Adaptive reuse rules are reshaping downtown LA

December 01, 2005 |

Since the Los Angeles City Council passed an adaptive reuse ordinance to revitalize its downtown in 1999, Los Angeles has seen its city core flourish, with hundreds of former commercial buildings transformed into condominium and mixed-use structures.

The city's Adaptive Reuse Ordinance did three things to encourage residents and businesses to move back downtown: It expedited the review process, especially for projects that include first-floor commercial (retail and office); it exempted conversion projects from restrictive or burdensome updates in planning codes relative to floor area ratios, height, yards, residential density, parking, and loading spaces; and it allowed developers to deduct new mezzanines from floor area ratios.

These changes have sparked massive reconstruction of long-dormant downtown buildings, and have driven up the price of lofts and condos substantially, with some units reaching $1 million. The number of people that live downtown is expected to double to 48,000 by 2015, according to the city.

This renaissance led the city council to approve an expansion of the ordinance in 2002, extending the incentives to the Chinatown, Lincoln Heights, Hollywood, and Koreatown neighborhoods, and Central Avenue between the Santa Monica Freeway and Vernon Avenue.

The measure became controversial when the City Planning Department attempted to amend the original ordinance. At issue was whether the incentives should be available for residential-to-residential projects (lease- or hotel-to-own). A compromise was eventually struck to prohibit residential-to-residential conversions in the expanded areas, but not in downtown.

Aside from bringing residents to downtown, the new rules have allowed architects and developers to discover artifacts of a lost city. When Darrell "Rocky" Rockefeller, AIA, principal with Rockefeller Architecture, was hired by Los Angeles developer Metropolitan Partners 5 to turn the five-story, 100,000-sf 1899 Douglas Building into lofts and condos, he was greeted by four feet of water in the basement. After having it bailed out with a battery of sump pumps, workers discovered a 30-foot-long steam engine that was used to heat the Douglas and the nearby historic Bradbury buildings.

"The place had been closed down for 30 years, except for the ground-floor shops," says Rockefeller. "We expected to find damage and disrepair. We just didn't expect to find the basement flooded from the natural springs underneath the city."

Some of the other surprises Rockefeller uncovered were the building's original Douglas fir floors and historic octagonal floor tiles that were buried under layers of linoleum. Rockefeller and his team turned the formerly flooded basement into a parking garage, using the old furnace flue (still caked with century-old coal soot) to run a new air duct to the roof to vent carbon monoxide.

Last July, the renamed Douglas Building Lofts came to market. Every one of its 50 condominium units, priced from $270,000 to $750,000, has been sold. The underground steam engine room remains intact and may eventually be converted into a small museum for residents. The owner is seeking restaurant and retail tenants for the bottom floor.

The building is a fitting example of the downtown redevelopment that's reshaping Los Angeles. Some of the other classic buildings that are being converted to condos and lofts include the 1925 Subway Terminal Building and the 1913 Hotel Stowell (renamed Hotel El Dorado).

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