Beyond the concept of buildings containing living space, housing embraces an idea of a community environment in which the streets of the city and the space between the housing become as important as the units themselves. This idea is particularly potent when exploring the neighborhoods that Downtown Los Angeles currently offers, and how the city government, developers, residents and others hope that the city will evolve into a community. Downtown housing ranges from new loft renovations, older condominiums and artist lofts to senior housing, shelters and people sleeping in boxes. The juxtaposition of neighborhoods and mix of people within the framework of housing in downtown creates a complex urban situation unlike any other in Los Angeles. The disparate communities within the confines of downtown also reveal that the notorious fragmentation of the megalopolis as it spreads across the Los Angeles Basin is not necessarily due to geographical distance. Overcoming this disconnectedness and creating a more cohesive community is at the heart of many plans for downtown. Many new housing projects pick up on this theme of developing community and reach beyond the building setbacks to create micro-neighborhoods, while other developments fill in smaller pieces within the transforming city.
Attention on new projects often overlooks long-term residents and residential districts of the downtown community. This may in part be due to the piecemeal way downtown is perceived, both from within and without, as distinct districts visited with a purpose rather than a collection of neighborhoods that one wanders between. The Arts District lofts, Little Tokyo, Chinatown, Bunker Hill high-rise apartments, Historic Core hotels and earlier loft conversions (such as the Canadian Building adjacent to the Old Bank District project), South Park low-income housing and even a few houses scattered in the Industrial District comprise an existing residential base, as of course does the more well-known Skid Row District. These areas are contained within what is termed Central City and Central City North, each approximately three square miles. The 2000 Census puts populations of the Central City and Central City North at 18,040 and 12,817, respectively. (The Census tracts for Central City North actually extend across the Los Angeles River to include Aliso Pico but the City Planning Department places the boundary at the Los Angeles River.) Whether these numbers accurately reflect the very-low income population is questionable, but these numbers indicate the density of the resident population, which continues to increase as more people move downtown.
The vagaries of boundaries displayed in the differences between the Census Bureau and the City reflect the difficulty in defining downtown and its neighborhoods. The policies, desires and perceptions of residents, developers and the City all determine how a specific area is represented. The Downtown Business Improvement District (BID) delimitation of the western downtown border at Bixel Street, beyond the 110 Freeway is a benign example of economic interest. Although the freeway cuts off neighborhoods traditionally associated with Downtown, the BID’s interest is to include the high-end Medici apartment complex and Los Angeles Center Studios, but by default this includes the low-income Dome Village project. With three city council districts (One, Nine and Fourteen), five Business Improvement Districts, the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), the Central City Association business group and the Los Angeles Conservancy working on visions for downtown, various community groups need to have a strong voice to ensure that residents’ needs are heard and acted upon.
The Los Angeles River Artists’ and Business Association (LARABA) has long represented the Arts District, which has somewhat malleable boundaries and may perhaps become part of adjacent Little Tokyo if CRA plans come through, although how this serves the neighborhoods is unclear1. The Arts District decided to join the newly created Historic Cultural Neighborhood Council (HCNC), a group that also comprises Chinatown, El Pueblo and Little Tokyo. Formed due to perceived differences in the goals of the relatively new Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council (DLANC), boundary disputes between the two, as well as city procedural requirements, have held up progress. A more established group, the Historic Downtown Community Association (HDCA), began as a virtual community via the newdowntown e-mail group as a way to exchange ideas, information and complaints; borders have more to do with resident participation than street demarcations. The HDCA has been successful in obtaining funding for a variety of improvement projects, including additional beds for the homeless at the Midnight Mission. All these groups represent and create a forum for downtown residents and portray an active downtown resident population willing to devote a great deal of time to improving downtown neighborhoods.
