two people to eat, a desk, a closet and storage space," Killefer said. "Then figure out where your dresser is going to go."

Their presumption was that most tenants would be single, or a parent with one child, with a smattering of couples.

Mini-dwellings are at the frontier of a downsizing movement that's embraced by environmentalists, and that challenges decades of a bigger-is-better trend in American homes.

While Olympic Studios is an extreme case, American dwellings are getting smaller. The median size of a U.S. home, which jumped from 900 square feet in the 1950s to 2,277 square feet in 2007, has edged down to 2,161 square feet in the first quarter of 2010, Census Bureau figures show.

The smaller units make most sense in places like Santa Monica, where the cost of land is high and there is an abundance of jobs and commerce. That means people want to live there, but may not be able to afford the rents that traditional apartments fetch.

For developers, small is beautiful because they can build more units per square foot of land. A 165-unit complex would normally not be possible on the site of Olympic Studios, but developers won permission from Santa Monica city officials in part by agreeing to set aside some of the units for people whose annual incomes are below the local median of $55,000.

Those residents pay $1,110 a month. Others pay $1,388, which is still about 30% cheaper than other new apartments in Santa Monica.

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