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A suburb sprouts in downtown L.A.

Times Staff Writer

Ralphs Grocery got its start in downtown Los Angeles during the horse-and-buggy days. But the supermarket abandoned the city center in 1950, a symbol of the district’s rapid decline in the wake of the post-World War II suburban boom.

Now, Ralphs is poised to return to the heart of the city, with a 50,000-square-foot market in the shadow of Staples Center and more than a dozen new condo towers. It is scheduled to open Friday.

The supermarket is a central part of a concerted effort by developers and urban planners to create suburban touches in one corner of downtown, an area known as South Park.

Much of downtown’s renaissance so far has been focused on the rehab of buildings in the pre-World War II commercial core, where dozens of once-dilapidated office buildings have been converted into luxury lofts. Residents prize century-old brick facades and lovingly restored grand lobbies -- and tolerate the sometimes grimy streets that come with them.

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But just a mile away, South Park feels different.

Sparkling new steel-and-glass high rises are sprouting on the sites of former parking lots, auto dealerships and warehouses.

Developers and city officials have planned wide sidewalks and double rows of street trees, as well as pocket parks in the middle of city blocks. There’s even a light-rail platform a short walk away.

This strategy has helped developers attract to South Park businesses that are more often seen in suburbia: a Cold Stone Creamery that is going in next to the Ralphs; a Starbucks at 11th Street and Grand Avenue; and bistros, markets, nail salons and other amenities to serve the well-heeled neighborhood residents.

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In addition, the first phase of LA Live, a 4-million-square-foot “sports and entertainment hub,” is expected to open in September. That development will include chain restaurants such as P.F. Chang’s, as well as a 14-screen multiplex.

“This is a modern neighborhood,” said Cynthia Heimbold, a furniture designer who moved to South Park six months ago from the historic district. “This is new construction. It’s cleaner ... and I knew it was going to grow a lot quicker than the historic core, because they were starting from scratch.”

Heimbold has opened a furniture store on the ground floor of her building, the Elleven, to cater in part to the growing number of residents in the area. “It feels like we are on the forefront of something really cool that’s happening,” she said.

The push to integrate suburban touches into urban settings has become a cornerstone of some downtown redevelopments. Cities like San Diego; Portland, Ore.; and Vancouver, Canada; have pushed for designs and amenities that foster safe and livable city centers.

“If you are a developer today and you are building in an area like that, if you don’t think about the street-scaping and the neighborhood, you are nuts,” said John McIlwain, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, a land-use planning think tank. “People are buying not just an apartment but a neighborhood. Everything within a quarter mile, a five-minute walk, is as important as the countertops in their kitchens. It’s an extension of their environment.”

Realtor David Kean, who has represented buyers, sellers and renters of South Park units, said he finds that the upscale nature of the neighborhood appeals to many would-be residents.

“A lot of people want an area that’s less fringey,” Kean said. “They are willing to pay more to buy into an area that is already established and has stuff to do and restaurants nearby.”

Still, some question whether the area will have the kind of urban fabric necessary to sustain it as a neighborhood over the long term -- especially because housing prices in the area prevent many from moving in.

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“It might look quite sanitized and manufactured. It’s certainly not authentic. But at the same time, it’s marketable,” said Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, chairwoman of the Department of Urban Planning at UCLA. “Is it a neighborhood in the old sense of the word, where you know your neighbors and can borrow a bottle of milk from them? No, probably not. That doesn’t come simply through design and wider sidewalks.”

In South Park, more than 3,500 residential units have gone on the market so far, and about 5,400 more are planned to become available over the next three years or so.

If all of those units are built, that would mean that almost a quarter of residential units in downtown would be in South Park, according to the Downtown L.A. Business Improvement District.

Although most of the new developments have risen on former parking lots, there have been concerns from some housing advocates that downtown’s upscale housing could move farther south, potentially pricing out low-income residents who have long called the area home.

For Heimbold, the reasons for moving to South Park were simple. She said she wanted “to be in an area I knew, a place that you knew was growing quickly, and would go up in value.”

Rents at the Met Lofts, which developers describe as a boutique residence inspired by Bauhaus design, range from about $1,670 a month for a 687-square-foot space to about $4,500 for a 1,464-square-foot loft.

Most new South Park units, though, are condos, with prices starting around $500,000 and climbing steeply from there. “Not rebuilt. Not redesigned. Not re-anything,” brags a website for Luma, one of the buildings by a consortium of Portland-based developers known as the South Group that has been at the forefront of the neighborhood’s transformation.

When Jennifer Girsky and her husband, Marc, first decided to move into the area about four years ago, the entire neighborhood was still in the planning stages, and the building they had chosen was just a hole in the ground.

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But Girsky said that when the couple saw plans for South Park, they loved the sparkling newness of the buildings and felt it was something vastly different for downtown. “Instead of looking old and urban, it’s new and urban,” said Girsky, a corporate flower designer.

The couple, in their 30s, live with their Maltese dog in a spacious 12th-floor unit with two bedrooms and floor-to-ceiling windows in Elleven, a 176-unit structure at 11th and Grand that is L.A.'s first residential high rise in 20 years.

The grand scale of South Park’s transformation is due in large part to an abundance of available land, much of it amassed by the AEG Group, the firm owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz that also controls Staples Center.

“They had a dream, and they had Mr. Anschutz’s money,” said Jeff Lee of Lee Homes, which has four projects in the area, including one on land acquired from AEG. “They never gave up, and I am so glad we believed in their dream.”

A big part of that dream involves a supermarket. When the downtown residential boom began, many of the new residents complained about the lack of a major supermarket in the city center. Many residents drive several miles away to stock up on groceries.

The opening of the Ralphs Fresh Fare is considered a symbolic boost for downtown -- the latest sign that big retailers believe the downtown loft and condo community is strong enough to support their stores. Boosters hope that if Ralphs succeeds, other retailers will follow.

The first phase of LA Live, with more chain stores, will open in the fall. Both projects have been eagerly anticipated and could dramatically increase the amount of car and foot traffic in the area.

But others cite a third wave of proposed development, what Lee refers to as “the tower wave,” as South Park’s ultimate test. (Most of the new residential buildings in South Park today are in the 10- to 15-story range.)

Developer Richard Meruelo has begun construction on a 36-story building at 9th and Flower streets. The four phases of the Metropolis project, a mixed-use complex just east of the 110 Freeway, will each include a tower that is more than 30 stories.

And the Titan Organization Inc. plans to break ground early next year on twin towers at Grand Avenue and Olympic Boulevard -- the design of which has led some downtown watchers to nickname them the “Grand Tetons” of downtown.

The plans, indeed, are grandiose. And several of the larger projects have fallen behind schedule. But as land costs in the area continue to rise, “the clock,” Lee said, “is ticking.”

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cara.dimassa@latimes.com


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