Housing and Developments
Housing in Downtown Los Angeles has undergone a tremendous redefinition with a number of new, mainly market-rate developments that fill-in and fill-out existing neighborhoods. The City’s adoption of the Adaptive Re-Use Ordinance in 1999 made it possible for older buildings to be more easily converted from office space to live/work space and opened up a new avenue for the renovation of the city. Developers taking advantage of the ordinance have concentrated on the Historic Core because of the availability of under-used and architecturally unique buildings in this district. Older buildings does not necessarily mean historic, however since the ordinance pertains to buildings “constructed in accordance with building and zoning codes in effect prior to July 1, 1974”. The ordinance also makes it possible for tenants to combine living and working space, thus the tendency towards “loft-style” projects. These provide a distinct counterpoint to previous Bunker Hill and South Park apartment towers, although these have also been successful in recent years.
The Old Bank District development by Tom Gilmore garnered a great deal of attention as it was the first project to test out the new ordinance. Although financing was more difficult to obtain, and the hurdles in being the first were tremendous, at least Gilmore was able to buy buildings cheaply. After lenders and everyone else sat back to see how the Old Bank District project would fare, Gilmore’s success has spawned about forty new projects and building costs for developers have more than quadrupled. Part of Gilmore’s success was his extremely friendly pet policy and the inclusion of parking. Even though the Adaptive Re-Use Ordinance allows developers to keep parking requirements at pre-1999 levels, it is accepted that adequate parking is necessary to attract residential tenants downtown. Gilmore’s project is a testament to his vision for a neighborhood in a neglected section of downtown: the 230 units in the Old Bank District are almost full and the corner of Fourth and Main Streets has the feel of a neighborhood. Although resident solidarity existed before Pete’s Restaurant, the coffee shop, yoga studio and markets, these elements enliven the streetscape and expand the community into the city.
Now that one development has proven the viability of creating new life downtown there will soon be a myriad of options for people who want to live there. Four projects have recently been completed, nineteen are under construction, eight have been permitted, seven are in plan check and fifteen more are searching for financing. These projects represent buildings that take advantage of the Adaptive Re-Use Ordinance (thirty-eight) as well as new construction (fifteen) and are mainly market-rate, with a smattering of affordable and mixed-income housing. Financing has become somewhat easier for newer projects downtown, especially as rentals go quickly and for-sale units sell out. Of approximately 1000 condominiums available downtown, only two are currently for sale. The Toy Warehouse Loft condominiums in the Arts District sold out within months and the Flower Street Lofts in South Park ($300,000 – one million) sold eighty-two of ninety-one units before the project even opened. According to local realtor Stephen May, there has always been a quick turnover of condominiums in the past decade, regardless of what outside perceptions may be, and prices have been rising in the past few years.
Marketers define the new projects as lofts, loft style apartments and traditional apartments, depending on the perceived client base, although this nomenclature is somewhat fluid. Stylistic differences between projects as well as amenities and the micro-neighborhood ultimately make living styles a personal choice, with economics further influencing decisions. Developments contain forty units to four hundred, depending on the size of the project and the number of buildings involved. Rents generally run from $1000/month at the low end of the market for a 500 square foot studio, to $2500/month for a 1300 square foot unit, with rents for some places as high as $4000-$6000 depending on the location of the unit in the building, views and other features. Life in Los Angeles (for market-rate tenant budgets) depends on having a car to such an extent that there is often a higher than one-to-one ratio of parking spaces to units and these are available either on or off-site, with various payment scales. The bottom floor of most developments offers retail and restaurant space that at the moment usually joins the neighborhood after the tenants. Pet policies vary as much as other features, but none so far can match the Old Bank District’s generous stance. Current advertising and a recent Saturday Downtown Housing Tour (jointly sponsored by the Downtown BID and the LA Conservancy) reveal a number of different housing conditions geared to shades of difference in the projected market. A brief look at a few projects provides a window into current trends:
Little Tokyo Lofts have wood floors instead of the requisite concrete and higher price units have the option of fireplaces. This project is remarkable for opening the interior central area of the original structure to create an outdoor courtyard for tenants. Little Tokyo Lofts also offers a swimming pool, barbecue and “rowdy” area adjacent to the complex, plus a bridge between parking and housing so that the resident does not have to encounter the street.
