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04.05.2012
Feature> Reuse Renaissance
Downtown LA's retro-chic makeovers show how retail and restaurants can transform a neighborhood.
SO/DA's UMAMIcatessen transforms the first floor of a historic building on Broadway with salvaged woods, exposed metals, and dramatic lighting.
Scott Mayoral

In Downtown Los Angeles, everything old is new again. After more than a decade of redevelopment, spurred largely by the 1999 Adaptive Reuse Ordinance, which created thousands of new residential units by making it easier and cheaper to convert rundown offices into housing, the neighborhood is entering another phase of development. This time, the makeovers are focused on restaurants and retail.

According to the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, the community has more than doubled from about 18,000 residents prior to the ordinance to 46,400 in 2011. Likewise, since 2008 over 400 new restaurant and retail shops have opened in Downtown LA, with another 50 expected to open this year. With an abundance of largely intact historical buildings, architects and designers have paid homage to the past by restoring or re-creating many of classic features while adding a modern sensibility.

   
UMAMIcatessen brings activity to the street level, while the rest of the building's beautiful Art Deco facade remains untouches and intact (left). Ricki Kline's Las Perlas is not only inspired by vintage LA, but by the colors of Oaxaca, Mexico (center, right).
Scott Mayoral (left), Courtesy Ricki Kline (center, right)
 

The most anticipated retail project is the renovation of the legendary Clifton’s Cafeteria on South Broadway and 7th Street by Kelly Architects, who have also designed several restaurants and bars in the area including Seven Grand, Broadway Bar, Public School 612, and The Falls. The renovation, begun last summer, meant the restaurant was closed Mondays and Tuesdays, but it remained open the rest of the week. The second phase began in the fall with the full renovation expected to be completed in a year and a half.

Clifton’s multi-phased renovation will reinvent some of the themed environments that the cafeteria was originally famous for, such as the “Pacific Seas” and the “Redwood Forest,” with plans to invent more. According to owner Andrew Meieran, only 20 percent of the space was utilized prior to his purchase. Last month, the original Beaux Arts brick facade was revealed for the first time in more than 50 years, after being hidden behind aluminum grates. While many of the original windows were filled in with concrete blocks, Meieran and Kelly Architects plan to remove them once seismic upgrades are completed.

 
Kelly Architects' Broadway Bar sports elegant chandeliers and ornate prints that give it the feel of a 1940s supper club (left). Kelly Architects' Public School gastropub mixes old-school elements like white tile and classic stools with modern fixtures and accents (right).
Courtesy Kelly Architects
 

Besides refreshing classics like Clifton’s, the area has seen new restaurants settling into repositioned buildings, such as UMAMIcatessen, downtown design firm SO/DA’s multi-concept eatery and bar inside a 1929 art deco building next to the Orpheum Theatre on Broadway. The restaurant has been brought to life with hovering aluminum honeycomb panels, wall-mounted wine barrels, exposed ducts, and reclaimed-timber bar, tabletops, and siding. “People appreciate this kind of work so much more than generic spaces they see every day,” said SO/DA’s Derrick Flynn, of Downtown’s adaptive reuse resurgence, as he calls it. The firm is also working on a makeover of the Winston, a financial building-turned-apartment in the historic Old Bank District that will include a jazz club and a restaurant; and Kitchen Faire, a new cafe on 6th and Olive streets. Another new favorite nearby is the splendidly simple Bäco Mercat on Main Street, which transformed an ordinary cafe by reorganizing with more open space.

Word of change is spreading and attracting new investors. The owners of the Seattle-based Ace Hotel chain have announced they’re opening their latest boutique hotel in the United Artists building on South Broadway and 9th Street. The 13-story 1927 Spanish-Gothic styled building was originally designed by the firm Walker & Eisen and contains a 2,214-seat Spanish Gothic theater. The hotel proprietors, working with LA-based Killefer Flammang Architects, are rumored to be renovating the theater as well as the building.

The bones of old buildings may be solid, but opening businesses in historic buildings still presents myriad challenges to restaurant and retail owners.

