The Other Side of Mark Geragos
Attorneys Mark Geragos (left) and Brian Kabateck have transformed the lobby of the Fine Arts Building on Seventh Street into an event and public art space. The two purchased the historic property last year for $23.5 million. Photo by Gary Leonard.

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Attorney Mark Geragos is famous for his roster of celebrity clients, his stints as a TV pundit and his loquacious style both in and out of the courtroom.

But the mustachioed lawyer has a lesser-known side: Downtown Los Angeles real estate investor.

In the past two years, Geragos and his investment partner, attorney Brian Kabateck, have purchased two historic Financial District buildings: The former fire station at 644 S. Figueroa St., known as Engine Co. No. 28, which houses both lawyers’ offices, and the Fine Arts Building, an 82-year-old architectural gem at 811 W. Seventh St. They have invested more than $30 million in the two buildings.

Now, Geragos and Kabateck are eyeing three other potential acquisitions in the area and hope to buy something by the end of the year. All three are historic properties that would house offices and require minimal renovation.

Geragos said he and Kabateck have an acquisition budget of $100 million.

“Rental investments that are historically significant, that’s what we like,” said Geragos. “I’m in the business of storytelling, and each of these buildings has a great story behind it, and it adds some character.”

He continued, “Every five years there’s always some story about, ‘Downtown’s about to take off. This is the first time in the last four or five years that I’ve actually believed it’s true, which is one of the reasons we bought the buildings.”

Trim and affable, Geragos, 51, has deep ties to Downtown. Five decades ago, his parents met at an Armenian youth event at the Historic Core’s Alexandria Hotel. He was born at Downtown’s St. Vincent Medical Center, attended Loyola Law School in City West, and has spent most of his 26-year career working in Downtown. He has had his own firm in Downtown, Geragos & Geragos (he is a partner with his father, Paul) since 1983.

During his career, Geragos has garnered significant success and has become one of the nation’s most well-known lawyers. At the same time, he has engendered occasional fury for representing media demons such as Michael Jackson, convicted murderer Scott Peterson and, currently, teen pop star Chris Brown, who allegedly battered his girlfriend, singer Rihanna, on Feb. 8.

Geragos also recently won a $38 million judgment against drug maker Pfizer for stealing trade secrets from a medical nonprofit. Additionally, he has taken on extensive pro bono work for the Armenian community.

“Whoever your latest client is, if you do cases that get some notoriety, people tend to either love you or hate you depending on that,” Geragos said with a shrug. “The great thing about this point in this career is, I can take the cases that interest me and not take cases that don’t.”

His ventures into Downtown real estate reflect a similar labor of love.

A Match Made in Downtown

The three-story, 1912 Engine Co. building, on Figueroa Street at Wilshire Boulevard, functioned as a working fire station until 1969. Abandoned after that, the property fell into disrepair until a trio of preservationists purchased it in 1983.

That team upgraded the structure, which today is best known as the home of the power lunch establishment Engine Co. No. 28. They sold the building to Geragos and Kabateck in March 2007 for $10 million.

“We just looked at each other and said, ‘Instead of paying rent, we should buy a building,’” Kabateck recalled.

Kabateck, 47, a partner in the firm Kabateck Brown Kellner, specializes in consumer lawsuits. His company has also handled highly publicized cases, including one that resulted in a $7.2 million judgment for entertainer Ed McMahon in a mold insurance suit, and another that garnered $20 million from XtraJet for secretly taping Geragos and Michael Jackson on a private jet.

Kabateck and Geragos met in the early 1980s. At the time Geragos, still in law school, worked as a party promoter and Kabateck was a DJ for rock radio station KROQ. They solidified their friendship in the late 1990s, when they collaborated on a class-action lawsuit on behalf of families of Armenian genocide victims.

Geragos and Kabateck were both familiar with the Engine Co. building and fans of its restaurant when the property came on the market. They had even discussed leasing the property with the prior owner, Geragos said.

“Then one thing led to another, and we were fortunate enough to buy it from him,” he said. “I’ve always loved the building. I love the location, right next to the Metro. And it’s walking distance to the Criminal Courts Building. It’s dynamite.”

Since taking over the Engine Co. building, Geragos and Kabateck have added three floors, which now house their two firms. During a recent walk-through of the edifice, Geragos enthusiastically pointed out original details including the wainscoting, ceiling and a brass fire pole that stretches through the offices of Geragos & Geragos and Kabateck Brown Kellner.

When it comes to handling day-to-day building operations, he said, “I’m the big-picture guy, and Brian is the operational guy.”

Or, as Kabateck puts it, “I tend to be more focused on the business, and Mark tends to be focused on the party.”

Party Space

On a recent evening, both Kabateck and Geragos played party host to dozens of guests in the cathedral-like lobby of the Fine Arts Building.

The event, a reception honoring the first legal fellowship dedicated to serving the Armenian-American community, was one of many that the attorneys have hosted since purchasing the 12-story, 1927 Romanesque Revival building for $23.5 million last May.

The Spanish Renaissance, courtyard-style lobby, decked out with original bronze statues by Burt Johnson and the nation’s largest installation of handcrafted Batchelder tiles, was a major selling point for the pair.

“Every time I walk in there I almost feel like I want to cross myself,” said Geragos.

Kabateck added, “This is the greatest party space we’ve ever had.”

Since buying the Fine Arts Building, Geragos and Kabateck have focused on activating the lobby. They have turned the display cases lining the walls into a showcase for local artists, putting up new works to coincide with the Downtown Art Walk on the second Thursday of each month. They have also hosted several political and charitable receptions there, including an event for the new Downtown Film Society’s monthly film series in January.

Geragos cites the surrounding neighborhood as a factor in their decision to buy the building and make it available to the community. The Fine Arts Building sits just west of Flower Street, on a portion of Seventh Street targeted by the Downtown Center Business Improvement District as a destination for new eateries. The effort has brought at least three new restaurants and bars in the past two years.

“This is where it’s really happening, if you ask me,” said Geragos. “One of the reasons we got the Fine Arts Building is that to me, it looks like it’s going to end up being on restaurant row. I figured we’d be on the ground floor of that, or at least on the elevator on the way out.”

In some ways, Geragos and Kabateck have brought the property full-circle by making it available it to the community. Renovated in 1983 by architect Brenda Levin, the building was “one of the early renovations Downtown, so it started the movement,” said Los Angeles Conservancy Executive Director Linda Dishman.

In the coming years, Geragos and Kabateck plan to continue that movement.

They say they plan to invest in new properties at the pace of one per year, and would like to launch a boutique hotel in the area within five years. In the meantime, they are looking at putting together a coalition of lawyers to act as silent partners in their next acquisition, though no deal has been struck yet.

Whatever happens, Geragos said, “I think we’re in it for the long haul.”

Contact Anna Scott at anna@downtownnews.com.

page 1, 03/09/2009

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