The Pegasus, on the high-end of recently opened projects, is a renovation of the General Petroleum Building, notable for its beautiful windows. Proclaimed a loft development, the low ceilings have the sensibility of more traditional apartments. On-site parking is $300/month on top of already high rents, with the option of a two block walk to cheaper off-site parking that was constructed for the original building. Cats are allowed if they are de-clawed.
The Higgins Building (“New York Lofts, LA Style”) has a unique rent-to-own scheme that could be an incentive to renters: fifty percent of rent paid, up to five percent of the purchase price, can be used as a down payment. Other features of this building include interior decorator assistance, roof top private areas for those who can afford it and a proposed nightclub in the basement.
Individual projects such as these gradually enrich the current housing stock downtown, as opposed to the kind of urban idealism required for creating micro-neighborhoods within a few blocks. The full-block Santee Court Development, composed of a number of buildings undergoing renovation along Los Angeles Street in the Fashion District, is another example along the lines of the Old Bank District. Rental units are offered in the first phase of the project and there will be for-sale units in the next stage, for a project total of 545 units. Plans for Santee Court focus on the alley running the length of the block: this holds the potential to create a retail/restaurant walkway that could diversify and enhance the already lively neighborhood and extend activity into the evening hours. A slightly different community ideal promotes instant neighborhoods on a large scale both in the number of units and city blocks. Communities such as the 1200 unit South Village, under construction above and adjacent to the heralded Ralph’s Grocery, the 800 unit Alexan Savoy on the edge of Little Tokyo or the 3000 unit housing project proposed to replace the football stadium in South Park, invest heavily in downtown’s future. Some projects are close to the Metro Line system, but the increased loads for projects of this scale will seriously impact downtown traffic unless more new residents can be induced to take advantage of the Downtown Dash and extensive bus systems, as well as the Metro Line.
The Arts District neighborhood, with relatively equivalent numbers, provides a counterpoint to the staggering developments planned in the South Park area. Originally illegal, artists’ live/work spaces were accorded legitimacy in 1981 with the Artist in Residence Ordinance and this mainly industrial area now holds approximately 1500 housing units. This district has developed over a number of years and new projects may benefit from looking at the qualities of this unplanned neighborhood and its variety of housing types. Residents have a strong sense of community, but many artists have recently left the district in search of more affordable housing. Restaurants, retail spaces and the peaceful quality of the neighborhood, combined with the appeal of artists’ studios, have all caused rents to increase. Joel Bloom, owner of Bloom’s General Store, has been working on a proposed craft overlay zone in this industrially zoned district to enable buildings to be converted more easily to artists spaces, but unless the city commits to some sort of affordable housing in this area, there might not be many arts and crafts people left.
There are exceptions to an idea of extending to the community, most notable in the fortress-like Medici and Orsini complexes. Built adjacent to the freeway in those interstitial spaces normally reserved for a few homeless encampments, these are purposefully insular units, promoting a luxurious, resort-style living. The Medici, which contains 632 units, has been extremely popular, probably due to its position near Bunker Hill and the Financial District. Although surprising, the recently opened/still under construction Orsini (297 units) which has nothing in the area except a walk of a few blocks to Chinatown, also appears to have tenants, so there is definitely something downtown for every taste.
Affordable Housing and Skid Row
One of the other surprises with the introduction of more market-rate housing downtown is the success of developments on the edge of Skid Row, where residents seem willing to pay premium prices for spaces adjacent to a homeless population of 3000 – 3500 people. Skid Row has come more into the limelight recently due to its proximity to new development projects and while some of this attention could be beneficial to those on the low end of the economic scale, it has also raised concerns about the direction of affordable housing downtown. Although historically this part of the city has been connected with single men on the lower tier of the economic scale, the demographics have shifted and families, women and children are becoming an increasing statistic of the approximately 11,000 very-low income individuals. The numbers downtown create a community situation unlike any other area of the city, especially because the Skid Row community and services are all contained within a small area. Officially bounded by Third, Seventh, Alameda and Main Streets, the effects of large numbers of homeless, residents of low-income housing and a concentration of social service and rehabilitation facilities is felt much further afield.
