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Illustration courtesy Urban PartnersDan Rosenfeld, of Urban Partners, is one of the city’s leading developers. His firm spearheaded the Caltrans District 7 Headquarters, at First and Main, in downtown, and he is building the urban village that will spring up above and around the Wilshire-Vermont Red Line subway station late next year. He is also working with Pritzker Prize–winning architect Thom Mayne, who designed Caltrans, on an apartment tower to be annexed to the former HeraldExaminerbuilding, the 1914 Spanish Colonial Revival gem commissioned by William Randolph Hearst and designed by Julia Morgan, the architect of San Simeon.
Rosenfeld knows, perhaps as well as anyone in Los Angeles, where the city’s urban housing is headed. Under former governor Pete Wilson, he directed real estate operations for the state of California, and he did the same for Los Angeles when Richard Riordan was mayor. He believes Los Angeles will soon see the kinds of apartment towers that dominate New York City — big-bucks projects with brand-name architects like Santiago Calatrava, Charles Gwathmey, Daniel Libeskind and Richard Meier. While aesthetics and pricing may shape the marketplace, Rosenfeld says, ultimately schools are the magnet. The city might become increasingly attractive and the outskirts less navigable, but “as long as the urban schools don’t compete with schools in the suburbs, families will choose suburban living. If I were the mayor and could do one thing in my life, I would build a high-quality school in downtown, because I’m convinced that with all the momentum that’s happening in transportation and culture, a school downtown would cause everything else good to happen. The grocery stores, the subway system, everything else you want to expand would happen as a result.”
Rosenfeld sat down with the Weeklyrecently and discussed the future of the metropolis he is helping to build.
DANROSENFELD:An increasing scarcity of land, along with an increase in population and land values and construction costs, is pushing people into higher-density housing. We see this around the world. People live vertically — out of necessity. Cities — and this is increasingly true for Los Angeles — can’t accommodate the centrifugal sprawl without falling to pieces.
What draws people deeper into urban living is a fundamental human desire: People generally like to be around people. And for the generation or two that preceded us — who may have grown up in a slum in Newark or Chicago — the notion of coming to Los Angeles and owning an acre or a quarter of an acre with a lemon tree and a pool was very seductive. It was like paradise on Earth. But their children, who grew up in the suburbs, find those places boring and lonely. They miss social contact. They like the excitement, even the uncertainty — I wouldn’t quite call it danger but the grittiness and unexpected vibrancy — of urban living.
It comes down to something very, very basic: eye contact. Pick the person — whether it’s a gang member or someone from a completely different background — and when you make eye contact, it’s sort of like both of you saying, “I may never be your best friend, but we’re gonna coexist just fine in this place.” People want exactly that kind of experience and exchange. You can’t have that if you live in a bubble in Granada Hills. In fact, you’re more likely to demonize your fellow travelers than get along with them.
I think there has been a major paradigm shift. People are now coming back together. Not everybody, not every dentist with three kids in Tarzana. But when the three kids are gone, you know, he or she might think about moving downtown.
If you take a tour through a new apartment project, they’ll show you how easy it is to park and travel up through the elevator. They’ll probably walk past the fitness center, where you’ll see a few attractive hardbodies pumping away on the exercycles, then out to the pool, where those same hardbodies are relaxing. You’ll say, “This is who I want to be, and this is the lifestyle I want to buy into.” People go for the health club and the spa — things they rarely use but which seem to be seductively attractive when they’re choosing an apartment building.
Apartments are a bit like cars. Cars at some fundamental level are very similar, but superficially are very different and are differentiated very carefully by their manufacturers. You’ll see apartments differentiated in a similar kind of segmentation strategy. If you want, you can find the Cadillac in Westwood, the Buick in mid-Wilshire, the Honda and the Saab downtown, and the Ferrari — somewhere!
In Westwood, there is a great deal of stability in those high-rises. They are lavishly appointed, they have security and doormen, and for most of the people who rent in the Westwood high-rises, it is a step up and out from a home on the Westside that they no longer want to maintain. So you keep your location and your relationships, it’s very prestigious, and it’s very quiet at night — which is clearly a different demographic than at Wilshire and Vermont, where there’s something happening until the wee hours of the morning.