“[Owners] need to have a special commitment to opening a place Downtown,” said designer Ricki Kline, who is responsible for early Downtown pioneer Cedd Moses’ empire of restaurants and bars in historic buildings, including Seven Grand, a former jewelry store-turned-deco-style whiskey bar; Cole’s, a restaurant that once served as the main terminal for the Pacific Electric railway; speakeasy-style Varnish; and tequila bar Las Perlas. “It’s very complex, time-consuming, and expensive. You have to want to be downtown as a personal aesthetic choice,” added Kline.

 
After removing its clunky aluminum screen, Kelly revealed Clifton's original red brick facade (left). Before the renovation, Clifton carried a non-descript aluminum facade (right).
Courtesy Kelly Architects
 

Adapting downtown’s ground-floor spaces to restaurant and retail uses requires that owners upgrade to modern building codes, including meeting ADA standards for accessible design. While owners often need to install new fire/life safety measures and upgraded power and plumbing systems, restaurants often face the additional challenges of adding expensive exhaust systems to ventilate their kitchens. According to Meieran, owners often meet with unexpected challenges as they begin renovations. “You don’t know what you’re going to find,” he said.

Architects and owners must also navigate a farrago of city departments for permits and approvals, often causing delays and cost overruns. According to Kelly Architects principal George Kelly, the Edison, a cavernous ode to early 20th-century industrialism in the sub-basement of the Higgins Building, required twenty different department clearances in order to open. “Any one of them could shut it down,” he said.

Yet some architects have noticed that the approval process is not as cumbersome as it once was. “The city has become more of a partner,” said Kline. “The faster they turn around [approvals], the faster they can collect taxes.”

In spite of the obstacles, new projects are announced with increasing frequency. Broadway specifically is experiencing an influx of new retail vendors. Long a destination for Latin American shoppers, the recession increased the number of ground-floor vacancies in the area that are now being snapped up. Jewelry designer Tarina Tarantino has announced plans to transform 908 South Broadway into the Sparkle Factory, a multi-floor, multi-use space that will not only serve as design headquarters for the eponymously named company but will also house an art gallery, production studio, and jewelry boutique. Meyer & Holler, who are also responsible for Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, originally designed the 1920 building.

 
Kline's Seven Grand features wood walls mounted with—why not?—stag heads.
Courtesy Ricki Kline
 

These projects, as well as several more in the vicinity such as the upcoming Two Boots Pizza and Figaro Bistro, may soon change the experience of Broadway’s streetscape, particularly at night when the street can feel sketchy. Figaro’s new space on South Broadway is the former Schaber Cafeteria, designed by Charles F. Plummer in 1928, but severely damaged in the 1992 riots. Interior designer Bertrand Genoist of Black Door Development plans to restore the original marquee, while designing an ode to classic 1930s French design inside.

And while the thoroughfare is often bustling during the day, it can be desolate at night. A plan to reintroduce the streetcar to Broadway would help activate the street and make it more pedestrian friendly at all hours. It’s a welcome change, according to LA Conservancy executive director Linda Dishman. “There wasn’t a lot going on after ‘Last Remaining Seats,’”said Dishman of the Conservancy’s summer movie program in historic theaters. “You could practically lie down in the middle of Broadway. There was no traffic or people there.”

According to Jessica Wethington McLean, executive director of Bringing Back Broadway, a public-private initiative to revitalize the street, there is still work to be done, particularly on the upper floors of these buildings. “Commercial use is critically important for the district,” said Wethington McLean. “Ground-floor retail is supported by the upper floors.” While local residents and visitors sustain many of these businesses, Wethington McLean believes the neighborhood still needs to attract office tenants to provide the “captive audience” these businesses require to thrive. Bringing Back Broadway offers incentives such as three years of tax exemption for new businesses and employer hiring credits that should help.

Change is happening Downtown, and the place is regaining some of its past glamour. However, the demise of the Community Redevelopment Agency, with its public investment incentives, may have dealt a blow to the area’s full recovery. With the economy recovering, albeit slowly, and demand mounting for the kind of singular experience offered by adaptive reuse projects, the resurrection of these gorgeous art deco, Beaux Arts and modernist buildings looks to continue. And the first places that new visitors will invariably go to form an impression will be these smartly transformed restaurants and retail.

Marissa Gluck

LA-based Marissa Gluck is a regular contributor to AN.