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."
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