Richard and Agnes Thaler were dance and exercise enthusiasts with experience running a family grocery store business when they decided to open a dance and fitness studio in Santa Monica. But they quickly ran into problems finding an appropriate space with the proper zoning and enough parking to satisfy city requirements. Driving around town, they spotted a vacant Greyhound bus depot and decided to convert the historic site into a studio. Agnes Thaler was interviewed by freelance writer Karen E. Klein.
When we first saw this location, it really looked awful. The bus station had been closed in 1994 and it was surrounded by a lot of empty storefronts. But it had a great deal of parking and we needed that because dance studios are zoned at a much higher parking-space-per-square-foot ratio than other retail uses.
We had looked around for other buildings and it was very difficult to find an empty location that was big enough for our uses. We had failed to get a variance on one location that we liked earlier. So we had a friend of ours who is an architect look at the bus station and he got very excited right away.
This place had the right amount of space, 6,000 square feet, a good location, and the parking was right. We contacted the landlord and found that the bus station and the storefronts were all owned by the same person and that he was interested in negotiating with us.
The architect did what he called an "archeological dig" on the place to try and figure out how it was originally designed and built in the 1950s. He found a lot of wonderful features, like high ceilings and great steel-beam roof supports that we exposed and painted. The original terrazzo floor was so dirty and covered with debris that we didn't think we could save it, but in the end we were able to.
The reinforced-masonry bearing walls were strong enough to meet earthquake codes, but we had to do a lot of pouring to meet federal requirements for handicapped access. It was costly to redo an old building, but it would have been costly almost anywhere to redesign a space as a dance studio. We knew we'd have to put in plumbing, and we wanted to have a cafe and the proper fixtures anywhere we decided to locate.
We really liked the old Greyhound bus sign, which had been there so many years that it was a real neighborhood landmark. Even though the sign is too big to be allowed under the current sign laws, the city allowed us to keep it because they liked the idea of preserving the historic nature of the building. We took the name of our business from the building's old use.
The new site won an award from the American Institute of Architecture and was recognized by the Los Angeles Business Council and the Los Angeles Conservancy.
Being in downtown Santa Monica is a real plus, and the city just made the street in front of the business two-way, which is really great. A lot of customers come in to the business just because they have driven by the building and were curious what we had done with it. Some of them come in still looking for the bus station.
Since we moved in here two years ago, the whole neighborhood is changing and there is a lot of building going on. The street was kind of run-down at first, but recently a couple of new restaurants have opened and it is becoming a kind of hip area.
If your business can provide a lesson to other entrepreneurs, contact Karen E. Klein at the Los Angeles Times, 1333 S. Mayflower Ave., Suite 100, Monrovia, CA 91016, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name, address and telephone number.
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* Company: Bus Dance & Fitness
* Owner: Richard and Agnes Thaler
* Nature of business: Dance studio
* Location: 1433 5th St., Santa Monica
* Founded: 1996
* Employees: 6
* Annual sales: $500,000