Architect John Hill's career as a top-flight designer of world-class hotels has taken him to starkly beautiful destinations across the country and the globe.
On Hawaii's big island, he designed a Four Seasons hotel in Hualalai amid black lava flows. In Northern California, his Ritz-Carlton at Half Moon Bay sits on a bluff and is intended to evoke 19th century seaside resorts.
Jobs like that might stand out as the high points of anyone's career but not necessarily for Hill, who claims working in Los Angeles is a unique experience in itself.
"It's an extremely vibrant area and you have some of the most sophisticated travelers in the world," said Hill, principal of HKS Hill Glazier Studio, a Palo Alto-based architecture firm that does business in L.A. "It's very cosmopolitan and very progressive."
Hill should know.
The veteran architect designed the Montage Beverly Hills, a five-star hotel that's under construction on Canon Drive. The elegant 201-room lodging has detailed tiling inside and out, a reflection of its Spanish colonial revival architecture. A more modern amenity: a two-story spa. Just make sure your bank account is full. Room rates at Montage hotels can easily top $1,000 a night.
Of course, to pull off such a feat, Hill didn't do it alone.
He got support from folks like Nancy Goslee Power, a unique landscape designer who studied art and architecture in Florence, Italy; interior designer Darrell Schmitt, who also worked on the Hualalai Four Seasons; and veteran contractor Brad Whitaker, whose resume includes a resort in Lahaina, Hawaii.
An experienced and talented team now multiply these people a few times over and you have the Business Journal's latest list of Who's Who in Real Estate. This year it's focusing on the figures behind what is being called the biggest wave of new luxury hotels in a generation.
There's developer Sam Nazarian's sleek SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills, intended to attract a younger demographic that wants to be pampered, but finds the Montage skews too old.
There's also the massive W Hotel and Residences at Sunset & Vine, which promises to restore some of Hollywood's faded glamour. And there's the Ritz-Carlton Hotel and Residences at L.A. Live, bringing Ritz's signature style of living to a reawakened downtown.
All in all, it amounts to well over $1 billion in new hotel construction that promises to change the face of the luxe life in L.A. Now de rigueur for the elite: lush rooftop pools, five-star restaurants and, apparently, two-story spas.
There hasn't been this kind of luxury hotel building in Los Angeles in 25 years and it's been a long time coming for some.
"It really says good things about the city and its visitor industry that so many companies and developers have opted to make this type of investment in our city," said Carol Martinez, associate vice president of communications for the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It is very unique and it speaks to the popularity of Los Angeles as a destination."
The last time there was this kind of development was just before Los Angeles hosted the Summer Olympics in 1984. That's when Raffles L'Ermitage Beverly Hills, Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles and the Bel Age Hotel opened.
The new hotels spurred change in the local hospitality industry as other established luxury properties like the Beverly Wilshire Hotel were forced to remodel.
But while the Olympics provided the impetus in the mid-1980s, these days it's just good, old-fashioned demand, according to Michael Rosenfeld, president of Woodridge Capital LLC, a Los Angeles-based real estate developer and investor.
"Pent-up demand for hotel product particularly in higher-end product has outpaced the supply over a number of years," said Rosenfeld, whose company purchased the Century Plaza for $367 million earlier this year.
That 726-room landmark hotel got a $36 million upgrade prior to Rosenfeld's acquisition. "In many respects you are seeing a correction or adjustment to compensate for that," he said.
Rosenfeld said that his hotel has had a very strong summer, which he attributes to Los Angeles becoming a more popular destination. He said that international travelers are flocking here because of the weakened dollar. And domestic travelers are seeking the city out because global security concerns have made traveling outside the country less attractive.
"The more-upscale level is rising in this marketplace," he said. "Rates are up. Everybody is upgrading their hotels to meet a higher demand."
In fact, some of the new projects represent the first time that luxury chains are coming to Los Angeles.
The Montage development is the first by that company in Los Angeles, while the Ritz-Carlton and W projects join older and lesser properties in those companies' limited local portfolios.
In the case of SLS, which is expected to open on La Cienega Boulevard in November, it represents the local launch of what could become a national chain.
"It's the flagship opening of a brand in L.A. From the L.A. perspective, that's crucial," said Nazarian. "(But) I am happy all these amazing brands are coming to Los Angeles."
Indeed, the scene in L.A. was vibrant enough to draw world-renowned designer Philippe Starck, who is known for creating some of the world's first boutique hotels. He developed the aesthetics for the SLS.
"The challenge with SLS is to reinvent hospitality rules that we already explored 20 years ago," Starck said in an e-mail interview.
However, these complicted projects are not without their complications, as available urban land gets gobbled up for competing retail and residential projects.
Hill said the Montage project, for example, was particularly challenging because it involved dealing with public utilities and infrastructure as well as street closures. Still, the new projects are already creating a ripple effect as other top-notch hotels look to keep pace.
"All the Beverly Hills hotels are aware of the Montage, and they are trying to cement their place with guests by doing whatever they have to do," said Bruce Baltin, senior vice president of PKF Consulting, a hospitality industry consultancy that completed market studies for several of the hotels featured here. "They have upped their game a bit."
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