DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Downtown Los Angeles is filled with architectural gems. There are new buildings such as the Walt Disney Concert Hall and older structures including the Bradbury Building and City Hall. It’s not hard to find a tourist snapping a picture of a Central City masterpiece.
Yet for all the revival, restoration and repopulation of Downtown, some block-killing blight spots remain. Even as a number of older dilapidated buildings have been turned into housing, a host of properties, including several that would seem to be natural candidates for renovation, sit derelict.
In March 2010 Los Angeles Downtown News chronicled what then were considered the “10 Worst Eyesores in Downtown.” Nearly three years later, we’ve compiled an updated list, with several repeat offenders (properties mentioned in 2010 are denoted below with an *) and a batch of new arrivals. It’s not all permanent blight, however, as in several instances the dead buildings and boarded-up lots are on their way to enjoying brighter, more active futures.
The Blight Stuff
BROADWAY AND FOURTH STREET*
Location: 350-356 S. Broadway
Eyesore Factor: A pair of buildings on the northeast corner of Fourth Street and Broadway remain vacant and gutted, five years after they were ravaged by a fire. At least one of them had been designed by eminent Los Angeles architect John Parkinson. Property owner Eli Sasson of the Sassony Group has floated plans for a renovation that would entail demolishing the structures and replacing them with a retail complex. For now, however, they sit ugly and empty on an otherwise busy street.
What’s Next?: Sasson needs city approval to demolish the structures. Before that happens, the company is fine-tuning its plan for the site, said Barry Gross, Sasson’s attorney. Previous delays, Gross said, stemmed primarily from a lack of financing. But with credit now easier to attain, Gross said the company intends to submit plans and start the entitlement process next year.
COMMERCIAL EXCHANGE BUILDING*
Location: 416 W. Eighth St.
Eyesore Factor: Little if anything has changed in the last three years with this shuttered 13-story building at the southwest corner of Eighth and Olive streets. There were development plans once, but infighting among partners, and later the sour economy, thwarted them. Now the momentum from the Colori Kitchen and the Golden Gopher bar doesn’t continue on the south side of the street.
What’s Next?: Potentially, some progress. The structure designed by the prominent architectural duo Walker and Eisen was recently put up for sale for $13.9 million. Considering the recent flood of investment in the area for housing, the building would seem to be an obvious candidate for an adaptive reuse conversion.
Location: 403 W. Eighth St.
Eyesore Factor: Designed by Claud Beelman, the architect behind the Eastern Columbia Building, the 1929 Garfield Building is an Art Deco icon. But it’s a vacant icon. The 12-story former office structure at the northwest corner of Eighth and Hill streets has an ornate entrance awning with a sunburst pattern on its underside. Botach Properties, along with several partners, have owned the Garfield since 1991 and the building has sat empty the entire time. A $10 million plan to convert it into housing was scrapped because of budget issues, company partner Sammy Botach told Los Angeles Downtown News in 2010.
What’s Next?: The Garfield’s future is unclear. In 2010, Botach told Downtown News that the company was planning a $7 million renovation to turn the property into office space. Today, there is little evidence of a renovation. The entrance is blocked by a padlocked iron gate. Botach did not return requests for comment.
Location: 649 S. Olive St.
Eyesore Factor: Another repeat offender from 2010, Giannini Place hasn’t changed much. The city-designated Historic-Cultural Monument at the northwest corner of Seventh and Olive streets, which once served as the headquarters for the Bank of Italy, later to become Bank of America, remains boarded up and dead. The structure, located near a slew of recently opened restaurants along Seventh Street, is often scrawled with graffiti. A representative of property owner the Chetrit Group would not comment.
What’s Next?: In 2010, a company rep said that a plan for the property was in the works. Details and timeline information were not disclosed.
FIREHOUSE NO. 23
Location: 225 E. Fifth St.
Eyesore Factor: With its grand, arched front entrance, ornate ceilings and marble paneling, Fire Station 23 was once a civic gem. The nearly 100-year-old structure is a city Historic-Cultural Monument and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Yet, the former firehouse sits abandoned with an iron gate blocking the entrance.
What’s Next?: The building languishes in a sort of political purgatory. In 2009 the city started the process of selling the structure — there was even a developer who wanted to buy it and open a restaurant. However, the firehouse was one of several properties that, as part of a 1996 ballot measure approved by city voters, had to be used as a youth arts center. Despite the designation, the $2.3 million set aside by Proposition K for a transformation was far less than a full renovation would cost. The city Bureau of Engineering is now studying what it would cost to rehab the building. A report is slated for completion in January, at which time city officials will decide how to proceed, according to the City Attorney’s office.
Location: 301 W. Eighth St.
Eyesore Factor: At first glance the 1914 edifice on the northwest corner of Eighth Street and Broadway is reminiscent of a bygone era of architectural grandeur. However, the building with powerful columns that stretch over five floors has been mostly uninhabited since the mid-1960s and has attracted legions of taggers — the windows are currently scrawled with graffiti. The lack of upkeep has been magnified by the investment flooding Broadway. The blighted building shares an intersection with the carefully restored Chapman Lofts and is across the street from the L.A. Brewing Company.
What’s Next?: Property owner Mardik Oruncakciel, whose family purchased the property in the mid-1980s, said he has no plan to develop the vacant upper floors (a check cashing business and other small retailers operate on the ground level). Oruncakciel has considered converting the upper levels into housing, but for now such an investment “doesn’t pencil out,” he said.
