DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Over the past four decades, Downtown Los Angeles been built and rebuilt. Whether the office tower boom of the 1970s and ’80s or the housing rush of the last dozen years, construction of new landmarks has been a constant.
The structures have had different kinds of impacts on the Central City. Often, a property’s value extends beyond its concrete, steel and wooden bones.
Sometimes a building’s importance is chiefly architectural — the Walt Disney Concert Hall’s design, for instance, gave Downtown a new identity when it opened in 2003 (as well as a new place to film car commercials).
In other cases, the value lies in how a building influenced an industry or pushed a new paradigm. That came into play with Tom Gilmore’s trio of adaptive reuse housing projects in the Old Bank District.
These are the buildings, whether new structures or salvaged older edifices, that have made the biggest impact on Downtown since 1972.
City National Bank (aka ARCO Plaza)
In 1972, when the twin 52-story towers at Fifth and Figueroa streets known as ARCO Plaza were completed, the dark green granite skyscrapers marked the start of a wave of Downtown office construction. Developed by the Atlantic Richfield Company, the AC Martin-designed towers were suddenly the tallest structures in Los Angeles. (That ranking would not last long.) The ARCO Plaza buildings, which were the corporate headquarters of the oil company after it relocated from New York, were also briefly the tallest “twin towers” in the country — the World Trade Center in New York was completed months after the local landmark’s dedication. While the property experienced a downturn in the late 1980s under the stewardship of then-owner Shuwa Investment Corp., current landlord Thomas Properties restored it as a competitive Class A office site with a $125 million renovation after acquiring it in 2003. That also led to the project’s current name.
Wells Fargo Center (aka Crocker Center)
This pair of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed Bunker Hill buildings, known as the Crocker Center when they opened in 1983, continued the office architectural aesthetic toward sleek minimal towers with heavy use of glass. The project at 333-355 S. Grand Ave. was developed by Maguire Thomas Partners and contained 54- and 45-story buildings. It was one of the trophies of the new civic vision for a corporate center in place of the old residential Bunker Hill.
The centerpiece of Bunker Hill redevelopment, California Plaza took 10 years and $1.2 billion to complete. Anchored by two skyscrapers, One and Two Cal Plaza, which were finished in 1985 and 1992, respectively, the project redefined Grand Avenue, adding a hotel (currently the Omni), the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Colburn School. The 1.5-acre Watercourt, funded by a mandatory 1% development budget allotment for public art, blossomed into a key Downtown cultural destination thanks to Grand Performances. Technically, the project originally developed by Cadillac Fairview is not finished — it was entitled for a third tower at Fourth and Hill streets.
US Bank Tower (aka Library Tower)
Maguire Thomas Partners’ signature development, US Bank Tower is the tallest structure west of the Mississippi (even if that title is threatened by the planned new Wilshire Grand hotel). The skyscraper, which opened in 1989, has a lighthouse-like top that has come to be the defining feature on L.A.’s skyline. The building also played a key role in other developments: The city gave Maguire the rights to build the 72-story tower at 633 W. Fifth St., along with the neighboring Gas Company Tower, on the condition that it contribute $140 million toward a renovation and expansion of the Central Library. That’s why the tower was originally known, and is still referred to by many as Library Tower. The building also came with the Lawrence Halprin-designed Bunker Hill Steps, which connected Bunker Hill to the Financial District.
Gas Company Tower
Considered a sort of second phase to Library Tower, the Gas Company Tower was another skyline-altering project conceived during the 1980s office boom. Some likened its upper floors to a ship, sailing by the lighthouse of Library Tower. The building, however, was also known by some in the real estate world as a symbol that the boom was over. Gas Company Tower opened in 1991 amid a commercial real estate shake-out, as demand for corporate office space failed to keep pace with the new supply built by Maguire Thomas and others. It remains the headquarters of the Southern California Gas Company.
Ernst & Young Plaza, 777 Tower, FIGat7th (aka Citicorp Center)
The Citicorp Center was an important development in part because the two towers — the 41-story Ernst & Young Plaza and the 52-story 777 Tower — were designed around an outdoor shopping center. The mall at Seventh and Figueroa streets was anchored by the Bullock’s and May Co. department stores, which both eventually went out of business. The same plaza is now anchored by Target and is the shopping hub that Downtown boosters hope will be a lynchpin of local retail growth.
Ronald Reagan Building
Completed in 1990, the pink granite-clad Ronald Reagan State Office Building (later renamed the Ronald Reagan Building after some adopted the nickname Ronald Reagan SOB) marked perhaps the single biggest government-sponsored push to revitalize the Historic Core. While the fortress-like design of the structure prompted some critics to dub it Fort Ronnie, public officials hoped the infusion of thousands of state office workers would be a shot in the arm for nearby property owners and merchants. At the time, Spring Street was the fringe of Skid Row. The state spent $106 million to develop the complex and the CRA kicked in an additional $20 million for the acquisition of nearly the entire block bounded by Spring, Main, Third and Fourth streets.
