Law Office Project on Right Track : Historic Santa Fe Railway Warehouse Being Converted to Serve Attorneys

Times Staff Writer

Octogenarians rarely get hired for new jobs, but here's one that is not only about to play an important role in business but will also look more handsome than ever before.

It is the dilapidated building at 123-125 Santa Fe Ave., which will soon be turned into the Santa Fe Law Plaza, a stylish office building for attorneys just half a mile from the courts in downtown Los Angeles.

The building was constructed about the turn of the century as a warehouse and fruit-packing plant. Recently, it was being used by a pillow manufacturer.

Structure Not Insignificant

So it never before had the travertine marble floors, suspended ceilings and plush carpeting envisioned for it now. Even so, the structure was not insignificant when it was built.

It was in the center of the turn-of-the-century boom that eventually turned Los Angeles from a sleepy farming and ranching community of 10,000 people in 1884, to one of the nation's largest metropolitan areas in less than 100 years.

The warehouse was built on property owned by Santa Fe Railway, after it bought large parcels of land from the Los Angeles River west to Alameda Street and from 1st to 7th streets. Railroad executives figured that they would need warehouses and packing plants for goods, especially citrus crops, that would be shipped on its lines.

Los Angeles oranges and lemons won first prize over Florida's at the Cotton Exposition in New Orleans in 1884.

Site Was Researched

"Then, the nation turned its eyes to the barren desert of Los Angeles for possible investment opportunities as well as for a new subtropical Eden."

That's how Cliff Young, vice president of the 28-year-old Lesspec Development Co., phrases it. And Young, the 25-year-old son of Lesspec owner Les Young, extensively researched the Santa Fe Law Plaza site, coming up with such data as:

--In 1886, before the boom, the city's assessed valuation was $18 million. In 1887, it rose to $28 million. In 1888, it was $39 million. And in 1889, it was $46 million.

--The recorded real estate transfers in 1887 totaled $100 million, and only about half the transactions were even entered.

--By midsummer of 1886, a thousand people a month were pouring into Los Angeles. By 1888, the railroads were reported to have brought in more than 350,000 home seekers and investors.

--Before the boom, the best business property was not valued at more than $300 per front foot. Within three years, there was an average permanent advance of about 300%.

--By the time the boom ended in 1889, Los Angeles had become the chief depot and commercial center for all the newly established Southern California farm lands.

Partnership With 35 Attorneys

"Basically, I just work on this project," the intense young man said. "And I get so passionate about it."

Lesspec, which has offices in Woodland Hills, is developing the law offices in partnership with 35 attorneys.

"Some will be tenants. So they wanted a building that will be specialized," the younger Young said. And the $10-million, five-story renovation project, due to be completed by the end of this year, will certainly be specialized.

Of the estimated 125 tenants that will occupy its 75,000 square feet of leasable space (40% has already been leased), most will be attorneys, but there will also be a doctor in the house--er, building--for lawyers handling personal-injury cases.

Shuttle to Courthouses

In addition, there will be a laundry and dry-cleaning service, 24-hour legal-secretarial services, attorney check-cashing services, a bail bondsman, reprographic services, gym facilities, and a shuttle to and from downtown courthouses, county law libraries and detention centers.

The building will also have a doorman during the day and security guard service at night. Eventually, it may also have a restaurant.

Said Les Young: "We've had some conversation about having a nice restaurant in the penthouse and calling it 'Jesse's Place' after (bank and train robber) Jesse James, to fit in with the railroad."

The Youngs look at the building as a reminder of the historical role that the railroads played in the growth of Los Angeles. When looking for a building to renovate, the Youngs and their attorney partners wanted one with some historical significance.

Crucial Role

"We wanted to take a building that had historical value and put it back into mainstream use," Cliff Young said.

The warehouse, one of half a dozen or so nearby brick buildings that do not meet earthquake standards, was hardly a glamorous throwback to the past, but Cliff Young terms its role in the early days of Los Angeles as "crucial."

"It was very important for farmers to be able to use warehouses near the railroad so they could ship oranges to their customers," he emphasized. The Santa Fe Law Plaza project is directly across the street from the site of the original Santa Fe terminal.

"The Santa Fe depot was the pride of Los Angeles for years," he said. Known as the Santa Fe La Grande station, it was opened in 1893 and razed in 1946, though it saw its last passenger train in 1939 with the opening of the Union Passenger Terminal.

Dedicated to Conservancy

Even when it was new, the warehouse across the street from the grandiose depot looked shabby in comparison. "But warehouses need love too," Cliff Young said with a laugh.

The Youngs and their partners plan to bring the building (actually two adjoining structures) up to code, adding parking and turning it into Class A offices.

They have already dedicated their efforts to the Los Angeles Conservancy. "Part of our objective, as theirs, is to raise the public's awareness of our historical landscape," the younger Young explained.

At the dedication in December, Ruthann Lehrer, executive director of the conservancy, said: "This project well exemplifies what we're about. It's a model of the development that the Los Angeles Conservancy encourages, both of great landmarks and humble building types."

Added Les Young: "This venture is exciting because it brings an old historic building back to use, takes cars off the streets (through use of the shuttle) and gives attorneys a first-rate environment close to the courts at half the price."

Office space in downtown high-rises can rent from $2.25 to $3.25 a square foot, he added, but offices in the Law Plaza are leasing for about $1.25 a square foot. And although there will be some parking and shuttle fees, he contends that they will be less than the going rate to park in the Central Business District and Century City.

Of course, the neighborhood is vastly different from either of those places. "There are quite a few TV sound stages, and they do a lot of shooting in the area," Cliff Young said. "Two to three production companies contact us each month to use our building, because the area looks like old Los Angeles."

The streets are quiet, but considerable activity stirs behind the scenes. Some of the old brick buildings have been turned into artists' galleries, studios and lofts. "There is a lot of rehabbing going on," the younger Young said, "and two blocks away, a high-rise is being built. So the area is definitely expanding."

And other octogenarians like the warehouse are getting a second wind with the new life that is being breathed into what was the industrial heart of town.

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