Location: 708 N. Hill St.
Eyesore Factor: Once a steakhouse that promised gourmet fare for special occasions, the Velvet Turtle hasn’t seen a prime rib in decades. Instead, the shuttered restaurant at the Hill Street entrance from the Civic Center into Chinatown is an ugly low-rise with no signs of life. Its terra cotta roof tiles are in disrepair and the gutter is bent out of shape. The adjacent parking lot is blocked off by a chain link fence.
What’s Next?: The site belongs to the prominent Woo family, who own toy wholesaler Megatoys; they purchased it in 1996 for $1.1 million, according to property tax records. Co-owner Charlie Woo said he saw “tremendous potential” in the site, though plans to redevelop it were repeatedly thwarted by changes in the marketplace. Now, Woo said he is eyeing a 2013 groundbreaking on an up to $25 million project with apartments above commercial space. No plans have been filed with the city.
Road to Recovery, Maybe
CIVIC CENTER GRAFFITI PIT*
Location: First Street, between Broadway and Spring Street
Eyesore Factor: The former site of a state office building has been an unsightly blight in the heart of the Civic Center for decades. Known by some as the “graffiti pit” because of the spray paint scrawled over the remnants of the razed structure, the fenced-off land just west of City Hall has been home to encampments and is now the jurisdiction of a thriving feral cat colony.
Cautious Optimism?: This year, the state Department of General Services put the derelict site up for sale. Both the city and county of Los Angeles are in preliminary talks to purchase the land. Both municipalities have expressed interest in using the site as park space, potentially folding it into the adjacent Grand Park. The state is keeping the shrubbery mostly tamed, but the sidewalks along First and Spring streets and Broadway are usually ridden with trash.
Location: 851 S. Grand Ave.
Eyesore Factor: The Embassy is one of three Chetrit Group-owned properties that made the 2010 “Worst Eyesores” list. The eight-story, 1913 building north of the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising campus is a city-designated historic landmark, but it sits fenced off and in disrepair. Its turnaround has long generated a lot of talk, but little action.
Cautious Optimism?: Plans to transform the vacant South Park property into a 183-room hotel went before the Department of City Planning in August and the project is currently in the entitlement process. There is no solid timeline yet on when the hotel would open. Plans for the renamed Empire Hotel include a 7,600-square-foot outdoor garden and an approximately 2,000-square-foot ground-floor restaurant. The project would also upgrade the building’s approximately 12,000-square-foot theater.
FEDERAL COURTHOUSE SITE*
Location: First Street and Broadway
Eyesore Factor: The plot on the southwest corner of the intersection is a fenced-off, 3.6-acre hole. The federal government has long planned to build a new courthouse on the land, but budget constraints seemingly killed the project. In recent years the site has done nothing but collect small ponds of water when it rains and host occasional guerrilla art installations.
Cautious Optimism?: The feds have announced plans to spend $400 million on a 600,000-square-foot edifice with 24 courtrooms and 110 parking spots on the site. The General Services Administration is expected to announce the winner of a design competition for the project in the coming weeks. Completion is slated for spring 2016.
Location: 426 S. Hill St.
Eyesore Factor: The 11-story, long-vacant former hotel occupies a prominent place near Pershing Square and the residential projects Metro 417 and the Title Guarantee Lofts. The building is also part of the Chetrit Group’s portfolio; the company has controlled it since the late 1990s. Although the surrounding area bustles with foot traffic, the gray, ground-level space fronting the street is dead.
Cautious Optimism?: Officials working for the company say New York based hotelier King & Grove is finishing work and intends to reopen the long dormant building soon. Plans call for a 347-room hotel with three restaurants. It would also hold an 11,500-square-foot banquet space.
Eyesores No More
845 S. FIGUEROA
Location: 845 S. Figueroa St.
Update: This defunct office building wasn’t in the 2010 “Worst Eyesores” story, but it probably should have been. The long-vacant property had a black glass façade; it was largely untended and, although a short walk from bustling L.A. Live, the sidewalk in front of the building was dim and uninviting after dark. Property owner L&R Group acknowledged that the site had become blighted and last year embarked on a $5 million renovation. The company signed a long-term lease with Smart & Final to fill the ground floor and, last month, L&R reached a deal to sell the whole building to the State Bar of California. The legal group will occupy the entire edifice above the supermarket once the renovation is complete.
HALL OF JUSTICE*
Location: 210 W. Temple St.
Update: The 1925 landmark went dark after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake and early attempts at a renovation were halted. Now, however, the 14-story Civic Center edifice is undergoing a $231 million upgrade. Architecture firm AC Martin is working with Clark Construction to preserve the building’s design and create an underground 1,000-car garage on the north side of the property. The exterior of the granite structure is slated for a high-pressure wash. When the Hall of Justice opens in 2014 it will house the Sheriff’s Department, the District Attorney’s office and other county agencies.
L.A. CENTRAL PARKING LOT*
Location: Figueroa and 11th streets
Update: In 2009, a chain-link fence went up around a Figueroa Street parking lot owned by the Moinian Group, resulting in an odd dead zone across the street from Staples Center and L.A. Live. The fence was the result of a dispute between AEG, which sold the lot to Moinian, and the New York-based developer, which before the recession planned to create a giant mixed-use complex on the prime property. A 2010 settlement put an end to the spat, and AEG now regularly operates the lot. Although there are no plans to build anything anytime soon, at least the land is no longer fenced off.
Contact Ryan Vaillancourt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2012