Entertainment, Shopping and Hotels
The $375 million sports arena helped kick off the revitalization of Downtown by taking the Lakers out of Inglewood and moving them to the Central City. It also replaced a largely derelict patch of parking lots and budget motels with a commercial hub that would lay the groundwork for L.A. Live. Staples Center (which also houses the Clippers, Kings and Sparks) had its detractors, including then Ninth District Councilwoman Rita Walters (she actually voted against the project; her colleagues on the council approved it), but fears that the venue would harm area business were proven wrong. On the contrary, Staples was a key driver in investment in Downtown. It didn’t hurt that in their first season in Staples Center, the Lakers won a championship.
Downtown changed forever in 2008 when Anschutz Entertainment Group christened the second phase of the $2.5 billion L.A. Live (Nokia Theatre, which comprised the first phase, opened in 2007). Suddenly, Staples Center was conjoined with a sort of restaurant row that the masses packed before games and shows at Staples, Nokia Theatre, Club Nokia, the Lucky Strike bowling alley and the Grammy Museum. L.A. Live gave Downtown residents a crucial amenity in 2009 when it opened the area’s first full-scale movie house in the 14-screen Regal Cineplex. Then, in 2010, AEG completed the $900 million J.W. Marriott/Ritz-Carlton hotel and condo project. The tower reshaped the L.A. skyline and helped boost business at the slumping Convention Center.
Macy’s Plaza (aka MCI Center, aka Broadway Plaza)
In 1973, Seventh Street got a major development. Broadway Plaza (later MCI Center and now Macy’s Plaza) was also a sort of pioneer in mixed-use real estate. The complex never won fawning praise from architectural critics — it is often derided for its fortress-like, brick-clad design — but it nevertheless delivered significant space for Downtown shoppers, with a mall below an office tower and a separate hotel high-rise. The structure fills the entire block bounded by Seventh, Eighth, Hope and Flower streets.
Westin Bonaventure Hotel
The 1,354-room Westin Bonaventure opened in 1976, wowing some with its glass-encased vertical cylinders and exterior elevators, and confusing others with its difficult-to-navigate interior. The John Portman-designed 35-story hotel at 404 S. Figueroa St. would grow into a key lodging point for Los Angeles convention goers and for large business confabs. It remains the largest hotel, by room number, in the city.
Japanese Village Plaza
Built in 1977, Japanese Village Plaza helped Little Tokyo evolve into a commercial hub visited by tourists and Angelenos alike. The outdoor mall nestled between First and Second streets just west of Central Avenue gave the community a new destination, one that complemented the historic businesses that already lined First Street. More than 30 years later, Japanese Village Plaza is considered by many to be the heart of the neighborhood. However, the wooden fire tower at the First Street entrance to the mall was ravaged by termites and was later replaced by a metal replica.
The California Department of Transportation’s District 7 Headquarters was the subject of controversy before it opened, as Angelenos debated whether the building designed by Thom Mayne was visionary or an imposing monolith akin to the Star Wars “Death Star.” The $171 million project developed by Urban Partners houses 2,300 state and city workers. The 13-story edifice bounded by First, Second, Main and Los Angeles streets still ignites passions, though many people have come around to embrace (or at least accept) it. The structure was also the first contemporary development in the Civic Center to include significant public space. The building, which has also been praised for its environmental efficiencies, features a mini amphitheater off Main Street where people often eat lunch.
Police Administration Building
The $440 million headquarters for the Los Angeles Police Department raised eyebrows and drew criticism for its price tag. It also rankled some Civic Center residents who had hoped the city would build a park on the block bounded by First, Second, Spring and Main streets. But ultimately, the 500,000-square-foot headquarters that opened in 2009 proved a stately, modern new anchor for the Civic Center, while also providing ample public space. The lawn facing Second Street organically turned into an unofficial dog park. Perhaps most importantly, the building allowed the LAPD to leave the earthquake-damaged Parker Center. Glass walls on the east-facing façade also gave people a view into the edifice, making for a symbolic shift away from the department’s past penchant for fortress-like stations.
Walt Disney Concert Hall
No building gave Los Angeles more instant international recognition than architect Frank Gehry’s masterpiece at First Street and Grand Avenue. The $274 million Walt Disney Concert Hall also had one of the longest and most painful gestation periods of any project in the country, as it opened in 2003, 16 years after planning began. The home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic holds 2,265 seats, and the acoustics by Yasuhisa Toyota are recognized as among the best in the world. The fourth building in the L.A. County Music Center also holds the Los Angeles Master Chorale. The building is among L.A.’s most popular tourist destinations.
Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels
Along with Disney Hall and Staples Center, architect José Rafael Moneo’s cathedral was among the big projects that were drawing national buzz to Downtown in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The $195 million development spearheaded by Cardinal Roger Mahony holds approximately 3,000 people and is the center of Catholic life in Los Angeles County. When it opened in 2002 it also became a civic landmark. It now hosts community events such as the annual Downtown Dog Day Afternoon. The cathedral was important on another level: Mahony once considered moving the replacement for St. Vibiana’s outside Downtown. That would have cost the community one of its top architectural and tourist destinations, as the building at 555 W. Temple St. draws not just worshipers, but Downtown workers, residents and visitors who stroll its courtyard and gardens.
