"I think we’re one of the tallest buildings in the Arts District,” Ryan Afari said on a cloudy weekday afternoon.
Afari made the comment while standing on the rooftop deck of the Walnut Building. He pointed to the Toy and Biscuit Company lofts a few blocks away, the two structures that kicked off the Arts District residential boom more than a decade ago.
The Walnut Building is the latest project from developer the Hillcrest Company, which previously tackled Downtown endeavors including the Chapman Lofts in the Historic Core and the Commodore Building in City West. Like its Arts District neighbors, the Walnut is an aged commercial structure that has been turned into housing. The exterior has been fully restored, and the rooftop refashioned to provide a deck with a sweeping view.
The 98-year-old building at 691 Mill St. (though it fronts Seventh Street) has 57 live/work units. It opened in March, adding residential life to a stretch of Seventh that is fast becoming one of Downtown’s busiest investment zones.
The 100,000-square-foot structure originally opened in 1921 and was known as the California Walnut Growers Association Building. After the walnut business left, the building sat vacant for decades. Developer Paul Solomon acquired the edifice and in 2012 announced plans for a live/work conversion, but he ended up selling the property to Hillcrest the following year. The buyer was bullish on the community.
“We’re in Downtown every day. We see what’s going on,” said Afari, whose family owns and runs Hillcrest. “When we bought this, frankly, it was a cheap neighborhood. But we knew something was going on. There was talk of the Ford Factory Building selling, Atlas Capital purchased the Row. You could begin to see the dots being connected.”
Work on the transformation started in April 2017. Hillcrest did a full infrastructure overhaul, including a new HVAC system, installing new windows and updating the electrical system. Afari would not reveal the cost of the project.
While new elements were added, care was taken to preserve the original, unique design. The front of the building stands eight stories, with a rooftop deck, while the rear of the structure, along Mill Street, is four floors with a saw-toothed roof, giving residents on the top floor unique skylights.
“This building is a treasure. We didn’t want to mess with it,” Afari said.
The Walnut Building is 21% leased, with 12 of the units taken, according to Laura Silver of the Silver Group, which is handling the leasing. Rents average about $4.50 per square foot. An 875-square-foot loft goes for $3,930, while a 1,610-square-foot apartment with a slightly separated bedroom space is $5,250.
Afari said the Walnut Building is targeting people running start-up businesses and those who work on creative enterprises.
“One thing we’re noticing, and it’s telling of where the Arts District is going, is we’re getting a lot of interest from people on the Westside, from people who have primary residences in high-end residences,” Afari said. “People who are creative, they’re buying into the idea of Downtown as where the hub of the city is moving.”
The stretch of Seventh Street the building is on has seen a major turnaround in the years since Hillcrest’s purchase. Shorenstein Properties recently finished its overhaul of the Ford Factory Building to the east, with Warner Music Group relocating there in February. To the west, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles opened in 2017. In between, a number of restaurants and shops have arrived, including Guerilla Tacos, Everson Royce Bar and Commonwealth.
The Walnut Building’s commercial background is apparent throughout the structure. There is exposed brick and concrete pillars rising up in various points. Each loft has polished concrete floors and ceilings up to 15 feet in height. Residences come with an in-unit washer and dryer and Samsung appliances.
Bill Cooper, a Downtown residential broker and founder of the firm DTLA Loft Expert Group, said that the Walnut Building stands out from the recent wave of projects in the Arts District, which have mostly moved away from the live/work design. He said the new building fits into recent openings on Seventh Street.
“The Biscuit and Toy Lofts were their own community for a while; they were cut off,” Cooper said. “But if you look at all the stuff that’s come in since, like markets and restaurants and shops, it’s great for the Walnut Building’s residents.”
Miguel Vargas, executive director with the Arts District Business Improvement District, agreed that the area has recently been seeing more traditional apartments than live/work projects, but said there is still a market for that type of living, particularly as more creative industries and businesses move into the neighborhood.
Amenities in the Walnut Building are limited. There is a compact gym and a pair of conference rooms, plus a roof deck.
Instead, Hillcrest is seeking to make the property stand out by offering services. There is complimentary monthly housekeeping and car washing in the 90-stall garage, as well as dry cleaning services (done off site, but the clothes are picked up from and returned to residents). Afari said the building will host activations and pop-up events from nearby businesses, such as catered meals from area restaurants or marketplaces set up in the property’s lobby.
Cooper said that as more properties open, a development’s amenities can make it stand out. He thinks the Walnut Building’s focus on services and activations will be an advantage.
Hillcrest is also working on another loft project across the street, at 1800 E. Seventh St. That development, with 122 units, is still in the planning process.