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Upwardly Mobile

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 Herald Examiner building, 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 Weekly recently and discussed the future of the metropolis he is helping to build.

L.A. WEEKLY: Everywhere you look, apartments are going up. What’s behind the boom?

DAN ROSENFELD: 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.

Still, if you can afford to buy a house, why sacrifice to live in what usually is a smaller space, crammed in cheek by jowl with your neighbors, in a building that might be in a dicey neighborhood?

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.

Do you think we are really poised to start living in the skyline?

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.

So what do those moving out of the burbs and into the apartments want?

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.

That’s the first-line sales pitch. What other psychological tripwires are there?

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!

So, what do renters in the Wilshire Corridor in Westwood want versus renters at Wilshire and Vermont, where you are building above the subway station?

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.

Wilshire and Vermont — you can’t find a more complicated neighborhood. It is black, white, brown, 65 percent Asian, high- and low-income — a lot of distress in the demographics. It’s an historic intersection. It was once very central, and it’s got just about every aspect of L.A. packed around that corner.

Now, if you’re a young Korean businessperson, there is no new housing — and really no first-class housing to speak of — between Park La Brea and downtown. There are a few older, beautiful buildings, like the Los Altos or the Gaylord. But if you’re in the fashion industry in Koreatown, and you’re in Asia a week, a month, and need to lock the door behind you, and have a very active lifestyle and don’t have a lot of gear, an apartment at Wilshire and Vermont can be very, very attractive. It doesn’t have to be big. It has to be high-tech, wired and crisp. It will also have to have a closet big enough for golf clubs, and it won’t hurt if there’s an indoor driving range. For that lifestyle, you are seeing in some buildings, even, lap pools replacing regular diving pools.

Do interiors matter? Things like doorknobs and faucets and dishwashers and refrigerators?

What people commonly debate is stainless versus black versus white appliances, which all seem to have hidden meanings.

Like?

Well, ask Dr. Freud about that one. I think it’s very subliminal. They don’t sell a lot of white cars anymore, so you wonder why people want white appliances. Black implies elegant, and stainless seems to go one step further, wherever beyond elegant is. But white? You’ve got me, but some people really want it.

That, of course, is no different from what you see in single-family homes. White washer and dryer, stainless refrigerator, restaurant stove.

Yes, and what’s happening in those bathrooms is also happening in apartment bathrooms. Is the sink part of a built-in counter or is it freestanding or wall-mounted? I think you could build a whole issue of L.A. Weekly around that question.

For instance, at the Standard Hotel, the shower is out in the middle of the room, a glass enclosure that invites voyeurism. That’s emblematic of the whole shift in body culture. Bathrooms used to be tiny afterthoughts, with almost embarrassing connotations. Now you see, in single-family houses, bathrooms and dressing areas and closets that sometimes overwhelm the rest of the house.

Huge.

And why not in apartments? Naturally, at the high end, they’re experimenting with things like countertops, using wild materials, straight out of the pages of Wallpaper and Metropolis. You see things like stainless-steel toilets —

Penitentiary model.

Yes, wild stuff.

What about your more average apartment, say, downtown, where some people have been migrating lately?

Downtown, people like space, and the less you spend finishing a unit the more attractive it is to the end user. They like to customize. And maybe they want their closet in the living room, and maybe they have a bed or sleeping arrangement that, you know, is their shtick. If we pick the window coverings and the cabinetry and the bathroom tiles, the more we design to our own taste, the more we risk excluding the unique taste of a potential renter.

So that apartment might be four walls and a door and a lock?

Often it is, although you need a bathroom and a kitchen. But a lot of the downtown lofts are literally that. They’re cubage. You sandblast back to the concrete and brick walls, provide the required plumbing and let the tenants have a free-for-all. People like the flexibility. So, here’s an interesting question: Does every shower need a bath? How often do you take a bath? A bathtub itself becomes a question mark. Do you want to pay for a bathtub and chew up that much space?

Does architecture fit into the equation? You’ve got Tom Mayne designing a tower that will be linked to the old Herald Examiner Building, on South Broadway below Olympic. That’s guaranteed to put bold design feet-first.

We’re looking for a building that works — and something more. The building has to function at every practical level. It has to be efficient, safe, durable, and absolutely satisfy every living requirement. Then it has to provide something more. That’s sort of an intangible element.

Now, by the “something more” you mean cachet, so that the person who lives in it knows they’re living in a Morphosis-designed building?

Yes. The Museum Tower over the Museum of Modern Art in New York is a Cesar Pelli, and it was marketed as a Pelli building. You can move into a Richard Meier. A Gwathmy. And so on.

But I think if you spend time in a Morphosis or a Meier or a Pelli building, you’ll begin to understand that these architects are exploring the meaning of urban living and the symbolism of architecture. In the case of Morphosis, it’s about the tensions of urban life, the tension between cost-effective materials and self-expression. The conclusion is that our city is not a neat, orderly, International-style set of boxes but is fundamentally a chaotic and, therefore, very vital place. You feel that in a Morphosis building. It is constantly challenging you to think about yourself and your place in the city fabric. And I hope others would like to live in that kind of an environment.

That apartment building will be 20 stories. Is it a harbinger of more high-rise living in high-priced architecture, like other big cities around the world?

We’re at a breakthrough point in Los Angeles. Up to this point, tall residential development, as it’s known in Vancouver and New York and Chicago — and more recently in Seattle, San Francisco and even San Diego — has not occurred here. Westwood and Marina del Rey were the exceptions. Other than those areas, there was sufficient land and opportunity to build wood-frame apartments, as high as five stories. The more expensive — and durable — concrete-and-steel towers didn’t pencil economically. We’re now just at the tipping point. You’ll soon see, in a number of neighborhoods, tall buildings. In Hollywood, and all over downtown, certainly, and anywhere else in the city where the market allows.

That’s the future?

Yes, that’s the future.