DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Mike Alvidrez stood on the fifth-floor deck of the New Pershing Apartments on a cloudy Monday afternoon. The Rosslyn Hotel’s intricate stonework and massive heart-shaped rooftop sign loomed from across Main Street. In the distance was City Hall.

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“You can hardly hear all the street noise down there. Imagine coming here just to hang out on a sunny day, talk to neighbors, or just sit and read a book,” said Alvidrez, the executive director of Skid Row Housing Trust. “It looks like a condo deck out here.”

That comment was somewhat ironic, considering that rather than residences selling for more than $600 a square foot, the New Pershing contains 69 low-income apartments.

That’s not the only thing that sets SRHT’s $28 million development apart. It also marks the return of one of the Historic Core’s most gorgeous facades, a Victorian masterpiece complete with massive bay windows. The project turned two former separate residential hotels, with uneven floors and bad spacing, into a single five-story edifice. The renovation’s design came from Killefer Flammang Architects, which has worked on numerous market-rate adaptive reuse projects in the Historic Core. 

Move-ins began last month and SRHT expects full occupancy of the building at 108 E. Fifth St. in April. The inhabitants will initially be people formerly living on the streets, though over time there will be a transition and 15 residences will be occupied by non-homeless tenants who make up to 60% of the Area Median Income (which works out to about $34,200 for a single person, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development). The mixed-income model has been a success for SRHT in buildings such as its New Genesis Apartments, just across the street at 456 S. Main St., Alvidrez said.

The New Pershing residences are about 360 square feet and come furnished with kitchens with dark-colored cabinets, a dining table set, a bed and a dresser. The floors are blond wood laminate. Four units are split-level, with the kitchen/dining area and bathroom up top, and a sleeping section below. Large windows flood the rooms with natural light.

For Alvidrez, the project continues SRHT’s aim of giving people the chance to turn their life around by putting them in an attractive environment.

“There’s a better response in terms of recovery when you’re living in a beautiful building you can be proud of,” Alvidrez said.

Building Community

Like most new market-rate projects in Downtown, the New Pershing utilizes outdoor space for community building. There is a fourth-floor area with shiny red steel planters; residents will soon get to plant vegetables and fruits for the garden.

The fifth floor holds two decks that serve as general recreation areas and provide views of the Historic Core, the Civic Center and Little Tokyo. On the ground floor is a large courtyard anchored by a huge red brick wall that frames a bundle of young bamboo trees. A community room with a kitchen and lounge sits adjacent to the courtyard. 

Similar to other permanent supportive housing projects, the New Pershing has on-site space for case workers to help residents with medical, mental health and counseling needs.

SRHT has a long history with the former Pershing (built in 1889) and Roma (1905) hotels, as they were the first properties the company worked on after forming in 1989. That initial renovation joined the buildings, but was accomplished with very little money, Alvidrez said. The resulting layout was inefficient and unwieldy, filled with awkward staircases. Residents often spent time in their own corner of the structure without interacting much with neighbors.

SRHT aimed to raise enough money to build a new structure on the lot, and even considered erecting a tower. That was shot down by the (now-defunct) Community Redevelopment Agency.

“We’ve found that larger buildings work better in terms of our long-term financial impact, but the CRA said no,” Alvidrez said. “They wanted to preserve how the building appeared from the pedestrian point of view.”

Construction finally began in April 2013. It required gutting the building while leaving the facade intact. Massive steel support beams were shoved into the ground to keep the walls upright, and the new structure was built and essentially attached to the exterior. 

While the work on the Victorian frame was expensive, it was worth it to preserve a neighborhood “jewel,” Alvidrez said. It even impresses Killefer Flammang partner Wade Killefer, whose experience in the area goes back to designing the transformation of the first century-old buildings in Tom Gilmore’s Old Bank District.

“It’s very extravagant. People don’t build like this anymore,” Killefer said. “Beyond that, it’s functional now. You can see people coming in and out of the building. It has wide open corridors. People get to know each other and build community.” 

Blair Besten, executive director of the Historic Core Business Improvement District, praised the project for helping alleviate homelessness while fitting in with the neighborhood’s look and feel.

“Skid Row Housing Trust is a good operator, and my one hope is that they can recruit tenants from our area and Downtown, which has such a surplus of people who need housing,” Besten said. 

Alvidrez said the next task is filling the roughly 3,600 square feet of retail space on the ground floor. While SRHT is considering a variety of tenants, its goal is to raise enough money to fund a meeting center that can hold art and enrichment activities for the community, Alvidrez said. He imagines it as a place for poetry nights, pop-up galleries and civic discussions, with people who live in the building and their neighbors all coming together.

eddie@downtownnews.com

© Los Angeles Downtown News 2015