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Home Is Where the Concierge Is

Photo by Heidi Winsor

Hotel living has always seemed the pinnacle of urbanity and convenience. Room service. Beds made up every morning. A concierge and doorman just a phone call away. A high-rise view over the metropolis. A car waiting downstairs. But while a significant number of people still live in high-end hotels in New York City, and an even larger number live in single-room-occupancy hotels, or SROs, on Skid Rows everywhere, the midrange hotel for those who want to avoid — or can’t afford — the commitment of a mortgage had all but disappeared.

Until recently, when the Pegasus opened 322 sleek new loft-style apartments in the renovated historic shell of the long-abandoned Mobil Oil building downtown, around the corner from the grand old Central Library and across the street from the rave-y Standard — a hotel housed in what used to be corporate headquarters for Superior Oil. If the Standard proved the downtown market for hipness, the Pegasus, where monthly rents range from $1,200 to $6,000, proved the market for high-end, high-style "serviced" living quarters — a hybrid of hotel and apartment that includes concierge and cleaning service, as well as a business center and rooftop lap pool.

Now developer Brett Mosher and architect John Sofio are turning the downtown Holiday Inn into The Flat, its 200 rooms remodeled as efficiency apartments with hot plates, plus a heliport, barbershop, maid service, rooftop pool and spa, and a restaurant with a bar. Westwood developer Kam Hekmat is updating classic Westwood courtyard housing into a residential hotel for professors and students from UCLA. And in downtown West Hollywood, developer Avi Brosh is breaking ground for the Holloway-Olive, the prototype for what will be a chain of serviced and furnished condominiums and "extended-stay guest suites," all with concierge, maid service, restaurants and bars.

Brosh is at the very forefront of the changing housing market that’s providing a plethora of new real estate "products" to replace the single-family home. He’s garnered favorable notice in The Wall Street Journal and a dozen design magazines for building intriguingly different live/work loft-style condos and apartments with gardens and courtyards in the thick of downtowns — like Library Court in Old Pasadena and the Lofts at Melrose Place and Lofts at Laurel Court in West Hollywood, and, coming soon, a highly anticipated remodel of the big old Ostrich Farm on the arroyo in South Pasadena. But it’s the Holloway-Olive that has people talking most of all.

"It will be the Oakwood meets the W Hotel," says Brosh. "What the housing market needs is a little imagination. Housing needs to evolve to take into account changing lifestyles."

Both Sofio and Brosh are among those whose successful careers are based on paying close attention to the influences revamping American lifestyles and reviving interest in living downtown: the impossibly high cost of land and property; traffic; the Internet, laptops and cell phones; the globalization of markets and low-cost airfare.

As a result, people want living arrangements that make it possible to blend life, work and entertainment. And the "creative class" that best-selling author Richard Florida says gravitates toward cities (designers, buyers, P.A.s, assistant directors, actors, musicians, architects, lawyers, engineers) lives an itinerant "have job/will travel" lifestyle: L.A. today, Miami tomorrow, São Paulo Friday. Says Sofio, "These days the question is, ‘Where do we live?’ I was in Dallas last week and New York the week before — but I think I spent only 20 minutes in my apartment in New York, because I was in meetings and restaurants the entire time I was there. My life is my work is my life. There is no separation, no 9 to 5 anymore."

esidential hotels were commonplace at the turn of the century, offering, at one end of the spectrum, personal service, elegant dining and sociability, as well as privacy, all without the fuss of having to maintain a home and yard. At the other end, they offered inexpensive accommodations for people in transition, without family or means. In Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States, UC Berkeley architecture history professor Paul Groth quotes New York hotel keeper Simeon Ford, who amused a banquet of hotelkeepers at the time by remarking, "We have fine hotels for fine people, good hotels for good people, plain hotels for plain people and some bum hotels for bums."

But in the early 1900s, housing reformers sought to address the problems brought on by the increasing industrialization of cities and the overcrowding of workers in tenements, by razing the old city and then building anew, with a modern set of rules built upon the separation and specialization of uses. The rules, writes Groth, "promised each function an area by itself, uniformity within areas, less mixture of social classes, maximum privacy for each family, much lower density for many activities, buildings set back from the street and a permanently built order."

Federal rules supported those local zoning and building codes, finally making it difficult to insure, and therefore get loans for, downtown housing of any kind. As Groth explains, "Minimum Property Standards stated that ‘the [insured] property should be located in a neighborhood homogeneous in character,’ a neighborhood sure to avoid ‘inharmonious land uses’ . . . National underwriting manuals . . . gave low ratings to any residential property in a crowded neighborhood, one with racial mixtures or one with a mixture of ‘adverse influences,’ defined as stores, offices or rental units."

The moral fervor of the reformers, who sought to separate, privatize and sanitize the American way of living, as well as establish the primacy of the nuclear family and the residential neighborhoods in which they were to be properly housed, must have made them hard to defy. Groth quotes Edith Elmer Wood in her book Recent Trends in American Housing: "The only excuse for apartments is for celibates, childless couples and elderly people," she scolded. Added city- and suburban-homes builder E.R.L. Gould: Apartments should serve only as an intermediate stage between the "promiscuous and common life" of the existing city and the "dignified well-ordered life of the detached house."

The real estate industry was an eager partner in the zoning reforms, which in effect codified what has become known as suburban sprawl, and over the next few decades a frenzy of suburban home building ensued. Any housing left in downtowns by midcentury was soon leveled by misguided attempts at "urban renewal," literally draining downtowns of their lifeblood and creating the familiar checkerboard landscape of high-rise office buildings and asphalt parking lots that become ghost towns at 6 p.m.

But seismic changes in the demographics of this country are forcing the housing market to broaden the notion of "home" in cities everywhere: Single adults will soon be the new majority. Families consisting of breadwinner dads and stay-at-home moms — the nuclear family of yore — account for just one-tenth of all households. Married couples with kids — the demographic group that made up the vast majority not too long ago — now account for just 25 percent, a share expected to drop to 20 percent in five years. At the same time, the U.S. population continues to become more ethnically diverse, and there are more "empty nesters" and what the U.S. Census calls "nonfamily" households (unmarried couples and singles).

"Echo Boomers," who will account for more than a third of the U.S. population in 2010, epitomize the demographics and lifestyle that will soon dominate the housing market: 40 percent are nonwhite, they are tech-savvy and they like easy access to entertainment, and they’re very social. "They want to be where the action is . . . near coffee shops, clubs, restaurants, and shopping," Pamela Hamilton of the Centre City Development Corp. in San Diego told the Chicago Tribune in a recent housing story. "[T]his group is very social."

Edith Elmer Wood almost had it right. The single-family detached home had a good run as the embodiment of the American Dream, but it’s coming to an end. Even while suburban sprawl continues unabated at the city’s outer edges, the center of the city — of L.A.’s many cities — is contracting and densifying as people move back to the urban core: Last month, 9,000 people registered for the Central City Association’s tour of new housing downtown, where 122 development projects are under way.

As Groth concludes, the "unattached" — that is, anyone not a part of a family unit, that sacrosanct building block of the American real estate market — have been ill-served by planners and the real estate industry. But, he writes, public officials are finally coming to understand three basic realities: "that people are diverse; that diversity requires flexible approaches and multiple solutions to problems; and that diverse environments are essential for maintaining important social and cultural options. No one solution can work for all Americans. These ideas mark a major shift from professional attitudes of the past 100 years."


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