Like most former Broadway movie palaces, the 1926 Orpheum Theatre had faded over decades due to neglect. Then in 2003, before there was a politically backed campaign like Bringing Back Broadway to spur theater upgrades, owner Steve Needleman spent $3.5 million to restore the venue at 842 S. Broadway to its original glory. He installed new seats, air conditioning and lighting and polished the marble lobby, the bronze doors and the marquee. The following year, Needleman turned the former office space above the theater into 37 apartments. Big name music artists started to take the Orpheum stage, as did TV shows such as “American Idol” and “America’s Got Talent.” Needleman also set the stage for other theater owners to invest in renovations of their historic Broadway venues.
A quarter-mile long former rail depot gained new life in 2000 when the Southern California Institute of Architecture moved into Downtown, leaving a home in Marina Del Rey. The 1906 structure became a hive for 500 students and the school’s faculty and administrative offices. Classes were first held in a tent before the building at 960 E. Third St. opened in fall 2001. The activation of the 89,000-square-foot space was by far the most important project in the Arts District in decades. The $15 million development also led to the arrival of new restaurants, stores and housing projects. Today, developers are constructing a 438-unit apartment complex across the street from the school — no chance that happens without SCI-Arc.
Old Bank District
Many doubted Tom Gilmore when he announced plans to turn a trio of buildings not far from Skid Row into market-rate apartments. Making use of the then-new adaptive reuse ordinance, Gilmore and his business partner Jerri Perrone transformed the 70-unit San Fernando Building, which opened in fall 2000. It was followed the next year by the 104-apartment Hellman Building and the 56-unit Continental Building. The corner of Fourth and Main streets has since become the epicenter of street life in the Historic Core; the area now has restaurants, a convenience store, book stores, a DVD rental shop and much more. At $33 million and 230 units, the project that many feared would be an expensive flop instead demonstrated a sizeable market of people ready for urban living. In the wake of Gilmore’s success, developers flocked to the area.
Grand Central Square Apartments
Developer Ira Yellin’s gamble in 1995 on a mixed-use project, with affordable and market-rate residential units and office space above a restored Grand Central Market, didn’t necessarily hit the financial jackpot — the $64 million effort ultimately required a public bailout to avoid foreclosure. Still, Yellin’s Broadway vision was crucial because he was ahead of his time. He brought residents to the Historic Core years before Tom Gilmore embarked on the Old Bank District. It was a residential beachhead for Downtown.
Elleven, Luma and Evo
Today, South Park is known as a hot real estate area with pricey condos. But Portland developer South Group, headed by Homer Williams, realized the potential years before almost everyone else and began buying land and building housing. The $65 million Elleven opened at 11th Street and Grand Avenue in 2006, bringing 176 condominiums and an elegant steel and glass design. The next year the $80 million, 236-unit Luma debuted on the same block. The trio’s final piece, the $160 million Evo, arrived in late 2008, creating 311 residences. The opening of more than 700 total housing units on a single block transformed the neighborhood and led to significant investment from other residential developers, as well as restaurateurs and retailers.
The glass high-rise Watermarke Tower marked a key milestone in Downtown’s residential renaissance. First, the 35-story Meruelo Maddux-developed building at 705 W. Ninth St. became the tallest purely residential tower in Downtown when it opened in 2010 (Meruelo went bankrupt on the building, which was bought by Watermarke Properties). The tower commands the highest rental rates in the area. It also stands as evidence that high-rise residential development can pencil out, as developers are now working on two nearby steel and glass apartment towers.
Opened in 1980, Angelus Plaza was and remains the largest senior living complex in the country. The massive structure at 255 S. Hill St. won awards for its architecture, which made use of prefabricated units to create 1,100 residences for older adults. The campus has also come to be known for its annual senior talent show. It is a commanding presence on the Downtown skyline and helps the community maintain a diverse residential demographic.
Skid Row Housing Trust’s 89-unit Rainbow Apartments marked the nonprofit developer’s first ground-up permanent supportive housing project. Since then, permanent supportive housing, which combines apartments with onsite social services, has become the predominant model in housing for those just off the streets. Design-wise, the building at 643 S. San Pedro St. was like nothing Skid Row had ever seen, with asymmetrical red windows, an open-air courtyard, common rooms and outdoor corridors. Since then, SRHT and Maltzan have continued to push the affordable housing paradigm, notably with the New Carver Apartments, a circular structure that won architectural acclaim.
Toy Factory and Biscuit Company Lofts
In 2004, when residential growth in Downtown was mostly focused in the Historic Core, gutsy developer Linear City put $25 million into the Toy Factory Lofts, its renovation of a hulking 251,000-square-foot building on Industrial Street at the southern end of the Arts District. The project created 109 modern loft-style condominiums, and three years later Linear City continued the momentum across the street with the Biscuit Company Lofts, turning a 1925 former Nabisco plant into 105 condos. With two buildings, Linear City established a near critical mass of residents that inspired a concentration of small businesses in the live-work space, as well as the popular restaurant Church & State. Altogether, the projects turned a onetime industrial zone into a community.
Contact Ryan Vaillancourt at email@example.com.
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