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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 6, 2006

Crop of condos helping to revive downtown L.A.

 •  Hawai'i Real Estate Report

By John Handley
Chicago Tribune

LOS ANGELES Opulent movie palaces once starred on this city's Broadway, California's version of the Great White Way.

Built between 1910 and 1931, these ornate theaters were venues for vaudeville and world premieres of Hollywood films. Sadly, that glitz and glamour are long gone. Broadway and the surrounding streets gradually sank into decay.

But now the core of the city is the stage for a new drama a rebirth.

Long called a cluster of suburbs in search of a city, L.A. boasts an impressive downtown with contrasting neighborhoods like South Park, Bunker Hill, the Historic Core and the Jewelry, Fashion and Financial districts.

An estimated 4,000 housing units have been created downtown since 1999, and 6,000 more should be completed in two years, said Carol Schatz, president and chief executive officer of the Central City Association and the Downtown Center Business Improvement District in Los Angeles.

"The future of downtown is looking fantastic. At 1.5 people per unit, that means 15,000 new downtown residents," Schatz said. "This used to be a 9-to-5 downtown. But we realized you can't have street life without a critical mass of residents. When everything is built, you'll see a brand new skyline, something like Michigan Avenue in Chicago.

"In the Historic Core are some of the most magnificent buildings in L.A.," Schatz added. "Some of the upper floors along Broadway may be converted to residential."

One of the old movie palaces, the 1926 Orpheum Theatre, is topped with 37 rental units, said Trudi Sandmeir, Broadway Initiative coordinator for the Los Angeles Conservancy.

The Orpheum, which showcased vaudeville performers Sally Rand, Judy Garland, George Burns and Jack Benny, has been restored. But the other 11, comprising the highest concentration of movie palaces in the world, have been converted into churches, clubs, stores and other uses.

"New residential should encourage what most Angelenos don't do walk around downtown," Sandmeir said.

Schatz credits an adaptive reuse ordinance passed by the city in 1999 as one of the catalysts of redevelopment. "It helped to encourage developers to invest in empty buildings," she said. "The ordinance reduced the parking requirement for older buildings and made changes in fire and life safety codes, which were more stringent than those in New York and Chicago," partly because of the threat of earthquakes.

Another event in 1999 brought new life downtown. "Los Angeles was jump-started by the construction of the Staples Center," said basketball legend and former L.A. Lakers star Magic Johnson at the fall meeting of Urban Land Institute here.

Blocks of street-level parking lots surrounding the Staples Center are about to sprout a crop of new condo towers, and developers are predicting this will transform downtown into a 24-hour location.

Another new project will add to the score. Located north of Los Angeles Convention Center is the future site of L.A. Live, a 5 million-square-foot entertainment complex that will have a 7,100-seat theater for live entertainment, 14-screen movie theater, 50-story hotel, restaurants and shopping.

"It will be a regional draw as well as a convenient attraction for all the new downtown residents," Schatz said.

Jack Kyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., said the outlook is favorable for residential development of downtown. "We've rolled out to the edge and run out of developable land. Now we're coming back in. The best thing is that construction downtown will not be hampered by NIMBY (not in my backyard) protests" because few people currently live there.

But not everything will be easy. While South Park is a hot, new residential area, it's near skid row. "The homeless problem needs to be addressed," Cody said.

Other problems include the high cost of insurance. "Because of condo litigation in California, builders have to charge an extra $15,000 to $25,000 per unit," Cody said.

"With prices starting at $500 a square foot, downtown condos can be purchased for less than $500,000. With the freeways jammed, that's appealing to those who want to live close to work," said Douglas Hanson, a principal at DeStefano and Partners, a Chicago-based architectural firm that has designed residential high-rises in both cities.