DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Joseph Hellen may be 86, but the Australian businessman who has extensive Downtown Los Angeles property holdings has not slowed down.

Last week, Hellen’s company Downtown Management got final approvals for its $15 million conversion of the Chester Williams Building, its third apartment project to open in the Historic Core in two years. Leasing in the structure at 215 W. Fifth St. is underway.

Hellen isn’t resting on his laurels. Instead, he just announced plans for a new, 12-story apartment complex and parking garage on Spring Street. It would mark the first time that Hellen builds from the ground-up in Downtown instead of restoring an old property.

Downtown Management had long been planning to build a six-story parking structure on the 500 block of South Spring Street, between the Spring Arcade building and the Alexandria Hotel. The firm was nearing a groundbreaking when Hellen, who visits Los Angeles several times a year, changed his mind: Considering the surging demand for housing in the area, evidenced by the roughly 98% occupancy in the firm’s two apartment holdings (the Spring Arcade and Jewelry Trades edifices), he shifted the focus of the project. It will now include six or seven levels of residential above the parking structure, he said.

The revised proposal calls for one level of street-front retail sandwiched between two levels of underground parking and six floors of parking above, creating a total of about 500 spaces for cars. Six or seven levels of housing, with up to 90 apartments, would be on the upper floors.

“It made the most sense to do it this way,” Hellen said in a meeting this week in his Spring Street office.

Without the residential component, Hellen said the parking facility would have lost money, something he was prepared to stomach in exchange for filling what he believes is a void in the area. For his retail space holdings to be successful, he said, the area needs more spaces for cars. Now with the housing component, he said, the endeavor is poised to be in the black.

Hellen, who has financing in place for the project, said the development would break ground by summer 2013 and take 18 months to build, with one big caveat: “if we get no trouble from the city,” he said.

Downtown Management has previously locked horns with the city and preservationists for not strictly adhering to historic elements in some of their projects. Conservationists, for example, balked when Hellen covered the lower façade of the Spring Arcade Building in green marble tiles, which contrast with the original, ornate stone carvings on upper floors.

There could be similar concerns for the new garage/apartment plan. Although the design has not been finalized, project officials said the look will be decidedly modern — an early rendering depicted a glass-clad structure for the parking facility (see rendering at left). That could be in contrast to the prevailing, historic flavor of the Historic Core.

It is uncertain whether this will lead to a roadblock. Greg Martin, the vice president of Downtown Management, said the project is “by right” and does not require the typical signoffs from Building and Safety and the Planning Department. He also says the plans won’t require any special land-use rule exceptions or the approval of the City Council.

That could prove critical considering that 14th District Councilman José Huizar expressed tentative opposition to the original garage plan because it would have blocked rear loading access to Broadway’s Roxie, Cameo and Arcade theaters. Hellen owns those buildings, which operate as swap meets.

The theaters back up against a narrow alley. The new project would effectively seal off the rear of the venues, preventing equipment loading, thereby limiting the structures’ future viability for stage shows, Huizar has said.

Huizar, who declined to comment on the latest proposal since plans have not yet been formally filed, has long called for more parking in the area, saying the slots are chiefly needed for future entertainment patrons. Building a garage in a spot that restricts potential theater use is counter to that vision, he has said.

Hellen has clashed with Huizar in other ways. In late 2010, Hellen erected a large billboard on top of one of his Broadway buildings in support of Rudy Martinez. Martinez was running for City Council against Huizar.

A New Leaf

If Downtown Management has a reputation for not paying heed to historic preservation — a characterization that company officials say is unfair — the Chester Williams renovation may mark the turning of a new leaf.

The 1926 building is perhaps most distinctive for the decorative black and gold iron grille above the street-level storefronts. The intricate accessory was long covered by stucco and swap meet signage. When Downtown Management tore off the stucco in preparation for the renovation, they found that some sections were broken or missing and other parts were rusting in the basement, Martin said. It has since been restored and the final segment is due to be installed this week.

Inside the building’s Fifth Street entrance, which is below a distinctive overhang bearing a stenciled cutout of the property’s namesake developer, an ornate carved lobby ceiling has been carefully repainted. It is unclear how closely it resembles the original ceiling, but Downtown Management took cues from an architect who suggested that the colors (it was a matte white when the company bought the building in the late 1980s) should mirror the pink hues of the tile floor, Martin said.

Original marble found in the hallways of the former office building was also used in the renovated residential corridors.

“Every bit of historical fabric, we put into use,” Martin said.

The Chester Williams Building also reflects an evolving interior aesthetic for the company. Whereas the Jewelry Trades and Spring Arcade buildings maintained hard surfaces such as concrete floors and exposed brick, the 88 units in the Chester Williams eschew the typical loft look for more contemporary finishes. The dark-stained wood floors, marble countertops, dropped ceilings and high-end appliances are more South Park than Historic Core.

Rents are about $1.90-$2.40 per square foot, with most units renting for $2.10 per square foot per month. At that average, a 1,000-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment would go for $2,100, Martin said. Residences range from 800 to 1,500 square feet.

Pharmacy giant Walgreens is due to occupy the entire 13,908-square-foot ground-floor commercial space, although its timeline for opening is uncertain. The store received final building approvals from the city on Tuesday. The Walgreens would open across from a Rite-Aid in Hellen’s Jewelry Trades Building.

The Chester Williams, along with Downtown Management’s other adaptive reuse projects, may chip away at the firm’s reputation for ignoring preservation issues. Still, Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, has a lingering distaste over Hellen’s move to demolish two Spring Street structures — the Stationer’s Building and its annex — where they intend to build the new apartment/parking project.

But she also praised the firm’s investment in reviving three historic properties.

“These were buildings that sat forlorn for so many years, so we’re really thrilled to see them come back into use,” Dishman said.

The opening of the Chester Williams makes the intersection of Fifth Street and Broadway only the second Historic Core crossing where all four corners are occupied by residential buildings. The first such intersection, at Sixth and Spring streets, was marked in 2010 with the opening of SB Tower.

Contact Ryan Vaillancourt at ryan@downtownnews.com.