A centuries-old concept that was integral to the development of New York, London, San Francisco and other major cities buildings with retail stores on the ground floor and housing on the floors above is finally taking wing in Los Angeles.

Such projects are now being built in or planned for downtown Los Angeles, Pasadena, Playa Vista, Long Beach, Hollywood and Burbank.

Why now in Los Angeles? Land-use trends, coupled with pressures from government and community entities, are making fringe-area housing and retail projects less attractive.

"We like to think of ourselves as pioneers, but we're really just thinking people who see some opportunities that weren't there a few years ago," said Peter Novak, executive vice president of G.H. Palmer Associates, developer of the new Medici housing/retail project near downtown. "There's a dramatic lack of developable land in Los Angeles, and it has been inevitable that we would start looking at places that have been overlooked in the past."

One of the highest-profile developers to jump on housing/retail bandwagon is Tom Gilmore, the principal of Gilmore Associates, which is converting old downtown bank buildings into residential lofts with ground-level retail stores.

"The suburban model that has ruled Los Angeles, that had the capacity to expand outward for 50 years, has come to an end," said Gilmore. "Now you're seeing a lot of interest in the urban experience, in being able to walk to shops and restaurants and maybe to work."

These are not the first such mixed-use projects to appear in modern-day Los Angeles. Two such projects were completed on the Westside in 1989. Venice Renaissance features ground-floor retail and housing units above, while Janss Court on Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade features three floors of office space and 32 housing units above its ground-floor retail.

Despite being hailed at the time as vanguards, these two projects failed to spark the expected imitators.

But 11 years later, a raft of new projects is being developed in various areas of town.

Current projects

The total number of residential units in downtown Los Angeles many of them in mixed-use buildings combining housing and retail is expected to grow to almost 18,400, a 55 percent increase, by 2004, according to Carol Schatz, president and CEO of the Downtown Center Business Improvement District.

Two current projects are Medici, with more than 325 housing units already completed and another 300 planned for a parcel just west of the Harbor (110) Freeway, and the Old Bank District, with 240 residential lofts above ground-floor tenants on Spring and Main streets.

Several other mixed-use projects are on the drawing board for downtown, including the next phase of Staples Center, where 800 apartments above retail space is set to be built at 11th and Figueroa streets. A renovation will also take place at the Subway Terminal Building at 417 S. Hill St., where 178 lofts and two floors of retail and entertainment facilities are being planned.

Construction is underway in downtown Pasadena on Paseo Colorado, a $201-million, three-block retail, office and residential project on the site of the demolished Plaza Pasadena on Colorado Boulevard.

Rick Froese, senior vice president of developer TrizecHahn, said having a residential element to the complex serves the same purpose of having an anchor store in a traditional mall.

"Residential is a good anchor, it brings customers to (merchants') doorsteps," he said.

Construction recently started in Long Beach on the redevelopment of Long Beach Plaza, another troubled downtown mall, into an eight-block residential and commercial complex set to be completed by spring 2002.

CityPlace is being developed by Developers Diversified Realty. It will encompass 475,000 square feet of retail space, a hotel and 328 residential units, some of which will be built above retail stores.

Construction is scheduled to start later this year on a portion of the Playa Vista development that will include 63 residential lofts above 7,500 square feet of retail space, according to marketing vice president Ken Agid.

This portion of Playa Vista, to be called The Lofts, will be a focal point of the community and underground parking for loft residents will be segregated from parking for others who come to patronize the shops or other nearby amenities, he added.

New approach

Other significant mixed-use projects include downtown Burbank's Media Village, which opened last year with 146 housing units and 55,000 square feet of retail and office space, and Hollywood Marketplace, an $80 million development slated to begin construction later this year. Sited for the northwest corner of Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street, Hollywood Marketplace is designed to contain 300 apartments above neighborhood retail tenants and such stores as Borders Bookshop and Bed Bath & Beyond.

Developers said a variety of factors have helped spark this mixed-use trend, including the considerable shortage and rising cost of land suitable for development.

This dovetails with a growing national trend called New Urbanism, an approach to land-use planning that seeks to reintegrate housing, workplace, shopping and recreation into pedestrian-friendly mixed-use neighborhoods.

Another driving factor, developers say, is that a small but growing portion of Angelenos want to divorce themselves from their cars, at least some of the time, and live in a truly urban environment.

"Los Angeles is evolving into a more urban form," said Playa Vista's Agid. "People want to be closer to where they work and they want to be closer to shops, restaurants and other urban amenities."

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