DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - On a recent weekday morning inside the lobby of the Hotel Baltimore, Rusty Lugo slumped in an unforgiving chair and stared blankly out the window.
His view was of Fifth and Los Angeles streets, a busy gateway between Skid Row and the Historic Core. The intersection crawled with Toy District shoppers. Weary morning patrons of the King Eddy Saloon wandered in and out of the dark watering hole. A stream of people rushed to and from a nearby bus stop.
Lugo, who has rented rooms in several single-room occupancy hotels in the area, now lives at the Baltimore, a faded 102-year-old edifice that he described only as “livable.” Asked how the Baltimore compares to other cheap Skid Row hotels, he offered no distinction.
“Same,” he said. “Livable.”
By next year, however, the Baltimore may prove better than just livable. Last month, a group of investors led by developer Izek Shomof acquired the 265-unit complex as part of a $9.8 million deal that includes the 150-room King Edward Hotel and the Leland Hotel, which was built separately but later adjoined to the Baltimore.
The Israel-born Shomof may be best known for developing four buildings on the once gritty 600 block of South Spring Street — Premier Towers, Spring Tower Lofts, City Lofts and the Hotel Hayward. By offering inexpensive rents, he filled the retail spaces of those buildings with bars, cafes and shops. They played a key role in transforming the block into a thriving residential and commercial hub that helped spawn further growth in the Historic Core.
Shomof, 52, plans to apply the same formula to the Fifth Street hotels, while maintaining city-mandated affordability levels for the properties.
Already, Shomof’s management company has added security guards to the Baltimore and Kind Edward. Under the previous owners, who had been navigating Chapter 11 bankruptcy since 2010, the hotels staffed only a desk clerk. Soon, musty old carpets will be ripped up. Apartments, unpainted for years, will get fresh new coats. The Baltimore’s thick layers of seal gray paint will be removed to reveal the once stately property’s original façade. Plywood that has long covered derelict storefronts is already being removed.
“Our goal is to open them up and revive them, light up the street, put in nice storefronts and enhance the lifestyle of the residents,” Shomof said.
Renovations are expected to take about a year. Shomof said the cost of the upgrades are not clear because the plans are not yet final.
Lessons From the Hayward
In the early years, the King Edward and Baltimore hotels were destinations. The King Edward, built in 1906, was designed and developed by prominent Los Angeles architect John Parkinson (whose work includes City Hall and Union Station).
The Baltimore opened in 1910, soon after the hotel sold its former location at Seventh and Olive streets to the Los Angeles Athletic Club.
In recent decades, the hotels deteriorated. Along with an array of fixed-income residents who came simply for affordable rent, they attracted drug dealers and prostitutes. The criminal element is still present, but much of the residential population is comprised of peaceful retirees, said Baltimore resident Rodney Cortez.
“Many of these decent people didn’t plan for retirement, so Miami is out and they have had to settle for this,” Cortez said.
Shomof said he is intent on improving conditions and making life better for those residents. Upgrades to modern loft specs are out of the question — due to a 55-year moratorium on market rate conversions of residential hotels, the Baltimore, Edward and Leland must remain as affordable housing at least through 2063. Other city housing laws would forbid a renovation to, say, shrink the number of units to make them larger.
Affordable housing is not foreign territory for Shomof. Last year, he completed a renovation of the formerly blighted Bristol Hotel at 423 W. Eighth St. The building remains reserved for low-income tenants, and now includes a brightly lit D-Town Burger Bar restaurant in the ground-floor retail spot that had been long vacant.
“We’re not going to force anyone out of the Baltimore and King Edward,” Shomof said. “The only ones we’ll force out are the ones selling drugs. The criminal ones.”
Shomof faced the same task of rooting out nuisance tenants with his first affordable housing investment when he bought the Hotel Hayward in 2002. At the time it was a crime magnet, and he viewed its acquisition primarily as protection for his two market rate buildings. He added security cameras to crack down on drug dealing, brought in ground floor retail and focused on keeping the property clean.
“We’re going to do the same thing here,” he said of the Fifth Street buildings.
Today, anyone can walk freely into the lobby of the Baltimore and King Edward. Soon, residents will need a key card for access.
About the Bar
As the new owners set out to spruce up the block, they face a question that could burn hot in the gullets of dedicated barflies and cultural history devotees: What will happen to the King Eddy Saloon?
The pre-Prohibition bar, on the ground floor of the hotel at the northwest corner of Fifth and Los Angeles streets, is a breathing relic of the area’s history as a working class haunt. It’s a place where laborers came via rail in search of a day’s work, cheap lodging and a reliable nightcap, said Richard Schave, whose tour company Esotouric highlights the King Eddy when schooling visitors on old Downtown.
Charles Bukowski is known to have occupied a barstool at the King Eddy, decades after one of his literary heroes, John Fante, featured the saloon in his novel Ask the Dust.
When Shomof took over the Hayward, one of his first moves was to evict a ground floor liquor store that was attracting boozehounds, addicts and crime. At the Bristol, he plans to replace El Gaucho, a hostess bar that occupies a basement commercial space, when its lease expires later this year.
The King Eddy, Shomof said, doesn’t have a lease. If Shomof’s recent business model seems like a threat to the King Eddy, the developer said there is no plan to do away with the bar — as long as management partners in the effort to emphasize neighborhood security.
So far, the bar seems safe. King Eddy owner Dustin Croick said he supports any changes that would improve safety and bring more customers to the bar.
“I’ve taken this whole thing as a complete positive thing, a way to clean up the area ourselves,” Croick said. “I’ve been wanting to make some changes to the area as well, and I’ve kind of needed a fresh face and help to do that. I think I’ve got that now.”
Contact Ryan Vaillancourt at email@example.com.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2011