One of the first things Anthony Nguyen sees when he wakes up, and one of the last things he sees at night, is the harsh reality he tried 10 years to escape: L.A.’s knotted freeways.
Nine months ago, he was one of those drivers, creeping along the 110 Freeway. His law office was in Santa Monica. Courthouse downtown. The 15-mile drive between them sometimes took more than an hour.
Now, though, he is safely perched above it, instead of being stuck in it.
From his bedroom on the 24th floor of his new downtown luxury condominium, the rush-hour river of cars below is mesmerizing, glistening, like lava.
In February, Nguyen moved out of his four-bedroom house near Los Angeles International Airport and bought a one-bedroom, roughly 1,000-square-foot condominium in Metropolis, a $1 billion, 2.2 million-square-foot mixed-use complex that its developer says is the largest of its kind in the western United States. His bed and a black leather Eames lounger both face the floor-to-ceiling window, whose shade he keeps perpetually open.
With a little more than 1,000 luxury condos in three residential towers, a hotel in a fourth tower and 70,000 square feet of retail space spread over more than six acres, it’s certainly the biggest in Los Angeles.
“The renaissance of downtown is something that’s been talked about a lot, and I think that this project is a great example of how that renaissance is continuing,” said Ellen Riotto, executive director of the South Park Business Improvement District, which borders Metropolis on its southern side.
Built on land that was empty for decades, as it went through several false starts with developers, Metropolis is “game-changing, in some sense, because it adds just that more confidence into the downtown L.A. market, especially given the product that it offers, with luxury condos and also a boutique hotel,” said Brigham Yen, a broker and longtime downtown L.A. real estate blogger.
“What’s particularly relevant about Metropolis is that on the one hand, it’s the first of its scale downtown. On the other hand, it is clearly not the last,” said Nick Griffin, vice president of economic development with the Downtown Center Business Improvement District.
Until recently, people opted to live downtown because it was generally more affordable than other areas. Now, the location itself is the draw.
California, which has some of the nation’s most expensive housing markets, experienced a net population loss of about a million people from 2007 to 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Nearly 100,000 people relocated from Los Angeles from 2010 to 2017, according to U.S. Census figures compiled by 24/7 Wall Street. Still, the population of downtown Los Angeles is projected to triple in the next few decades.
Developers are getting ready, scooping up parking lots, warehouses and historic buildings and converting them to creative offices, condos, apartments and hotels.
Right behind it there are another almost 1,200 condo units under construction, as well as two other behemoth mixed-use projects. A few blocks south is Oceanwide Plaza — today a gaping skeleton, but tomorrow a $1 billion multi-tower cocktail of retail, residential and hotel space.
In this changing urban core, Metropolis, with its massive footprint and loaded name, stands out not just because it’s the biggest development of its kind, but the first.
“It’s at a scale that hasn’t been seen in downtown, and yet in some way it’s the harbinger of this next wave of growth,” Griffin said.
Sleek and glassy, Metropolis, designed by Gensler, is an early example of how one category of downtown’s next residents will live.
“It’s the first project that’s really out at the forefront, gauging everybody’s response to what downtown is eventually going to be like,” said Hana Cha, managing director of the Agency Development Group, which does marketing and sales for Metropolis.
The condos have Nest thermostats, Bosch appliances and custom cabinets. The tallest tower has 56 floors. Units range from 526 square feet for a studio to about 3,500 for a three-bedroom, two-story penthouse. Amenities include a rooftop “skypark” with fire pits, a putting green and a dog park with pup washing equipment — along with the requisite swimming pool (with cabanas) and yoga studio.
This lifestyle — urban, dense, walkable, short on square footage and big on amenities — is old news in other cities, where high-rise condos and apartments have been the way for decades. But it’s new for Los Angeles, where the bungalow reigned for the past century.
“We’re just now figuring out, ‘Wow, this is actually a much better way to live,’ ” Cha said.
Residents of Metropolis include transplants from within Los Angeles and its suburbs, foreign nationals and so-called global nomads — people who value “collecting experiences” such as travel over possessions, and who are used to high-rise living, she said.
