L.A.'s lofts lure what downtown has lacked: residents

The city is beginning to see a population boom at its center.

It is the hub of the world's movie industry. It boasts Bel Air and Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and the Sunset Strip.

But for all the decades it has beckoned and seduced, Los Angeles has never had one place to call "downtown" in a traditional sense.

Now, in a city whose skyline was long dominated by the 28-story city hall, where "downtown" has conjured images of skid row and drugs while the beat of the city has thumped farther away, many say L.A. is finally finding its heart. The latest evidence: An influx of people moving downtown.

The transformation is visible in the area's historic core - the upper floors of vacant, century-old banks and Art Deco headquarters morphing into luxury lofts and condominiums. Experts say the arrival of what could be called SoHo West may bring per- manent change, and plenty of challenges, to a place that has never had the community feel of the quaint promenade at Santa Monica or the lush enclaves of Pasadena.

According to the Los Angeles Downtown Center Business Improvement District (BID), 12,000 units of housing in downtown existed prior to 1999; that number has since risen to 16,000. The BID expects the downtown population of an estimated 24,000 to double by 2008 if current housing trends continue.

"Downtown LA has finally reached critical mass," says Ken Bernstein, the director of preservation issues at the Los Angeles Conservancy. "This is not an isolated project here, a mega project there. It's the real creation of a true downtown community."

The transformation of a downtown once ridiculed for having "no there there" has been long and episodic. Urban planners set out to try to focus on a multicentered urban core after the widespread urban flight of the 1950s.

During his 20-year tenure as mayor starting in 1973, Tom Bradley envisioned a cluster of glassy skyscrapers that would serve as the center of the Pacific Rim and bring back some of the vitality of old downtown. In one sense, he was fighting the rise of what many considered America's first postindustrial city: A metropolitan area, defined by the automobile, that had no dominant core but instead was made up of a series of commercial and community "nodes" spread across the landscape.

The Bradley experiment certainly had an effect. Suddenly L.A. had a vertical skyline, anchored by the US Bank Tower - the tallest building west of the Mississippi.

More recently, hundreds of millions of dollars have poured into cultural icons that have become part of the downtown landscape. This includes Frank Gehry's winged Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels - the Catholic diocese's signature church - as well as other nearby amenities like the Staples Center.

Now the arrival of more urban dwellers may bring the final - and most significant - change. Large parts of downtown L.A. remain a work-in-progress, of course, as the area undergoes a demographic shift that has brought luxury living right up to what is known as "skid row."

After work one recent evening, a cavernous cafe buzzed with local residents - artists, musicians, students. Blocks away hundreds of homeless men and women set up cardboard boxes on the sidewalks.

It is this gritty reality of city living that George Panagopoulos was seeking when he moved to L.A. 10 years ago. A musician, he says he felt stifled in what he calls the sterile suburbs that sprawl west from downtown. "[Living downtown] reminds me about the world. That not everything is all right," says Mr. Panagopoulos.

Where artists like Panagopoulos see authenticity, developers see opportunity. When the companies headquartered downtown moved to new high rises, only the ground floors in the old core remained vibrant. Many of the upper floors have been abandoned for years. As David Gray, who renovates new lofts and condominiums and manages tenants, puts it: "What's the last big city in America without lofts? L.A. Ding, and off to the races!" he says.

While artists had been living and working in lofts for years, developer Tom Gilmore, who took a cluster of buildings in the mid-1990s in the area known as the Old Bank District and turned them into homes, is seen as the catalyst of the current population boom. Of 50 historic buildings identified as housing candidates five years ago, 44 have already been converted or will be soon, according to the L.A. Conservancy's latest tally. The residential development has spurred interest in more services. Downtown's first supermarket chain in 50 years is being built. Another $1.8-billion project will feature a park, gourmet store, entertainment, and 2,000 units of housing.

For many, the development is bringing back the old charm of the early 20th century, when a dozen movie palaces and old department stores like The Broadway and May Company thrived, patronized by residents who lived in nearby Victorian homes.

Even as waiting lists form long before buildings are even completed, no one expects downtown to surpass the clout of Beverly Hills or Santa Monica. And many, like Panagopoulos, don't want it to.

But change is happening rapidly. Just five years ago, says the artist Gronk, who only goes by one name and has lived downtown for 16 years, the community felt so small that if someone moved downtown, residents recognized the newcomer.

The urban realities of downtown, like heroin needles on the sidewalk, have concerned some newcomers. Mr. Gray, who moved to downtown six years ago and now manages properties, says his tenants complain about homeless people at their front entrances. "They call me and say, 'I pay a lot of money and I have to deal with this?'" He replies, "Yes you do. It's downtown."

It may be tough in areas, but the demand has caused prices to spike. Gray says a unit he paid $700 a month for six years ago now rents for $3,000. According to DataQuick Information Systems, which tracks real estate measures, the median price of a home downtown is $625,000, up from $280,000 in 1999.

When buildings were first converted to housing downtown, the majority were rentals. But developers say they can only afford to sell units now. Mark Weinstein, the president of MJW Investments, bought 10 historic buildings in the past seven years. The first projects he was able to rent, but the rest will be condominiums. "The apartments don't make sense, the rents, they don't pay off," he says.

Amid rising prices and wealthier buyers, there is still an element of the surreal downtown, says Gronk. "It's like living in a Fellini movie," he says of the Italian movie director. "I constantly feel like I'm in 'Satyricon.' "

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