There are many elements that make a neighborhood, but at least two are indispensable: its name and its residents.
When Tom Gilmore bought four buildings for around $5.5 million in a historic section of Los Angeles in the late 1990s, the downtown enclave had neither. People sometimes referred to the area as Skid Row adjacent, and then they fled after work.
"Downtown was not a fundamentally healthy downtown. It had no residential base. Every downtown defines itself not by its commercial and industrial, but by its residential," he said.
That meant if Gilmore were going to keep Angelenos from leaving "Skid Row adjacent" for Westwood, Pasadena, the Valley or Santa Monica, he would have to piece together a neighborhood for them.
So that's what he set out to do.
"That was one of the things that made this workable and eventually successful. Otherwise, you can fail," said Carol Schatz, president and chief executive of the Central City Association.
Today, the burgeoning community has a name: It's dubbed the Old Bank District. More importantly, it has residents living in 230 units at the converted San Fernando, Hellman and Continental buildings, which rarely have vacancies. And it has reasons for residents to stay put: restaurants, clothing stores and a convenient grocery are at their disposal and all are in the same buildings with the residents.
What sparked neighborhood change in the Old Bank District was mixed-use development. In fact, Gilmore had little choice but to fashion mixed-use properties. It was the mix retail and residential in mixed-use that was missing in the district.
"It really did occur to me over time that doing mixed-use is the future. It was the big hole in L.A.'s doughnut," he said.
It's hard to fathom that anyone wouldn't respond well to Gilmore, a quick-to-joke New York transplant who is a tireless promoter of downtown. But he initially encountered a skeptical audience. He recalls resistance from academics, economists and politicians who argued the city was a grand suburbia where a central, livable core had no place.
On the contrary, Gilmore believed L.A. wasn't unique, it was just behind other cities with revitalized downtowns.
"They'd say, 'L.A. is not like that.' It is like saying my 14-year-old will never do that when he is 41. How the hell do you know?" he said. "I found it arrogant and parochial that people would dare to say what L.A. was."
The "parochial" view of L.A. wasn't only expressed in words. The city's zoning laws and regulations led to sprawl, while suffocating its core. Gilmore's mixed-use projects couldn't go forward within that framework. At the same time, Schatz was fighting to shift the framework with an adaptive reuse ordinance to allow older commercial properties to be transformed into residential buildings.
Gilmore was the first developer to put the ordinance into action after it passed in 1999. As part of the ordinance, urban developers could secure low-interest loans and grants from the government. With that help, Gilmore eventually borrowed $29 million.
Gilmore's challenges weren't finished when residents began filtering into his buildings starting in 2001. He wasn't attracting the kinds of stores and restaurants he wanted for 60,000 square feet of available retail space. He opted to invest in a restaurant himself: Pete's Caf & #233; & Bar opened three years ago. The caf & #233; made money, and Gilmore is moving ahead with more restaurant and retail offerings as a result.
Other developers have followed Gilmore's lead. Santa Monica-based real estate company MJW Investments Inc.'s Santee Court has 165 loft apartments and nearly 40,000 square feet of retail space so far in downtown's Fashion District. Across downtown, around 10,000 apartments and condos are expected to come online in the next three to five years.
One month last year, Gilmore estimated that 3,000 units opened near his Old Bank District properties. He was scared that his tenants would leave for the newer dwellings. "But nothing happened. It was this great thud," he said. "Our unwavering belief in our own neighborhood, our desire to make people's lives cool, turns out to have saved us."
Chief Executive, Tom Gilmore and Associates LLC
New York City, 1953
Accomplishments: Transformed empty buildings in the Old Bank District into mixed-use develop-ments; he and a partner are transforming Saint Vibiana's Cathedral, the former seat of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, into a mixed-use project
Thoughts on First Mixed-Use Project: "I had absolute confidence that it would work. It was a question of whether I could keep it on the tracks. It was the most terrifying thing, where every single day it seemed like land mines were blowing up."
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