Mixing the Old With the New
Urban Pacific Builders CEO Scott Choppin in a unit at the Pan American Lofts. Move-ins for the condo conversion are scheduled to begin in late January. Photo by Gary Leonard.

The old Irvine Byrne building has witnessed a lot in 111 years. It has seen Downtown change from a frontier city to a glamorous haven of the Vaudeville stars, from a business hub to a new residential enclave. But, for the last few decades, it sat on the sidelines as just another faded office building.

Now, it's joining in on the action.

Long Beach-based developer Urban Pacific Builders has nearly completed a $20 million transformation of the mostly empty structure at Third Street and Broadway into 40 condominiums, renaming it the Pan American Lofts. Move-ins are scheduled to begin by late January.

The 115,000-square-foot project may not offer a pool and cabanas, a media room or a wine cellar like some other Downtown loft buildings, but it does have some burly bragging rights: It's the second oldest (former) office structure in Downtown, right behind the Bradbury building that sits across the street.

The location of Pan American Lofts is also a selling point. It is within walking distance of Cal Plaza, City Hall and what might soon be the Grand Avenue project on Bunker Hill. It is in the Historic Core and near the Financial District.

"What they say is that with a high-rise, you are selling the building, but with a mid-rise, you are selling the neighborhood, the location," said Scott Choppin, CEO of Urban Pacific. "We have an extra twist on that. We're selling the location but we also have this great, beautiful, irreproducible product."

Consulate and a Giant Penny

Back in 1895, the building, originally called the Irvine Byrne Block, was only the second office structure in the area and sat directly across from the old City Hall, said Guido Hamacher, vice president of Historic Consultants Inc., a company that guides clients through the financing of renovating historic buildings.

While the stores and companies that occupied the Irvine Byrne building are largely unknown, Hamacher said that it was home to the Mexican consulate during World War II. In the 1980s, a Giant Penny discount store moved into the ground floor and remained until 2004.

The building's upper levels, which circle an interior courtyard, were offices, complete with wood doors with gold lettering on the windows, and ceramic tile floors. The halls were used for filming and can be seen in dozens of movies and television shows, from Brad Pitt's Seven to a recent Asahi beer commercial, said Mick Armfield, a sales agent for Pan American.

Additionally, the building is notable for its Spanish Colonial architecture (although it is also labeled as a Beaux Arts structure), said Jay Platt of preservationist organization the Los Angeles Conservancy. It was the second project by Sumner Hunt, who went on to design such Los Angeles landmarks as the Doheny Mansion, the Wilshire Country Club and the Automobile Club on Jefferson Boulevard.

The structure's arched entryway and windows and its intricate terra cotta detailing are a testament to the style that Hunt soon spread all over Southern California, Platt added. Now, the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Making it Home

Urban Pacific bought the Pan American Building in 2004 after another developer had tried, unsuccessfully, to create lofts without changing the original layout. Urban Pacific hired Santa Monica-based architect Donald Barany for the redesign.

Molding the old architecture into livable lofts was an arduous process, said Barany, whose Downtown Los Angeles adaptive reuse efforts include Santee Court, the Blackstone Building, the Toy Factory Lofts and the Biscuit Company Lofts. The project needed structural upgrades including a new roof and a raised ceiling in the garage. The copper-door elevators, which the developer had hoped to keep, were in poor condition. Barany eventually built an entirely new elevator corridor.

One of the hardest parts, Barany said, was turning the rows of offices into chic, spacious units. On each floor the original hallway paralleled the interior courtyard and had offices on either side. In order to give all the units Downtown views and utilize as much space as possible, Barany had to move the hallways toward the center of the building.

Now, each unit has nearly floor-to-ceiling windows and a view of quintessential Downtown scenes like City Hall or the elaborate architecture of Broadway.

The units, which range from about 660 to 1,250 square feet, are true lofts, meaning they have high ceilings and almost no room divisions. Virtually every residence has at least one wall of exposed brick. The windows, some of which are arched, are set deep into the walls, providing wide, bench-like sills.

Ten fifth-floor penthouses have wrought-iron staircases that lead to a carpeted mezzanine bedroom area and then to the roof with a private deck.

"We tried to play off the urban context, mixing the old with the new," Choppin said while standing on the Pan American's roof and looking out toward City Hall. "Whereas the new is a little bit more cutting edge, the old is old and we love that. We tried to keep as much of that historic fabric in."

Choppin said that 26 of the units have been sold. Prices range from $365,000 to $775,000.

Big Write-Off

A reminder of the building's antiquity can be found in the dark redwood staircase just off the main lobby. It has elaborately carved detailing and a romantically curved railing that circles up through the floors.

"It wasn't a requirement that we keep that. It's more just a spirit that we're trying to maintain," Choppin said. "It's going to be creaky and noisy, but that's how an old wood staircase should be."

There is another advantage to preserving the older elements. Urban Pacific is working with the Conservancy on a so-called conservation easement, which will protect the building's historic character by giving the Conservancy the right to monitor and approve changes to the property's exterior. Because the government considers this a charitable contribution, Platt said, the condo owners will be eligible for an income tax deduction. Choppin said it would be for about $78,000 for each unit.

"The agreement is cutting edge," said Platt. "It's the first example of it being done in Los Angeles and one of the first in the country."

With 16 condos left to sell, Urban Pacific is hoping to reach capacity in January. Even though the market is showing signs of a slowdown, Choppin said there is a steady interest in the building.

The 6,400-square-foot ground floor retail space will keep an existing wedding chapel and apparel business and Choppin said that he is in talks with another business to lease the remaining space.

Urban Pacific has two other adaptive reuse projects in Downtown: the Security Building Lofts, which opened in 2005 near Spring and Fifth streets, and the Brockman Building, at Seventh Street and Grand Avenue, which is scheduled to debut in the middle of 2007 as condos. But the Pan American will be Urban Pacific's last Downtown purchase for a while, Choppin said, as the company shifts its focus to rentals.

However, the company does plan on coming back, he added.

"Downtown offered us a pretty unique opportunity to develop in a true Historic Core area… and we continue to be excited about the nature of this growth," Choppin said. "We are here for the long haul."

Contact Kathleen Nye Flynn at kathleen@downtownnews.com

page 1, 12/18/2006

© Los Angeles Downtown News. Reprinting items retrieved from the archives are for personal use only. They may not be reproduced or retransmitted without permission of the Los Angeles Downtown News. If you would like to re-distribute anything from the Los Angeles Downtown News Archives, please call our permissions department at (213) 481-1448.