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He’s king; the L.A. loft scene is his throne

You might guess that a 2,500-square-foot, three-bathroom unit, with private elevator and a price tag of $4.9 million, was in Bel-Air or Holmby Hills.

But not this one.

Would you believe it’s beyond the eastern edge of downtown L.A.'s skid row, surrounded by warehouses and not far from the railroad tracks?

Stop shaking your head.

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This is the new Los Angeles, in which bored denizens are abandoning the once-hip Hollywood Hills in favor of 20-foot ceilings in converted factories that sit next door to cold-storage facilities.

They’re not coming in droves, maybe. In fact, the $4.9-million pad has been on the market for several months, with lookers but no takers.

But two units in the same building have gone for roughly $2 million each, and you don’t have to look too hard anymore to find neo-urbanistas who’ve tumbled out of the hills and landed in the Arts District. I’ll get to them in a minute, but let’s begin with Brady Westwater.

If you move downtown, Westwater will be your neighbor. Try though you might, you will not be able to shake him. At every turn, you’ll see Westwater wearing a cowboy hat and a wrestling T-shirt and jawing about:

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A) The numskulls at City Hall. B) The obvious solutions to every problem known to man. C) What a moron Steve Lopez is. or D) The endless magical wonder of downtown Los Angeles.

I knew the author of the L.A. Cowboy blog (www.lacowboy) would have something to say about a $4.9-million loft, but what?

There goes the neighborhood?

Onward and upward?

In general, he said by phone, the bustling loft scene is all good. This is how Los Angeles should be remaking itself, he says, putting people closer to their jobs and giving them an opportunity, with warehouse-style spaces, to build offices and workshops in their own homes.

Yeah, although I hear that some people move in and check out the buzz for a while, but then go running back where they came from when they realize that downtown is still pretty rough around the edges.

Nonsense, Westwater said. The population is growing even through the real estate slump.

On my way to the Biscuit Co. Lofts, I picked up Westwater at his 5th and Spring headquarters, where his computer and wrestling mat are side by side. Anybody who wants to challenge him should be advised that he claims to have recently gone mano a mano with a Mongolian national wrestling champ.

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The former Ross Shockley, who changed his name to Brady Westwater many years ago because it “test-marketed extremely well with women,” was wearing a Strikers Wrestling Club T-shirt. He’d squeezed me in despite serving voluntarily on two dozen civic boards and commissions and writing several books and screenplays.

Downtown developer Tom Gilmore says Westwater is the kind of guy who can drive you mad with his diatribes about downtown politics and planning. “But every time I decide I’ll never talk to him again, he comes up with another great idea.”

Like the recent Fashion Week event at the former St. Vibiana’s Cathedral, which Westwater told me he’d conceived of and promoted.

I attended a runway show Thursday night to see if indeed he had anything to do with it, and not only was he front and center as the models strutted their stuff, but he knew everyone in attendance, was included in photo-ops with the emcee and claimed that Los Angeles could one day rival Paris in the fashion world if people would just listen to him.

“You should set this guy up in the penthouse loft as a selling point,” I told sales rep Matthew Zion when we walked into the Biscuit Co. sales office. “He’s Mr. Downtown.”

Artsy loft-hunters would see a stubbled Runyonesque character and realize they definitely had left Sherman Oaks. Before you know it, wrestling outfits would be high fashion and the New York Times would send out a cross-eyed hack to proclaim L.A.'s Arts District the new Tribeca.

I don’t think the concept was working for Zion, who wondered what my relationship to Westwater was.

“This is the guy who once called me the worst columnist in America,” I told Zion.

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“I did not,” Westwater said. “I called you the worst columnist in history.”

Zion put up with us long enough to lead a full tour of the building, starting with lofts that go for $395,000, $610,000 and $1.34 million. The tenants so far include a firefighter, garment industry designers, young artists and retirees. I don’t know of many buildings with such a vast generational and income-level spread.

Malcolm Snead, a molecular genetics professor at USC, was looking at the $610,000 unit because he lives in Valencia and wants to be closer to work.

“I’ve got a story for you,” said Russell Roney, his real estate agent.

Roney represented a Hollywood Hills couple who wanted to sell and buy something smaller because their sons had grown and moved out. Nothing in the hills jazzed them, so they came downtown on a lark, and Roney liked what he saw just as much as his client, Vicky Deger.

“If you don’t buy, I will,” Roney told Deger after they’d looked at several places in the Arts District.

They both ended up buying. Deger, a stylist for TV commercials, moved into the Biscuit Co. with her screenwriter husband, and then bought a smaller place in the nearby Barker Block building to serve as an office. Roney bought in the Barker Block and intends to move in as soon as his house in the Hollywood Hills is sold.

“There’s something really invigorating about a new energy and the unknown,” said Deger, who insists an ocean breeze blows through when she opens her window. I hesitated to suggest she might be con- fusing the Pacific with the L.A. River.

She rides her bike to Little Tokyo, doesn’t miss Hollywood in the least and says she has “an account” at the little food market across the street, as if she were living in Mayberry.

All but 23 of the 104 units in the former National Biscuit Co. building, which are rather appropriately shaped like cracker boxes, have been sold. The developer, Linear City, sold out the converted Toy Factory building across the street in just 60 days in 2003, so it’s taking a little longer this time, but the biscuit building units are more expensive.

When we got to the four-level penthouse suite, I knew instantly that this should be Westwater’s perch. I can just see him using a megaphone to extol the virtues of downtown living from the balcony. The view is spectacular, if you don’t mind a valley of warehouse rooftops along with skyline and mountain vistas, and the rooftop patio space is a sprawling 2,500 square feet.

Is it worth $4.9 million, with no greenery nearby, two major highways whistling past and the L.A. River inaccessible thanks to decades of inspired planning?

Hard to imagine, but you never know.

“A lot of people are using faux grass,” Zion said. “It looks amazing.”

Westwater was busy imagining how he could seamlessly move from home to work in the same space, taking on one project after another in his penthouse.

“King of the world,” Zion said to Westwater as we looked down on a city in transformation.

Maybe not. But king of downtown L.A., for sure.

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steve.lopez@latimes.com


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