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Capitol Condos? Critics Hate the Sound of It

Times Staff Writer

For generations, industry titans wishing to place their mark on Los Angeles often did so through their buildings. These were structures destined to become landmarks like the Romanesque 1924 Gas Co. building and the towering Art Deco Title Guarantee building.

As Los Angeles lost its perch as a corporate center in the 1980s and 1990s, the buildings were left behind, sometimes little more than empty hulls. Until recently, that is, when a spate of buildings that once served as corporate headquarters have been revived as luxury condos and lofts.

But word this week that music giant EMI was considering offers to sell the landmark Capitol Records building in Hollywood to a developer who might convert the structure into condos has been met with concern.

A growing number of city leaders, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, are suggesting that the famous stacked-record tower is too much an icon to be turned into housing. They say that Los Angeles already has enough famous buildings that used to be something else and that they would prefer that the Capitol tower remain part of the music business. The tower, near the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, “is an operating, corporate headquarters,” said Josh Kamensky, a spokesman for City Council President Eric Garcetti. “It’s not just that they look like a stack of records. It’s that the music of today and tomorrow is happening in there.”

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The sentiment is shared by other Angelenos, who say that they like the idea that music is still made inside the building and that it is not just a landmark of the past.

“If they leave, it’ll take something away from Hollywood,” said Erin Bennett, a hostess at Hollywood and Vine, a restaurant on the northeast corner of the famed intersection. “It’ll be an old building that used to be something.”

Ghosts of Los Angeles’ regal past have been re-emerging in solid form.

In Mid-Wilshire, workers are converting a sleek 22-story office tower -- the longtime home of Getty Oil Co. -- into 260 condos complete with a rooftop pool and spa. Downtown, whole sections are returning to life, with lofts at Henry Huntington’s block-square 1905 Pacific Electric trolley headquarters and apartments in the former General Petroleum headquarters, which was designed in the late 1940s by Welton Becket, whose firm did the Capitol building.

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Developers love the buildings because their rich history and details offer a special cachet. Preservationists mostly applaud the projects, because they spare the often rundown buildings from the wrecking ball. And city officials cheer at anything that dents Los Angeles’ housing shortage.

Kate Bartolo, senior vice president of development for Kor Realty Group, which is restoring buildings in Hollywood and other parts of Los Angeles, said such projects make financial sense because developers can pay for the hefty restoration costs with the sale of condos.

Los Angeles has its share of former corporate flagships to work with: It once was the home to some of America’s most prestigious companies, such as Arco, First Interstate Bank and Security Pacific Bank. But the city has only a few Fortune 500 company headquarters now

“Perhaps it’s because Los Angeles didn’t take the care it should have for several years in preserving its landmarks,” said Bartolo, who is converting the turquoise-tiled Art Deco building that once housed the Eastern and Columbia outfitting companies into 147 housing units. “When you are in an iconic building, it’s a hard feeling to explain. You feel like you are part of something.... Without sounding overly sentimental, you do feel like you’re part of history.”

But Capitol Records is different, said Diana Rubio, a spokeswoman for Villaraigosa. It is more that just an architecturally significant building, she said, it’s a symbol of Los Angeles and the entertainment industry.

Soon after the 13-story building, said to be the world’s first cylindrical office tower, was built in 1956, it became a landmark symbol of enterprise and talent. Capitol Records, one of the few record companies to be based on the West Coast, has included on its roster Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, the Beastie Boys and Radiohead. “There isn’t any other building like it,” Rubio said. “It’s a lot like the Hollywood sign. There’s only one Hollywood sign, and there’s only one Capitol Records building.”

Only about 160 Capitol Records employees work in the building -- a fraction of the thousands working in the music business in Los Angeles. But Rubio and others contend that it says something important about the city to have music industry people working in a building famous for music.

In 2000, Capitol Records officials said they were prepared to leave Hollywood because of a lack of parking and the need to upgrade their building. The City Council spent $4 million to help Capitol refurbish a nearby office building and prevent the move.

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Jeanne Murphy, a spokeswoman for EMI, said Wednesday that although the company was not “actively shopping” the building, it had received several serious proposals from interested buyers.

“We have a responsibility to look at anything serious,” she said.

Murphy said that even if the company sold the building, it would explore an arrangement in which some of the space would be used by the record company “if the economics were right.”

Even Ken Bernstein, head of the Los Angeles Conservancy, which has pushed for so-called “adaptive reuse” projects, sees a distinction with the Capitol Records building.

Many old corporate landmarks that have been rehabilitated were vacant or underused for years. The Eastern and Columbia building last served as headquarters for the Eastern Outfitting Co. in the 1950s, around the same time that the last Red Car rolled out of Pacific Electric headquarters.

The Capitol Records building, Bernstein said, is different because it remains a center of the music world.

“It is appropriate that city officials ask whether that should apply to active corporate anchors,” he said.

Villaraigosa and city officials are working with EMI to head off a sale and keep Capitol Records in Hollywood.

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Kamensky, Garcetti’s spokesman, said his office was arguing that converting Capitol Records to condos would clash with the intent of the city’s condo conversion ordinance, which is designed to help restore long-vacant buildings.

There also is a concern that by going condo, the Capitol Records building could upset a balance in Hollywood among retail, residential and commercial space in a quickly changing zone.

“We have to be really careful to make sure we don’t transform Hollywood into a city of restaurants and lounges and high-end residential,” said Kor Group’s Bartolo, “without being mindful of the need to have office workers in the area by day to shop and eat in the restaurants.”

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Times staff writer Cynthia Cho contributed to this report.


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