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At City National Plaza, new tenant enjoys ground-floor limelight

Shlemmer+Algaze, which designs office interiors, decided the unusual lobby space at City National Plaza would be a good place to showcase its work. The firm moved 35 employees downtown in December.

February 09, 2012|By Roger Vincent, Los Angeles Times
  • Pedestrians can get a full view of the office space of Shlemmer Algaze Associates, which recently moved into former lobby space at City National Plaza in downtown L.A.
Pedestrians can get a full view of the office space of Shlemmer Algaze Associates,… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)

When the skyscrapers at Arco Plaza opened in 1971, security was lax compared with modern standards. Visitors could enter either tower from any direction, walk to an elevator bank in the middle and push a button.

For more than a decade, though, that's been impossible. Tenants and their guests are funneled through guarded entrances on one side of each tower where they must display proper credentials before heading upstairs at what is now known as City National Plaza.

The new procedure left thousands of square feet of dead space between the closed-off entrances and the elevators. After years of lying fallow, the space in one tower has been activated again — with an office tenant.

After a challenging build-out that included creating a separate air conditioning system and running plumbing along the underground garage ceiling, interior design firm Shlemmer+Algaze+Associates has set up operations at the bottom of the north tower.

The space is a mammoth fishbowl, with floor-to-ceiling windows that rise nearly 30 feet and make the office visible from three of the city's busiest streets — 5th, Flower and Figueroa. Most companies would prefer more privacy, but the design firm relishes the attention, Chief Executive Nelson Algaze said.

"The street is entertaining us and we are entertaining the street at the same time," he said.

Making the ground floor pop with light, color and activity is all part of landlord Thomas Properties Group's plan. When the company bought the complex in 2003, it was a failing monument to an earlier era when the finance and petroleum industries ruled downtown.

The Arco Plaza complex, with two 52-story towers and an underground mall filling an entire city block, was headquarters to the Atlantic Richfield Co. oil business and the Southern California headquarters of Bank of America.

For decades, Arco Plaza was one of the best business addresses in Los Angeles. Japanese real estate company Shuwa Investments Corp. bought it in 1986 for $650 million, a record price for Southern California real estate. By 2003, though, only about a third of the complex was occupied.

Arco and Bank of America had both moved out, and financially troubled Shuwa had let the property slip into such disrepair that it was no longer considered top-tier office space. Thomas Properties spent $185 million to restore and retrofit the complex, brought in City National Bank as the anchor tenant and set out to make the place more welcoming.

Where the wide plaza on Flower Street had been dramatic but sterile, the new owners set out tables with umbrellas so people could linger. In a smaller building between the two towers, upscale restaurants Drago Centro and Chaya Downtown opened.

Most recently, architecture firm Gensler set up shop above the restaurants and a City National bank branch, taking the so-called jewel box building "from uninviting to lights-on welcome," said Tom Ricci, an executive vice president at Thomas Properties.

The landlord, which is headquartered in the complex, had been trying unsuccessfully for years, though, to find tenants for the lifeless lobby space in the towers.

"We have had a difficult time getting tenants and their brokers to see the potential," Ricci said. "We figured if we could do it once we would have something to show."

Shlemmer+Algaze, which designs office interiors, decided the unusual space would be a good place to showcase its work, Ricci said. The firm closed its Pasadena branch and moved 35 employees downtown in December after the complicated construction process.

The office is "a box within a box," Algaze said, with its own heating and air conditioning system concealed above a conference room. Other engineering challenges involved not only bringing plumbing and electricity along the garage ceiling below but also drilling through the granite floor.

The firm is now on permanent public display, but Algaze said he is not obsessed with keeping the place neat.

"Design offices are collaborative offices, meant to be a little chaotic," he said. "We're not doctors or lawyers."

Shlemmer+Algaze's place in the north tower's spotlight has not gone unnoticed, Thomas Properties' Ricci said. Other firms are suddenly interested in similar digs across the plaza.

"It's amazing how many inquiries we have now for the south tower," he said.

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