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

Tyler Stonebreaker

PHOTO BY NANETTE GONZALESTyler Stonebreaker

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.

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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."

As the mortgage crisis began to surface, Stonebreaker left the corporate world without a plan, traveling for a year.

When he returned home, he was sitting at Urth Caffe in Santa Monica, listening to a few film-industry guys talk real estate, when he realized that he could specialize in putting creative industries in the right kind of work spaces.

Now it seems he's protecting the Arts District from the very same kinds of companies he once worked for. "All these entitled developers and investors think they can come in here and bring the neighborhood what they want, that they're going to 'clean it up,' " he says, rolling his eyes. But Stonebreaker says it's not as much an issue of gritty versus glitzy — or that other overused word, "gentrification" — but rather simply maintaining a good mix.

"We're very happy to keep things complicated," he says. "When you look at basic biology, a healthy ecosystem is when you have a lot of heterogeneity. Even we as a company don't want to be the only ones working here."

Stonebreaker also has experience maintaining the diversity of industrial districts. In San Francisco, his company is the real estate partner for SF Made, a nonprofit that hopes to lure manufacturing back to San Francisco's urban core — like when Heath Ceramics (a Stonebreaker client) moved part of its operations from Sausalito into San Francisco's Mission neighborhood.

Encouraged by SF Made's work, Stonebreaker approached the city of L.A. two years ago hoping to launch a similar effort, says Olga Garay-English, executive director of the city's Department of Cultural Affairs.

Partnering with Samuel Hoi, president of Otis College of Art & Design, which has published its influential report on the local creative industry since 2007, Garay-English and Stonebreaker launched the Creative Economy Convergence Task Force, recruiting more than 100 local leaders to participate.

"He's bringing very disparate voices together," says Garay-English. "Voices that are going to accomplish a lot more in making it a more attractive place for enterprise and creative investment."

If you walk south on Mateo from Handsome and turn west on Sixth, nearly all the buildings you'll pass belong to Matt Klein's family. His father, Howard, began purchasing seafood-processing plants in the neighborhood 30 years ago, converting some of them into lofts just as the first artist-in-residence ordinance was enacted in 1982, allowing the type of live/work studios that drew artists to the neighborhood.

In addition to many other properties in the area, the Kleins own the dapper compound of weathered brick buildings known as the Factory Place Arts Complex, home to live/work studios, production companies and a event space for Nike called Sixth and Mill. (Oh, and the Los Angeles Gun Club.) To this mix, Stonebreaker thought to add Touchstone, a climbing gym based in San Francisco.

"Tyler and his group have their finger on the pulse of where the Arts District is now, and a vision we share on where it's going," Klein says. "They are bringing the next generation of tenants to the area."

Those tenants might not necessarily be artists, acknowledges Estela Lopez, executive director of the Arts District Business Improvement District. "There is no question that the district is now far more integrated by non-artists, and that the artists have reason to be concerned," she says. One could argue that the evolution of the Arts District could include nontraditional artists with similar values — people who roast coffee for a living, for example, or some sustainable startups lured by the CleanTech Corridor, which overlays the area. She thinks Stonebreaker brings in clients who get it. "They understand that the fundamental spirit of the Arts District will not survive if it loses its connection to working artists."

Some of those working artists are leaving, however, thanks to the changing dynamic. Spencer Nikosey's company, KILLSPENCER, designs and manufactures backpacks from repurposed military tarps. In 2010, after a few months in Factory Place, he moved into nearby 440 Seaton, where his company grew to a staff of eight. Last month he signed a new lease — in Silver Lake.

"Things changed, especially within our building," he says. "I feel like a lot of bigger companies that have dollars to spend are coming to the Arts District to be edgy or cool, but that's what spoils the feel."

Nikosey's sentiments are shared by at least one other vacating Arts District resident. A sign recently wheat-pasted on an overpass just south of architecture school SCI-Arc read like a Dear John letter: "Oh Arts District, I'll miss you with my whole heart. We have shared some truly great times together, but people change. You've changed, and who am I to judge. So I'm moving on. Thanks."

What's perhaps the biggest real estate game changer in the area is out of the hands of both artists and agents: Beginning in 2015, the Sixth Street Bridge over the L.A. River will be replaced by a massive new viaduct. Although it will bring transformative, new public spaces, river access and parks, the project means three years of construction, plus the sacrifice of dozens of buildings.

Stonebreaker see this as a challenge in a neighborhood in which the demand already greatly exceeds the existing stock. "There's just not a lot of conventional space," he says.

Which means that he will have to be even more selective. "Most of the companies we work with have been recommended, so we're using a mix of criteria," he says. "Do we believe in this brand? Are they passionate about what they want to do?"

Back at Handsome, it's evident that the experiment has succeeded in transforming this formerly forgotten pocket of the Arts District. But can one coffee shop spark a community? Stonebreaker hopes so — he's firmly invested in its future.

"We know if this neighborhood is going to win, we're going to win."

See the rest of our Arts District package:

How the Arts District Got Its Name

Eating in the Arts Districts: Our Five Favorites

Six Developments That Will Change the Downtown Arts District's Future

Handsome Coffee Roasters on Mateo Street is part of Stonebreaker's quest to create the

PHOTO BY NANETTE GONZALESHandsome Coffee Roasters on Mateo Street is part of Stonebreaker's quest to create the "Napa Valley of coffee" in downtown L.A.