Not long ago, downtown Los Angeles was a residential dead zone.

Not anymore.

Over the past several years, more than 10,000 condo and apartment units have been developed, with others on the way thanks in good part to the movement called adaptive reuse.

That movement, given a critical boost in 1999 with a change of city laws, has converted mostly vacant but architecturally significant old office buildings into clean new condominium complexes that can command a small fortune.

"It's been one of the great municipal success stories in urban planning nationwide," boasts Ken Bernstein, head of the city's Office of Historic Preservation and a former Los Angeles Conservancy official. "It has reached such proportions that it should be viewed as a national model in municipal planning."

The Adaptive Reuse Ordinance, targeted to downtown when it was adopted but expanded citywide in 2003, allows older buildings to be more easily converted to new uses, largely by relaxing city building codes.

But new laws often mean little if they are not embraced. And in the case of adaptive reuse there was no shortage of boosters, from little known bureaucrats to risk-taking developers to huge institutions such as UCLA.

The result has been conspicuous developments, such as downtown's Eastern Columbia Lofts, the re-imagined Cinerama Dome in Hollywood and even the Vista del Arroyo Bungalows in Pasadena, where, like some other smaller cities, the movement has gained a foothold.

Long known as a city and a region of the present, where buildings are quickly demolished with little care for their history, Los Angeles has changed its way of thinking. And the Business Journal notes that with this issue, honoring extraordinary projects, institutions and individuals.

"It's made what I do take unexpected and very exciting turns," said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district includes most of downtown. "Some of the buildings get restorations and rehab work, and you stand back in awe and look at them. It creates so much optimism. It shows vast potential for this area."

Architectural pioneers

Yet adaptive reuse is not a new concept. There have been other projects elsewhere long before the movement was bestowed an architectural nomenclature.

In the 1980s, Culver City's Helms Bakery complex was first reused as a furniture district, and in recent years it has expanded to include gallery space and restaurants. Also in the 1980s, the late lawyer and developer Ira Yellin converted downtown buildings into apartments, but it didn't catch on. His efforts came before urban living became fashionable again.

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