A major development group settles into Downtown for the long haul
Depending on whom you ask, South Park is either the primarily low-rise neighborhood on the outskirts of Downtown development, a fabricated term for an area that has long been occupied by a random patchwork of industrial, commercial and residential spaces, or maybe just a gigantic construction pit. Much of that construction can be credited to the South Group, a joint venture between Oregon-based development firms Williams & Dame and Gerding Edlen, that sees the area as a slate on which to erect the foundation of a new community, as well as a new standard of development in Downtown Los Angeles.
South Group’s first completed project, Elleven, is already occupied, and will soon be joined by Luma and Evo, the next two residential high-rises in the proposed area of development. The fourth project, two luxury towers titled Jardin, is projected to be completed in 2009. What is interesting about the South Group’s method of development is that it is entirely based on building from the ground up. A principal of the firm, Jim Atkins, explains that the shape and layout of individual residential and commercial units, along with the elevator shafts, parking, etc., are the first aspects of building that the group focuses on. Once those elements are completed, “the interior of the building has largely defined what the shape is going to be … and you don’t get that opportunity with an adaptive reuse project,” says Atkins. South Group aims to design efficient individual units, dissecting the allotted area of construction in order to build practical livable spaces.
Aside from the desire to produce attractive home units, South Group’s effort to build from scratch makes it easier for them to produce structures that conform to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards (LEED). This means that materials from construction will be recycled, water usage minimized, natural lighting emphasized, and so on. This effort will probably be welcomed by Downtown residents, whose close proximity to industrial areas and heavy traffic makes their homesites some of the most polluted in the county.
In addition, all of the new buildings will be in close proximity to public transportation, and measures have been taken by the developers to make South Park more pedestrian-friendly, including fighting city design standards (which would have called for an extra lane of traffic) for more than a year in order to widen the sidewalk to make residents feel safer around Downtown traffic. This pedestrian focus has also led the South Group to include an array of street-level retail spaces to all of their buildings, many of which are already reserved.
The entire project seems hinged on the willingness of “early entry buyers” to purchase homes at market rate before the luxury services that such prices would imply are present in the area. It seems like a risky maneuver to limit the appeal of the structures to high-income buyers, but the South Group believes their niche will appreciate the still somewhat gritty nature of the area and that this will help determine the types of businesses that thrive there. Atkins himself now occupies one of the units at Elleven with his wife Amy, a sign that management is confident in its project. South Group’s design standards have also shaped the retail appeal of the buildings by minimizing parking facilities, a move that will probably serve to attract independent businesses rather than national or regional chains.
Atkins characterizes likely buyers, saying “they’ve bought into the long-term vision but they understand that the reality today is certainly different.” All four of South Group’s projects are aimed at this sort of buyer, because the stores and services are definitely not yet present (although a Starbucks now occupies a corner of Elleven), and none of the buildings have plans for low-income units. The first three buildings were not subsidized by the city government and therefore have no low-income requirements, and Jardin, the final project, will satisfy its requirements by other means, such as supporting transitional housing in the neighborhood. The group has also contributed $8 million to the YWCA, which plans on building a Job Corps housing and training facility at 11th, Olive, and Hill.
Other developers have now begun investing in South Park and will likely utilize their land to build similar market-rate residential and mixed-use structures. These may include a rumored development on the current site of the Grand Avenue Nightclub, as well as a project that will most likely incorporate the old Herald-Examiner building into its design.
Atkins explains that “the availability of space that would accommodate a new ground-up project was appealing” in the company’s decision to develop in South Park. It seems that other developers have been thinking along similar lines, and it is possible that in a few years the South Park skyline will be more even with that of the neighboring Downtown area to the north. And on the ground, South Group has a very specific sort of occupant in mind for both the residential and commercial spaces: individuals of an independent leaning who have faith in the future promise (as opposed to the present existence) of an interactive community with amenities that reflect the going prices. It should be interesting to see if other developments in the area will over time complement or combat that vision.