Will Hyperloop Technologies Make Downtown L.A. a Silicon River?

Will Hyperloop Technologies Make Downtown L.A. a Silicon River?
Illustration by Noah Patrick Pfarr

A company aiming to whoosh people from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 30 minutes via pneumatic tube is being hush-hush about what's under way at its new digs in an Arts District warehouse next to the Los Angeles River. But there's little doubt that Hyperloop Technologies' arrival in the industrial district of warehouses, manufacturers, trucker cafes, foodie hangouts and artist lofts marks a shift in the downtown zeitgeist.

Tech companies including Google have settled on the Westside, creating the Silicon Beach coastal swath of El Segundo, Playa Vista, Venice and Santa Monica.

But some are bullish that the vast district along L.A.'s famed and maligned concrete flood control channel has the potential to be a Silicon River.

"Downtown is the new, gritty, cool place," says John Zanetos, senior vice president of CBRE Group Inc., which handled the lease for Hyperloop Technologies. For companies, he adds, "It's a lot cheaper than Santa Monica or Venice." But some fear that, as the Arts District attracts more tech firms, its artists will be priced out.

The Hyperloop, which was first envisioned by Tesla and SpaceX creator Elon Musk, would whisk people between the two distant California cities using supersonic, pressurized technology. If it ever came to be, Hyperloop could leave in the dust California's bullet train, which will require three-plus hours to make the same journey.

Nobody knows if it's even possible to build Hyperloop. A study group at Playa Vista involving UCLA and private investors, calling itself Hyperloop Transportation Technologies Inc., has been delving into that question. But now it has competition from the very similarly named company downtown, which is not part of the Westside group and not run by Elon Musk.

Former SpaceX engineer Brogan BamBrogan (who began life as Kevin Brogan) quietly opened the 6,500-square-foot facility at 2161 Sacramento St. in the Arts District several months ago. He expects to increase the firm's presence to 38,000 square feet within six months, according to Zanetos.

The colorful BamBrogan, a onetime sheet-metal engineer for the Dodge Ram, has $8.5 million in venture capital and is looking for nearly 10 times that, according to Forbes. Notable names on his board include co-chair (and Uber benefactor) Shervin Pishevar, ex-Obama campaign strategist Jim Messina, former PayPal executive David Sacks and X Prize Foundation chairman Peter Diamandis.

The firm is steeped in secrecy. Hyperloop Technologies operations manager Shelley Burkard barely cracked the door at the nondescript DTLA warehouse when a reporter knocked. 

"Let me check," Burkard said when asked if anyone could provide information. "We're being incognito." So much so that, soon after that exchange, a Hyperlooper emerged from the building with two padlocks — to secure the firm's dumpsters as L.A. Weekly looked on. Asked if he was making sure no one rifled through the trash for company information, the employee said, "Exactly." 

Burkard agreed to let the Weekly inside, but not more than three feet past the threshold, where two basketballs rested on the floor. The sleek office is dominated by dark carpet and two long desks with large computer monitors, a contrast to the building's early-20th-century brick façade painted the color of mud.

A Silicon Valley-based spokeswoman for Hyperloop Technologies said the company "is not doing anything on the record because we're in a building stage and won't be doing press until we build something."

An unnamed source close to Hyperloop recently told the Los Angeles Times that one reason the company chose the industrial area east of downtown is because many creative people call it home.

Next door to Hyperloop, Chris Berkson, the owner of Berksonfab custom architectural fabrication shop, certainly fits that bill. He moved from the Bay Area to apply his fine arts and architecture background to creating high-end wood and metal ornamentation, and found a good fit in the Art District's industry-meets-creatives scene.

"It's inevitable," Berkson says of technology firms making a stand in the area. "Businesses like (Hyperloop) are providing jobs. I'm not interested in high-end restaurants coming in." He believes the Arts District is going to boom with businesses attracted by "the visibility and notoriety of having such a firm in the neighborhood."

Gensler, the global design firm, moved from Santa Monica to a different slice of downtown in late 2011 thanks in part to a controversial $1 million city subsidy from funds meant for helping poor areas. It used the money to dramatically redo its new home, known as the Jewel Box. At the time, Gensler explained that its 230 employees faced financial and transportation burdens driving each day to Santa Monica, then often back inland to meet clients.

John Adams, co-managing director for Gensler's L.A. office, says something of an exodus from the Westside is under way among engineering- and design-oriented firms. He cited fashion houses Nasty Gal, now located in DTLA's PacMutual building, and Ella Moss, now in the stylish Alameda Square fashion hub.

"We have more access to talent in all directions now," Adams says of Gensler. "Before the move, we were limited to the talent in Santa Monica and Venice. The bigger thing is that more and more of our clients are downtown, and they can walk to our office now."

Patti Berman, president of the Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, and a cheerleader for reinventing the area, says, "This is where construction is taking place and is going to take place. I see tech firms coming here rather than Silicon Beach, because of the cost."

Across the street from Hyperloop, George Ainslie owns Broadway Knitting Mills, which for decades has made uniforms for USC and UCLA cheerleaders. Cheaper foreign competitors are hurting his bottom line. He acknowledges of Hyperloop, "We're kind of the dinosaurs and they're the future. I believe they are a welcome sight because I have no issue with cleaning up the area. It has to attract other business."

On the nearby corner of Santa Fe Avenue and Sacramento Street, at City Club, an older stucco bar and restaurant, Xochitl Chilin is general manager; her mother has owned it for 30 years. They're old-school, but Chilin says, "I think it's fantastic. This whole area is an arts district and it's good to have these people come in and bring something else to the table other than musicians, artists and truck drivers. Hopefully we'll get to try [the] Hyperloop [ride] out some day."

Yet when it gets down to that — to the actual future of Hyperloop Technologies — author Tom Zoellner, a downtown loft dweller with a special interest in trains and people-moving, is dubious.

Zoellner, an associate professor of English at Chapman University and author of Tr ain: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World — From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief, thinks California is better off building the bullet train. He sees Hyperloop's Arts District outpost as "chasing pie-in-the-sky technology when we're so far down the road on Japanese-style bullet train technology. ... I give Elon Musk credit for forward thinking, but the time [for Hyperloop] is not nearly yet come."

Los Angeles City Council member Jose Huizar agrees in part, saying, "While the tech industry is all about designs and concepts that will serve future needs, Hyperloop's plan is light-years ahead of most." But he says of the venture, "Any idea that can get you from San Francisco to Los Angeles faster than it takes to get from downtown to Hollywood during rush hour is worth pursuing."

On the heels of Hyperloop Technologies' arrival downtown, Irvine-based SunCal, a planned-community developer, last week announced it had bought 14.57 acres not far away, at Sixth and Alameda streets, stirring more talk of a sea-change for the Arts District.

It's not Silicon Beach, yet. But this territory in the tattered urban core of L.A. is waterfront property, too. You just have to look past the warehouses and rail yards to the river running quietly along its concrete flood-control channel.


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