Downtown's Arts District Is One of L.A.'s Hottest Neighborhoods. Thank (or Blame) Tyler Stonebreaker 

Thursday, May 2 2013

The corner of Mateo and Willow streets in the downtown Arts District can feel like one of those architectural renderings of a perfect neighborhood. Couples sketch in notebooks, dogs snoozing at their feet. People wave in the streets as they pass one another on bikes. There's food — sometimes the Egg Slut truck, sometimes a taco stand — and even a pop-up farmers market once a week. Often, there is a line out the door as neighbors queue up for coffee.

This suddenly vibrant intersection is thanks to the presence of Handsome Coffee Roasters, which moved in a little more than a year ago.

How the Arts District Got Its Name

click to flip through (2) PHOTO BY NANETTE GONZALES - Handsome Coffee Roasters on Mateo Street is part of Stonebreaker's quest to create the "Napa Valley of coffee" in downtown L.A.
  • Handsome Coffee Roasters on Mateo Street is part of Stonebreaker's quest to create the "Napa Valley of coffee" in downtown L.A.

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After months of searching for the perfect space — one that would not only allow them to serve coffee drinks but also roast on-site — the founders put in a last-minute call to a real estate broker named Tyler Stonebreaker, who located this address in less than 24 hours, according to Handsome co-founder Tyler Wells.

"It was our dream space," Wells says. "Every single item on the list."

But as Handsome got settled, the founders realized that their role on the corner — surrounded by mostly windowless industrial buildings — was more than that of just tenants. "We wanted to help facilitate the walkability and true neighborhood feel of the Arts District," Wells says. "We all saw the potential, but we needed help from like-minded businesses that had the same vision."

Namely, the vision to connect the two Arts District pockets of development — up on Traction Avenue and down on Industrial Street and beyond — and make it into one continuous community.

They asked Stonebreaker to help them.

"It wasn't like we were looking for a neighborhood to wave our magic wand over," Stonebreaker says as he stands on Mateo. "Handsome essentially tasked us by saying, 'Help us make this neighborhood what we believe it could be.' We can't make a neighborhood, unilaterally — we're not making decisions, the community is making decisions — but we're thoughtfully guiding it down a path that we think is right for the neighborhood."

So, with Stonebreaker's guidance, the red-brick building across from Handsome soon will be Zinc Cafe, a new location of the Laguna Beach restaurant. Adjacent to Handsome is the Spirit Guild, a craft distillery.

Nearby, Stonebreaker helped bring to the neighborhood companies that make cold-pressed juice and reusable espresso cups. Eyewear designer Garrett Leight, son of the founders of eyeglass company Oliver Peoples, is moving in soon. Stonebreaker is working with fashion company Mattison to move it into a new space by Commune, the design firm working on the coming-soon L.A. branch of the hipster-friendly boutique Ace Hotel chain.

Perhaps as a sign of true solidarity, Creative Space — the firm Stonebreaker owns with partner Michael Smith — recently relocated from Hollywood to the Molino Street Lofts nearby.

Most of the news you hear coming out of the neighborhood lately is his work. Earlier this year, the announcement that Portland-based Stumptown Coffee Roasters was coming to the Arts District was dubbed a huge coup for the neighborhood. Of course, it was part of Stonebreaker's vision — to build the "Napa Valley of coffee."

Watching Stonebreaker survey the blocks, one word comes to mind — an overused, overhyped word: Is Stonebreaker a kind of neighborhood "curator"?

"I'm so tired of that word, too," Wells says. "But it fits. The neighborhood is a small melting pot with room for a lot of diversity, and Tyler has been great about courting tenants that are complementary."

"I'm careful about putting those types of terms around it," Stonebreaker says. "We are hyper-locally focused, asking people on the ground — those living and working in the neighborhood — what do they want?"

It would appear he's listening, too. One of the first things those people told Stonebreaker they wanted was a grocery store. He was on it.

Working with local residents, he located a former glass-manufacturing factory owned by Linear City developer Yuval Ben-Zemer, who also owns the Toy and Biscuit Lofts across the street. Urban Radish, a market focused on locally sourced, artisanal foods, is scheduled to open this month.

As with Handsome, Stonebreaker helped navigate the city's labyrinthine permitting process, expediting Urban Radish's completion. For this project, Stonebreaker is also a partner, in a way declaring his own personal investment in the "'hood."

"We're planting creeping fig with our hands," he says, describing the landscaping around the building. "But it's a living testament to a community — if it needs something enough, people will pitch in and make it happen."

Stonebreaker didn't always work on such feel-good projects. The 34-year-old grew up in Orange County, majored in business and civil engineering at USC, then worked for a real estate conglomerate and developer where he says he was responsible for "millions of square feet of thoughtless real estate."

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