By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 30, 2007
LOS ANGELES -- It's nighttime in downtown Los Angeles and the sidewalks are packed with pretty people out for the monthly Art Walk. Dressed in their skinny jeans, they're trolling the edgy little galleries, clutching their plastic cups of wine, sidestepping the panhandler wearing a garbage bag. Suddenly, a stylish young couple appears -- pushing a stroller. Bert Green, a gallery owner, points at the nuclear unit. "That's what I'm talking about," Green says. " It's happening."
A family in downtown Los Angeles. After dark. This is news.
Because until recently, most of downtown L.A. at night looked like the set for a zombie movie. It was either empty or scary. There are lifelong Angelenos who have never been downtown after sunset. Aside from a Lakers game or a night at the opera, large stretches were no-go zones. Downtown L.A. was where you went on trial, not on a date.
But now? Downtown is one of the hottest residential real estate markets on the West Coast, with a first wave of pioneering artistic types being smothered by a second, larger wave of 20- and 30-something trendsetters. Many are from the creative industries and Hollywood, snapping up 1,100-square-foot "Zen retreats" and one-bedroom "soft lofts" with communal rooftop party pools for $529,000, parking for the Prius included.
What happened? After decades of dashed real estate schemes and city-planner dreams, downtown Los Angeles is suddenly cool.
Just a few years ago, you couldn't get a pizza delivered downtown after 8 p.m. "You could buy drugs. But you couldn't buy milk," recalls Carl Ramsey, a painter who lived downtown until upward-spiraling rents pushed him and his studio a few miles west into the Salvadoran barrio.
Now there are chic restaurants and underground dance clubs with dress codes and guests lists. Downtown is an official destination for scenesters -- and almost every newbie to DT (that's what some bloggers call it) blurbs the same thing. "I can't believe I didn't know about this," said Nili Martin, a Web designer, as she sat with friends at Warung Cafe in the Old Bank District (formerly a half-abandoned slum), listening to the Pan-Asia house music while grazing on ahi tapas and sipping soju. Martin has lived 12 miles away for the past seven years: "I've never been downtown, but this is so much fun. It's like New York . . . almost."
Why are they here? The newcomers are drawn by the insidery buzz of the next cool place, by a desire for authenticity and a specific vibe -- arty, multiculti, a bit scruffy but not hairy. They want to be around their own kind -- employed college graduates -- but they want to live in a neighborhood with an edge. They want to feel as if they are discovering something. That they are unique. When asked, that's what the new downtowners say: They like how it feels.
"This is the story of people looking for the hip, the cool, the genuine," says Sharon Zukin, sociology professor at City University of New York and author of "Loft Living: Culture and Capital in Urban Change." "This is the flip side of the suburbs," with their bigger homes and better schools. "Here people are looking for something in the air, and there's almost a universal language of cultural signs -- a certain kind of bookstore, boutique, art gallery, coffee, design. The first good bottle of wine in the corner store."
These cool-hunters are zeroing in on the sudden appearance of specific social clues -- American Spirit cigarette butts, or black kale on the menu, or art graffiti (as opposed to gang tags) -- that signal the presence of like-minded urbanites.
"You know it when you see it," Zukin says.
Every city now has (or wants) a loft district. Whether they actually have artists and old warehouses to turn into studio lofts is irrelevant. Soft lofts are newly constructed "loft-like" condominiums designed with open floor plans, high ceilings and purposely distressed concrete floors.
It all began in New York, of course: Greenwich Village begat SoHo begat the Lower East Side, etc. But the cool neighborhood gold rush is now a nearly ubiquitous phenomenon: Wicker Park in Chicago, Pearl District in Portland, Fishtown in Philadelphia. Even the unlikeliest cities are getting in on the urban living trend, like Old Town in (seriously) Wichita and the East Village of . . . Des Moines. In Washington, transformations are underway (or complete) in Logan Circle, Penn Quarter and Mass Ave. The trend is global: Kreuzberg in Berlin and Fitzroy in Melbourne and Xujia Hui in Shanghai.
A giveaway: Watch for rebranding. You don't live south of Market Street in San Francisco; you live in Soma. Or LoDo in Denver. Or SoBe in Miami.
While downtown was relatively inexpensive a few years ago -- artists and galleries are drawn by cheap square footage -- it is now almost as pricey as any other well-established middle-class neighborhood in Los Angeles.
The downtown here harbors at least 16 micro-neighborhoods boxed by the freeways. There's a Little Tokyo, a Chinatown, the original Mexican pueblo. There are vibrant wholesale districts selling flowers, toys, produce, apparel, jewelry, fish. There are glass towers for office workers and the City Hall, the courts and the Staples Center ($400 million), the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels ($190 million) and Walt Disney Concert Hall ($274 million). During the day, downtown can be the busiest place in Los Angeles. About 400,000 workers punch the clock here from 9 to 5. Then -- poof -- they drive home. Or they used to.
Since 1999, when the city passed laws to encourage loft conversions from abandoned offices and warehouses, more than 9,300 residential units have been created in downtown, most of them in the past few years. In addition, 8,000 condos and apartments are under construction, and 8,500 more are on the drawing boards.
"You see change week to week, it's that fast. A new restaurant, new scaffolding round a building; it's just remarkable how fluid the streetscape," says Eric Richardson, a computer mapmaker who moved to downtown L.A. three years ago and founded BlogDowntown.com.