Cha said studios start at $600,000. A penthouse is on the market for almost $5 million. Between the two, Nguyen paid about $1 million — or roughly $1,000 per square foot — for his one-bedroom.
“That’s no small feat for a place that once people thought was nothing more than a ghost town,” Yen said.
That’s exactly what Greenland USA , Metropolis’s Chinese developer, which has $7 billion in projects in the United States, from San Francisco to Brooklyn, hoped when it bought the long-empty property in 2014 for $150 million.
Gang Hu, Greenland USA’s chief executive, said in a statement to The Washington Post that the developer’s ambition was “to create a property that would revitalize this area of downtown; to create homes for families, restaurants and retail for gathering; and to become part of the intricate fabric of the invigorated urban core. One of our main goals was also to have a positive impact on the local economy. Metropolis is meeting the local need for more housing to support the city’s growing population interested in urban living.”
It has also created more than 10,000 jobs over the course of its construction, he said.
Nguyen says he loves ditching his car and strolling down “lively” sidewalks to Little Sister, where, he says, the duck egg with chili sauce and sesame vinaigrette is to die for.
“Lively” is not a word that used to be associated with downtown. Phrases of choice from local real estate and development professionals include “ghost town” and “sort of a wasteland.”
Parts still waver between wasteland and wonderland.
New buildings and redone old ones are sprinkled through the core. Broadway is bustling. Places stay open later.
But the past rubs shoulders with the shiny future. Around the corner from Hotel Indigo’s entrance in the Metropolis complex, a few homeless camps were recently set up in a highway underpass. About a mile away is Skid Row, and the city is grappling with a significant homelessness crisis.
Past development successes — LA Live, Grand Central Market, the Ace Hotel, the Nomad Hotel, many of which happened through the city’s adaptive reuse ordinance enacted in 1999 — gave confidence to the next round, and the next. “The growth is just building on itself,” Griffin said.
If this downtown rebirth had a “loading” bar, how far along would it be filled in? Griffin settled on around 25 percent, because so much of downtown remains “radically undeveloped.”
At a recent tour put on by Griffin’s business group, the bus flew by so many projects, the host had to hand out a cheat sheet.
About 9,000 housing units are in the pipeline, and another 35,000 units proposed, some in new buildings, some revamped old ones.
Toward the end of the tour, the bus passed a row of warehouses, a question mark lingering over them.
As downtown Los Angeles adds housing, planners are recognizing that one size doesn’t fit all. They’re looking at a mix of high-end and affordable, rent and own.
“We are in the middle of this crisis, and we’re going to build our way out of it,” said Riotto of the South Park business group.
“As a city, we’re looking into what it would look like to have micro units, have a more diverse sort of portfolio of available housing, especially in downtown,” she added, referring to Metropolis. “This project represents one way of living and one price point. But it’s not the model.”
Yen is an advocate for building more luxury housing of Metropolis’s caliber or higher — he cited the Ritz Carlton and projects in the Arts District, both downtown — even if that might seem counterintuitive at a time when prices are out of reach for many buyers.
“But the thing is,” he said, “when it comes to the way that downtown is going to succeed, I believe that more executive quality housing is needed in order to attract the companies and services and businesses that will ultimately benefit downtown L.A. in the long run.”
That’s how it will compete with the West Side, which has plenty of luxury stock, he added.
Riotto and others said that downtown is working, and should keep working, on its transportation infrastructure and carless options, especially as parking spots disappear.
“That’s where we feel some growing pains,” she said.
Downtown L.A. is behind other city centers in terms of its urban development, Griffin said, but there’s a benefit to that. Other cities are “fully fleshed out,” so there’s less room for innovation. Downtown is not a blank slate, but less defined.
“Downtown L.A. is really coming of age and hitting its stride at a moment when the re-urbanization of the country, of the world, is also really hitting a peak,” he said. “It has this really interesting opportunity to kind of be a leader in the next wave of urbanization.”