The New Italian Job
Larry (left) and Ralph Cimmarusti with a rendering of the Lucia Tower. The condominium project, named for their grandmother, would replace the Burger King at Grand and Cesar E. Chavez avenues that the brothers opened about a decade ago. Photo by Gary Leonard.

In the early 1900s, Ralph and Lucia Smaldino left Bari, Italy, and immigrated to the United States. The couple settled on North Broadway in the neighborhood that today is Chinatown, but then was the center of Italian life in Los Angeles. They were mainstays of the Italian community and worshipped at St. Peter's church across from Taylor Yard. In later years the Smaldinos and their children lived on College Street and nearby Solano Avenue.

Now, more than a century after the Smaldinos' arrival, two of their grandsons, Larry and Ralph Cimmarusti, are seeking to mark the family's memory. They're doing it in a big way, as they intend to erect a 31-story condominium complex about a mile from Ralph and Lucia's first home. The proposed Lucia Tower would rise at the corner of Grand and Cesar E. Chavez avenues.

While early in the planning stage, Larry Cimmarusti said the project, which would rise on the plot where a Burger King now stands, would hold 200 condominiums and 16,000 square feet of ground floor retail. The Cimmarustis are in the entitlement phase and have been meeting with City Councilman Ed Reyes, whose First District includes the site. If all goes according to plan, they would break ground next summer and open in 2009.

While this would mark their first major Downtown project, the Cimmarustis, still prominent in the Italian-American community, have relationships with some of the area's most powerful players. The Lucia Tower would be a short walk north of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, where the bell tower is named for the Cimmarustis. They worked with Cardinal Roger Mahony during the cathedral's evolution, and Larry and Ralph's parents are buried in the building's mausoleum, a rare honor.

"Our family sponsored the bell tower. That kind of gives you a little bit of the passion that we have for the revitalization of Downtown Los Angeles," said Larry Cimmarusti during a recent interview in the Burger King that he and his brother opened about a decade ago. The restaurant would be torn down, freeing up the 60,000-square-foot plot that is zoned for a high-rise.

"When you have a piece of property like this and it has the roots that we have, you can't help but get excited," Cimmarusti added. "Our grandparents came here in the 1900s knowing nothing and worked hard and raised good families, and to see us do this, this is exciting. This is really exciting."

Building Specs

Over the last three decades Larry, 58, and Ralph, 54, have built a fortune through several enterprises. They own 90 Burger Kings (58 of them in the Los Angeles area) as well as some Tony Roma's and Original Roadhouse Grill restaurants. Their L&R Construction arm, which would be the contractor on the Lucia Tower (the actual development firm is named Lucia Development), has built multiple large projects, including a shopping center in Woodland Hills with a Whole Foods. Another shopping center is now under construction in Lacey, Washington. They have done high-rise office buildings and some apartments, but this would be their first condominium tower, said Cimmarusti.

The brothers' various ventures employ 2,200 people. They recorded gross revenues of $115 million in 2005, said Cimmarusti.

Designs by Archeon Group show a soaring tower with 730,000 square feet of space. Street-fronting retail would occupy the ground floor (Cimmarusti said he would like to attract a high-end restaurant), while the second through fifth levels would hold 524 parking spaces. The 200 condominiums would be on the sixth through 31st floors. The one- to three-bedroom units would range from 900 to 2,400 square feet.

Cimmarusti said the construction price, issues of an affordable or workforce housing component and the amount the units would sell for have yet to be determined. However, there are several Downtown developments with similar specifications: In South Park the 19-story, 236-unit Evo, a new market-rate construction project by the South Group, is estimated at $80 million. In City West, the 228 units in the 1100 Wilshire project, a transformation by a trio of development firms of a 27-story tower originally designed as office space, will start at $459,000.

Christopher Pak, a principal of the Archeon Group, said one of the Lucia Tower's standout features would be the views. Residents whose units face north would be able to see Dodger Stadium, while those with southern exposure would be able to glimpse the plaza of the Cathedral and see the rest of Downtown.

Pak also pointed to the development's location at the head of Grand Avenue, a street undergoing tremendous change. Along with the Cathedral and the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the corridor will hold developer Related Cos. $2 billion mixed-use complex, which includes a skyscraper being designed by Frank Gehry.

The Lucia Tower would also boast a 30,000-square-foot podium on the sixth floor. The expansive outdoor area would hold a swimming pool, cabanas, vegetation and possibly a putting green, said Anthony Simos, another Archeon Group architect working on the project.

"It's going to modernize the area," predicted Simos.

Reyes, whose district is seeing a flurry of development, called the Lucia Tower an "exciting project" with "landmark potential." He said he is working with the Cimmarustis and will seek to make the project available to people of mixed incomes.

"I'm working with them to see how we can make it as accessible as possible without hurting its financial prowess, if you will," said Reyes. "I'd like to be able to see our police department personnel live there - our men and women in blue. I'd love to see fire department personnel. Our teachers; the people that make a community a community. So yes, if we can get to a point where we are stimulating new units that actually make the city work, I think it would be a win-win for everyone."

The Lucia Tower would rise in the center of several developing but vastly different neighborhoods. To the south, the Grand Avenue project is bringing an assemblage of high-rises, with retail and residential aspects. To the west, the second phase of developer Geoff Palmer's Orsini complex is under construction. The first of the 566 luxury apartments at Sunset and Figueroa are scheduled to open next May.

Meanwhile, nearly a dozen projects with a residential element are planned for Chinatown. Though not all are expected to make it to market, they are ushering in a change for the historic neighborhood. Pak said he hopes the Lucia Tower will link effectively to Chinatown.

"We want to make sure that the project reflects not so much the flavor of Chinatown, but that it pays respect and we do a quality project," said Pak.

Cimmarusti, meanwhile, notes that the arrival of the Lucia Tower would mean the end of one of his highest-performing restaurants. However, he described the opportunity as too good to pass up.

"It's been one of the best volume Burger Kings in Los Angeles. It's a great location," he said. "It's just like everything else, the value of the property became greater. This is 60,000 square feet of unrestricted high-rise with a little Burger King on the corner. So it makes sense to develop it."

Contact Jon Regardie at regardie@downtownnews.com.

page 1, 6/19/2006

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