For years, these buildings and streets have served as backdrops for cop shows and car ads supposedly set in an ersatz New York. The historic core (the forgotten Wall Street of the West) harbors one of the largest collections of turn-of-the-century office buildings in the country. There are blocks and blocks of Beaux-Arts buildings that have spent the past 30 or 40 years empty above the ground floors.
"Wow, what's this?" says Josh Buxbaum, a former child actor ("Alf") and now a real estate broker specializing in downtown lofts, as he steers his Mercedes sedan on a quick tour of new properties. Buxbaum is pointing at a building called 655 Hope. "It's my job to know every conversion project, and this? This one is new to me. When did this start? Yesterday?"
"Comfortable, elegant, secluded, secure, yet just steps away from everything about the city that you expect, demand and delight in," reads 655's Web site. "The heart of downtown, L.A.'s most rapidly expanding real estate market, is pulsing with the excitement of a new city lifestyle."
Buxbaum is living that new city lifestyle. His live-work space is a converted warehouse down by the railroad tracks that allows him to drive the Benz into his loft -- like some kind of Batman, if Batman lived in an AIR building -- which stands for Artist in Residence, (versus Realtor in Residence).
Buxbaum's recent clients? A record label owner, a denim designer, a photographer.
"We love the grittiness," he says.
"They've been talking about downtown happening for 10 years. Now it has happened. There's no turning back. There's too much money to turn back now."
Whether downtown L.A. real estate weathers the slowdown, time will tell. But Buxbaum is correct about the money. On one end of downtown, by the Staples Center, there is the $2.5 billion L.A. Live entertainment and sports complex. On the other, by the Disney concert hall, there's the $2 billion Grand Avenue project of hotels, skyscrapers and condos. The original boom driven by conversions of old office buildings and warehouses is now driven by new construction of high-rises, with modern, meaningless names like Elleven, Luma and Evo, the latter boasting "couture living" and "impossibly modern architecture" straight from the pages of Dwell magazine.
Affordable housing is already an issue. A one-bedroom conversion in the old Pacific Electric building rents for $1,500 a month. Hidden behind a grungy storefront, a glass-walled 7,000-square-foot live-work space, complete with "makeup room" (used in video shoots by Diddy and Mary J. Blige) is selling for $2.3 million.
All this is remarkable because until recently, nobody lived downtown except on Skid Row, where about 13,000 drug-addicted, mentally ill or poor people crash in flophouses, homeless shelters and on the streets. Skid Row remains the supreme challenge for revitalization -- and the source of guilt and rancor as the two downtowns alternatively coexist or collide. The friction has increased as police have stepped up arrests for drug use and petty crime in an attempt to bring order to the wild open-air dope bazaars and homeless camps.
"People were absolutely shocked," Julie Swayze says, when she and her husband, Steve Bowie, opened Metropolis Books on Main Street this year. Swayze imitates their reaction: " 'It's a bookstore! On Main Street! On Skid Row!' And I said, yes, there is."
A friend who opened Old Bank DVD down the block inspired Swayze to take the chance. And business hasn't been bad, she says. "The neighborhood is very into nonfiction, very literary authors and classics. Every imaginable classic, I sell out of," Swayze says. "Also architecture and the history of L.A. is huge -- anything about revival, or ruins or specific architectural design, they buy."
Swayze welcomes the foot traffic that will come when an old theater next door is converted to a rock club and a corner lot is turned into a dinner cabaret, but she's a little worried about the upwardly mobile new downtowners, that the edge -- that feel -- will be lost as downtown becomes more affluent, safe and homogenized.
Says Carol Schatz, executive director of the Central City Association, quoting from the most recent demographic surveys: "The vast majority of residents moving downtown are between 25 and 35 years old, with sizable disposable incomes, making $100,000 or more a year. And they are moving here because they want a cool, hip, nontraditional living experience."
"Everything is catering to them," Swayze says of the middle-class newcomers. "Will downtown look like Rodeo Drive in 10 years? Or will it look like it did in the '50s and '60s, when it was mom-and-pop places and people came down here and enjoyed themselves? Nobody really knows where it's going," she says. "I think we want a little bit of both."
It is a fact that people who have lived downtown for just a couple of years are already talking with nostalgia about the old days. But it is also true that downtown L.A. has been so void of middle-class residents that the opening of a Ralphs supermarket in July (the first large grocery store here in 57 years) was hailed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who attended, as a "historical moment."
Pete White is founder of Los Angeles Community Action Network, which organizes tenants of residential hotels and defends the rights of Skid Row residents, some of whom live on the street below the soft lofts. He distinguishes between the "old downtowners" who started trickling into the neighborhood a decade ago and the more recent arrivals.
"The first wave of folks were, we felt, truly interested in figuring out how they could meld into the culture and character of the community," White says. Now, the mind-set is, "We've got the loot, we're here now, this is our community."
These transformations are not always pretty -- there are often winners and losers. And when it happens, says Zukin, the sociologist, it can happen fast. "This kind of development has a speed and a feeling of inevitability about it," she says. "Like you can't stop it." Which is both good and bad, depending on when you arrived. There is a life cycle to cool, a kind of evolution: From poor to edgy and arty, to funky to established. And in downtown L.A., it's moving from Skid Row to Banana Republic at warp speed.
Staff writer Sonya Geis contributed to this report.