Industrial revolution

Special to The Times

When Tom Guiton cranks up his spray paint compressor or welding torch at his home studio for some artistic creation, does the 53-year-old painter worry about disturbing his downtown neighbors? No problem. He lives on Molino Street by two pallet yards that recycle, repair and load the wooden forklift platforms all hours of the day and night.

A few blocks away on 7th Street, actress Tracey Ali puts up with the noise that comes with living in the industrial core of downtown Los Angeles, where her neighbors are a furniture company and a toy factory. Her loft at the converted Heinz 57 test kitchen building is her second since moving to the area. "At my old loft, I used to hear the train. It was kind of cool At least it's not somebody's lawnmower," said the former Baldwin Hills homeowner.

Guiton and Ali are among the urban dwellers who have settled in industrial L.A., taking up residences among factories and warehouses a few blocks east of the lofts in converted office buildings in the historic business core.

More than two decades ago, artists discovered the industrial zone, creating the so-called Artists District. But now USC students, construction workers and even attorneys say they love the gritty, funky and creative feeling of living in industrial L.A., where rents for residential space range from $1,000 to $2,800 a month for 1,000 to 2,000 square feet.

The residential and industrial neighbors are coexisting and even banding together for some causes. Still, there is some reservation among industry types who worry about being crowded out if gentrification takes over.

"If I start mentioning housing going up in the area to my industrial clients, they get a worried look on their face," said Dwight Hotchkiss, a senior director at the downtown office of Cushman & Wakefield's real estate firm. "They are afraid they are going to be driven out."

Over the years, there has been an exodus of industry from downtown's industrial core, located between Alameda Street and the Los Angeles River and roughly between the 5 and 10 freeways. Businesses seeking one-story, 50,000-square-foot-plus spaces with high loading docks have relocated to areas such as Vernon, Commerce and Ontario for more practical, cost-effective space than downtown's multistory buildings.

While industry has departed, renters have moved into the converted old buildings. Graham Marriott, an owner of downtown-based Cartifact, which produces detailed maps for the real estate industry and government agencies, said there have been an estimated 34 conversions of industrial buildings into residential properties in downtown L.A. since the early 1980s, with another five projects in development.

It's developers who should inform potential residents what to expect when moving into the industrial zone, according to Tracey Lovejoy, executive director of the Central City East Assn., which represents industrial businesses and property owners in the area.

"It's the lawyer who needs to sleep regular hours who might have an unrealistic expectation when moving into the area," she said. "People need to come here with their eyes opened.

"The last thing developers want is to have someone move here, spend a lot of money and be unhappy."

For actress Ali, living in the industrial zone was about choice. "We choose to live here."

Ali, who rents a two-story, 1,400-square-foot unit for $1,650 a month, said she is surrounded by like-minded, creative people and finds living in an industrial historic building with soaring ceilings inspiring. "It's amazing to have this kind of place. It makes you more creative....This kind of living gets you back on the level of your artistic, creative self."

As for the noise, which can be at all hours, she and other residents just accept it. "You are in the city, so you just expect it," said Pete Fabian, a 29-year-old disabled Navy veteran, who lives in a 1,400-square-foot loft with his girlfriend, Kristin, 25, and their 19-month-old son, Dominick. Double-paned windows help block the noise from the fire escape that overlooks the 7th Street Bridge, on a major thoroughfare connecting downtown to Boyle Heights.

There are other trade-offs, such as pollution. "It can be hard to breathe," said Denice Bartels, 50, of the fumes that occasionally waft from idling trains near her loft at the Brewery Arts Complex, formerly the Pabst Blue Ribbon brewery and now an artist-in-residence complex on North Main Street.

But she has figured out ways around it, like enjoying her outdoor garden on weekends when noise is lower because trains run less frequently. But, she said, "leaving the area is the only remedy for escaping the train fumes."

Bartels said that when United Parcel Service opened a distribution center across the street from the complex in 1999, representatives for the 500 to 600 residents met with UPS to see how the new neighbors could best get along.

UPS employees volunteer to pass out maps and fliers for the complex's biannual art walk. "They police their own trucks and they let us use their parking lot" for the art walk, said Bartels. "Inasmuch as you can, we are coexisting."

Many manufacturers seem to feel the same. "Residents don't bother us and we don't bother them," Jeremy Corselli, manager of Rancho Cold Storage near the Los Angeles River and Mesquit Street, said of the two apartments nearby that were once industrial buildings.

The only change Corselli has had to make in his frozen storage business, where 40 trucks load and unload daily, was to increase safety measures per federal and state regulations -- due to hazardous materials used in the business -- because residents are now living close by.

"Our opinion is that anything that will bring in money to this area is good.... We greatly benefit by increased population," said Corselli.

This has also been demonstrated in the Artists District. "Artists go and buy products or services from the manufacturers for their work, like hiring a welder or an inker or a supply of wood, and the manufacturers use the artists for logos, design or photography," said Steve Allwright, an industrial real estate broker for 24 years who is now with Metro Resources, which specializes in industrial, commercial and residential real estate.

The Los Angeles River Artists and Business Assn., established in 1994 to bring the two groups together, work on community issues such as safety from crime, coexistence with the homeless and opposition to the city's recent effort to build a jail in the neighborhood.

"We are a successful example of how artists and businesses can interact together and understand each other's perspectives," said Tim Keating, president of the association. "We are both looking out for the interests of our shared neighborhood."

But there are worries about the changing industrial landscape. "Obviously housing is needed," said Cushman & Wakefield's Hotchkiss, "but the question is: Is there some type of plan by the city so we are not just plopping a housing project in the middle of industry?"

Los Angeles is working on just such a plan. Earlier this year, the city formed an advisory committee of real estate, city planning and economic advisors to evaluate how to strike a balance between preserving industrial land and buildings while responding to growing residential interests downtown.

About 25% of Los Angeles' industrial land, excluding LAX and the port area, has been converted to nonindustrial uses including retail, commercial and government-owned institutional use. According to the committee's initial findings, which will be made public by January, approximately 4% has been converted to apartments or lofts, mostly downtown. Adriana Martinez, an economic development representative of the mayor's office, said if a building is obsolete, then converting it to residential use is a smart choice but must be done with care.

"On the one hand," she said, "from the manufacturers' point of view, they worry that residents will start complaining about truck noise and ... pollution. That will make the manufacturers not feel as welcome.... We need to figure out how to address that and where to draw boundaries."

Among the five industrial conversions currently in development is the Capitol Milling building, recently purchased by Los Angeles-based San Antonio Winery owner Steve Riboli for about $700,000.

The Chinatown building, at the north edge of Los Angeles' industrial zone, dates from 1883 and is next to the new Chinatown Metro Gold Line stop.

Riboli plans to break ground in 2004 to convert the old grain mill and silo into 18 loft units and commercial space. "The industrial core is really drying up," said Riboli, adding that low interest rates had "a lot to do with developers willing to take a risk in these areas."

But real estate insiders warn that once a property is converted to residential use, it's impossible to put a warehouse or a factory back in the area. "You can never go back," said Barry Baker, a broker with Grubb & Ellis.

Allison B. Cohen can be reached at a.cohen@ix.netcom.com

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