The current profile downtown reveals 8502 affordable units (of which 2640 are senior housing) and 6161 market-rate units, although this will change in the next few years if a majority of the planned developments come on the market. There are about three hundred affordable housing units under construction or in plan check, with another fifty possible. The numbers are paltry compared to market-rate projects, however, compared to other parts of Los Angeles the existing ratio is inverted and market-rate parity with affordable housing is considered necessary for downtown to become a viable community. Concerns that market-rate developments will actually displace some affordable housing could be addressed by the proposed “No Net Loss” program out of the Mayor’s office, which aims to maintain the number of affordable units downtown. Most people agree that affordable housing on the scale necessary for Los Angeles needs to be addressed by government rather than private interests. The Santee Court Development and Gilmore’s next project, the renovation of the Rowan Hotel take advantage of the State Low Income Housing Tax Credit; a program for rental housing projects that contain a minimum of twenty percent affordable units. The City does not have a similar program and developers need more incentives to commit to affordable housing, because at the moment it is not a good investment for them. The CRA’s latest attempt to address this issue, The Community Impact Report, does the opposite since it requires more work on the part of developers.
New residents and homeless advocates do not collide on the issue of affordable housing, but on the problems between rights of residents to be able to use the city and what are perceived as rights of homeless to block sidewalks, defecate in the streets and conduct illegal activities. The City has struggled with making public urination and sleeping on the sidewalks illegal, but even solutions such as public toilets have their problems. There is a general sentiment that it will be better for all residents, especially those on Skid Row, if services and affordable housing are more evenly spread throughout downtown, as well as the rest of the City and County. This is obviously contingent upon providing new affordable housing stock and support facilities, which could take years, plus there has already been a huge investment in new facilities downtown. The voter base downtown has partly created the current situation, and it is likely that as more middle to upper class voters come to live downtown that they, as well as developers, will agitate to see things change on Skid Row and the surrounding area.
As new housing attracts more people and increases traffic between neighborhoods, fragments of the downtown community slowly become woven together. The effects can be difficult to discern at the moment as the demographics of the streetscape, especially in the core of the city, have changed very little with the recent influx of people and projects. Distinct neighborhoods are part of the appeal of living downtown, but neither feeling like a tourist where one lives, nor creating a neighborhood that cannot accommodate a variety of people are solutions for a community.
Many people question the longevity of the current housing boom, which seems to be the key for downtown’s emergence as a vibrant city center, and estimate that it will years before downtown becomes the viable residential community that everyone envisages. Only time will tell whether the number of market-rate housing units under construction will be successful, but there is a demand for housing all over the region and prices downtown are equivalent to other areas up until the higher end of the market, which is probably the most dubious investment. Compared to other parts of the city, however, downtown has unique possibilities in terms of culture and environment and many residents choose to live there to avoid commuting. Hopefully this option will remain available to all workers and not simply the high-income households.
Downtown Los Angeles cannot be characterized as a suburb, as Amy Anderson suggests in Issue 3, but she accurately assesses the tremendous potential for downtown. To realize this potential, the City must commit to filling in the urban space between the new housing and micro-neighborhoods. Oftentimes film production makes downtown residents feel as if they are living in a studio backlot, but occasionally it has its advantages: sections of the city appear as residents would like to see them, with flower stalls and markets filling empty street corners. Walking from work to home to an evening out or to friends a few blocks away needs to be a more pleasant experience in more parts of downtown. There are not very many attractive routes from the Historic Core up to Bunker Hill and the Disney Concert Hall. The Grand Avenue Project needs to spread throughout downtown, and preferably for those people who could enjoy a pleasant promenade or park the most: the residents.
- The time and thoughts of a number of people helped in preparing this article:
- Amy Anderson, Hal Bastian, Patti Berman, Joel Bloom, Angie Brooks, Marie Condron, Tom Gilmore, Stephan May, Kent Smith, Ian Trivers and Mark Weinstein