Skip to main content

The historic United Artists building has been transformed into the 182-room Ace Hotel which opened this year.Hadani Ditmars/The Globe and Mail

Some savvy Vancouver developers are riding high on the current wave of unprecedented change and growth in downtown Los Angeles (DTLA).

Since a 1999 ordinance allowed for the adaptive reuse of old office buildings, residential development has boomed, tripling the area's population to its current 53,000. In many ways it's a process that echoes the transformation of Vancouver's core into a residential hub 15 years ago.

Since the 2008 recession, DTLA has rebounded as Southern California's hottest property market. At the nexus of the historic Hollywood theatre quarter, established Latino businesses, the former skid row and a new hipster invasion of young urban professionals attracted by the area's edgy vibrancy, the changed fortunes of DTLA caused GQ magazine to proclaim: "America's next great city is inside L.A."

Alma – named by Bon Appétit last year as America's best new restaurant – occupies a former drug den, and the new Ace Hotel has moved into the old United Artists building, complete with a refurbishment of a theatre built by Hollywood pioneer Mary Pickford.

But Ms. Pickford is not the only Canadian to have done well in Hollywood. In addition to other international ventures including a new 50-storey Korean Airlines tower and a multitower Chinese development in the works called Metropolis, Vancouver developer Onni Group has four new projects that will figure prominently on the DTLA skyline.

And they're not alone. With Amacon, another Vancouver developer, recently winning approval for a new DTLA tower, it's no wonder a recent article in L.A.'s Curbed began with a tongue-in-cheek question: "Is L.A. the new Vancouver?"

"Vancouver is one of the cities in North America that has done downtown residential densification right. And L.A. can only benefit from that," says Carol Schatz, president and chief executive officer of L.A.'s Downtown Center Business Improvement District, a coalition of 450 property owners.

"We need more green space and we need more urbanization of the downtown core to become a truly international, forward-thinking city."

Chris Evans, executive vice-president of Onni, says Vancouver developers "have become particularly adept at producing mixed-use tower and podium developments with a green sensibility on small sites that help densify downtown cores."

Onni was the first Vancouver developer to significantly invest in DTLA after the recession.

"When we drove around L.A. in 2009," Mr. Evans says, " we saw an opportunity with all the vacant, undeveloped surface parking lots"– a situation reminiscent of Vancouver in the 1990s.

Onni's first acquisition in 2011 was the 1920s-era Coast Savings Building, which it refurbished into 12 floors of creative office space. Its adjoining parking lot is being transformed into 888 Olive St. where a single 32-storey tower and podium comprising 303 condo units and retail space at grade will be one of DTLA's first post-2008 high rises when it is completed in 2015.

Next Onni has proposed a podium-two-towers project at 1212 Flower St. – two blocks from the Staples Centre sports arena and the sprawling L.A. Live, a $2.5-billion (U.S.) project with theatres, bars, restaurants, and hotels that helped galvanize DTLA's revitalization.

And, subject to city approvals, Onni is planning another 50-storey tower and podium at 820 Olive St.

"Onni has been a real catalyst for growth in DTLA," says Andrew Tashjian, a senior associate at CBRE. Its refurbishment of the old Coast Savings building put it "at the forefront of creative office redevelopment in downtown" and "energized the surrounding neighbourhood."

The occupancy rate in the Coast Savings Building has soared to 99 per cent from 40 per cent, says Mr. Tashjian, noting that its new loft-like high ceilings and open conference rooms have attracted media, high-tech and fashion tenants such as ModCloth and Pacific Sunwear.

Since Onni bought the building, Mr. Tashjian observes there has been a rush of development activity with the new Ace Hotel, Acne fashion retailer, Urban Outfitters and two new multi-family developments opening within a two-block radius. "Onni led the pack."

In terms of Onni's new projects, the podium is almost more important than the tower, says Derrick Moore, principal of retail properties at Avison Young who secured the 2009 deal in the Brockman Building that saw Bottega Louie restaurant become one of DTLA's highest profile and most successful ground-floor tenants.

"Since the ground-floor retail space often becomes the identity of the building, attracting the right tenant is critically important." For the 12,000-square-feet of retail space at 888 Olive, he's had interest from "high-end restaurants, gourmet coffee operators and fashion retailers" – tenants that fit the new, young downtown residential demographic.

While commercial tenants need to jibe with the people who live in the towers, the interaction with the pedestrian realm is also key, he says. Whereas many buildings in the area have been traditionally walled off to street level, the new reality calls for a more "Vancouverist" engagement with pedestrians, Mr. Moore says.

He has high praise for Vancouver architect Chris Dikeakos, who has designed all the Onni projects as well as the new Amacon tower. "It's a nice integration of the street level with the building and engages passersby."

Mr. Evans notes that these are still early days for DTLA development, but he is optimistic about the evolution of the neighbourhood and the opportunities it offers, noting a new Whole Foods grocery store will soon open to cater to the growing downtown population.

He remains convinced that "over next few years downtown L.A. will be a dramatically different place."

Renaissance of DTLA at a glance

600+: New businesses opened since 2008

53,915: Residents (tripled since 18,700 in 1999); 75 per cent between 23-44 years old

5,000: Residential units currently under construction; 14,000 additional planned (approx)

1,292: Hotel rooms under construction; 1,688 additional planned

Catalytic projects

1999 – Staples Center

2002 – The Standard Hotel, The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels

2003 – Walt Disney Concert Hall; Metro Gold Line

2004 – Downtown Art Walk

2007 – Ralph's Fresh Fare; The Edison; L.A. Live

2008 – Church & State bistro

2009 – Bottega Louie restaurant

2011 – Gensler, architecture and design building

2012 – FIGat7th mall; Metro Expo Line; Grand Park; Alma Restaurant; CityTarget

2013 – Grand Central Market Repositioning; Urban Outfitters; Acne Studios

2014 – Ace Hotel

Mega-projects ahead

2014 – Marriott's Courtyard & Residence Inn; One Santa Fe

2015 – The Broad Museum; Whole Foods; Expo Line to Santa Monica; The Bloc

2016 – Metropolis

2017 – Wilshire Grand

2019 – Metro Regional Connector TBD – Farmers Field; Fig Central; Street Car; Grand Avenue Project

Source: Downtown Center Business Improvement District