The Vanilla Villa: Orsini Apartments, Cesar Chavez Avenue & Figueroa Street, Downtown

The Vanilla Villa: Orsini Apartments, Cesar Chavez Avenue & Figueroa Street, Downtown
Wendy Gilmartin

Even before construction crews broke ground on the Orsini apartment complex back in 2001, its developers made themselves locally infamous for wriggling out of an inclusionary zoning provision that requires new residential apartment developments to contain at least 15 percent affordable units. (Attorneys on the developer's side argued the provision would cause "difficulties and hardships" by lowering the owners' cash flow.)

Flash forward 11 years later (and two additional phases and two enormous additional buildings later) and the Orsini apartments at Figueroa Street and Cesar Chavez Avenue downtown are currently more than 15 percent vacant. They also host one of the hottest parking garages in town for car break-ins and petty criminal activity.

Aside from its politically contentious past and crime riddled present, what makes the Orsini "apartment resort" a resoundingly mega-fugly architectural eyesore is simple: its atrocious siting, orientation and mass.

A trusted friend and urban designer recently ranted to L.A. Weekly about the development, "It's the worst thing they could've done to the neighborhood -- [developers] got as much floor area the city would allow and they maxed it out, and built a wall. A total disaster."

Situated between one of L.A.'s oldest downtown-adjacent residential communities and all of downtown's amenities, the loosely Tuscan-themed structure is bursting at its property lines like a bloated ocean liner. The Las Vegas-style pastiche and tacked-on Italian Villa™ decorations like the faux oil lamps at street level along its fortress walls, ironically, only exacerbate its charmlessness.

From Grand to Figueroa, the three Orsini structures form an eight-story crevice between downtown's core and Chinatown's north side, transforming Cesar Chavez Avenue into a canyon -- an unintentional urban phenomena that's not nearly as cool as it might sound. To Orsini's credit, the 101 freeway already cut off the neighborhood north of Cesar Chavez from downtown, but the criticism from planners and neighborhood folks alike comes from the fact that developers doubled down on that bad decision, and made the situation worse by partially blocking out the sun. Full disclosure: We're also still sore they bulldozed BBQ King to build the third of the Orsini megaliths.

The complex is on constant lockdown -- 12-foot-tall gates meet pedestrians at the street level -- and there are no public spaces, not even benches at the sidewalks. The sad, empty storefronts on the ground floor, which developers and investors once touted as potential beacons for commercial activity in the area, are ghosts of any imagined street life. It proves the tired new urbanist myth wrong once again -- just because you build commercial spaces, it doesn't mean the businesses are going to move in.

A decade after its inception this fugly architecture just keeps on fuggin' -- reminding all of L.A. just how hard it is (and will be) to reverse the affects of poor planning, brutal designing and miscalculated real estate development decisions.

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