They sit atop downtown buildings like beacons: Marble bathrooms glistening, glass wrap-around patios gazing out on the city and high-end ranges awaiting their first speck of gourmet food.
The penthouses that crown many of downtown’s high-rise condos and lofts were conceived in a different era, during the last real estate boom when the sky seemed the limit, even on the gritty streets of the city center.
While most downtown dwellings are decidedly more modest, the penthouses have gotten the attention -- with magazine spreads and rumors of Hollywood stars moving in.
But with the real estate downturn, developers are figuring out how to market the gems -- and using them to bolster the perception that downtown is becoming a high-end residential destination.
Because some of the new developments on the horizon -- notably the Frank Gehry-designed Grand Avenue project and the Ritz-Carlton Residences at L.A. Live -- are aimed at wealthy buyers, with all or almost all of their units priced above $1 million, the fate of downtown’s penthouses is of particular importance.
Downtown boosters have seen attracting more wealthy residents as a key next step in the area’s revitalization, because they hope that would attract some of the high-end retail that up until now has largely been missing.
But downtown faces some hefty competition to the west.
Right now, the center of ultra-luxury high-rise living stretches from Beverly Hills and Century City through Westwood, where several opulent buildings are already rising or in the planning stages, including the Century tower in Century City, where Candy Spelling purchased a $47-million penthouse.
It remains unclear how much of that demographic the decidedly grittier downtown area can grab. While downtown is farther from Spago, Sunset Strip, Montana Avenue and Rodeo Drive, prices for penthouses are generally much lower than in the best Westside towers. And some say that is making a difference.
“The two really hot areas are Century City and downtown in terms of the ultra-luxury segment,” said Jim Perabo of Condosource.com, a portal for condo sales and rentals.
The downtown penthouses also serve another important purpose: providing aspiration for entry-level downtown condo buyers.
“Ultimately, developers are trying to sell the rest of the units,” said Gil Seraf of the 213 Loft Co.mpany, a real estate firm in downtown Los Angeles. The penthouses “are always good P.R.”
Although it’s impossible to guess exactly how many downtown penthouses there are, most new buildings are including between five and 10 of the luxe units, which typically start at about $1 million and boast more expansive space and upgraded amenities than their more modest cousins.
So far this year, according to the Multiple Listing Service, 13 units priced above $1 million have sold downtown -- slightly more than the 11 that had sold by this time last year. But there are several grand penthouses that remain on the market.
At the Eastern Columbia building, $1.875 million will get you two entrances to Penthouse No. 5, nearly 2,500 square feet of concrete floors and old-fashioned windows looking down Broadway, to City Hall and the San Gabriel Mountains beyond. The kitchen is decked out with a Viking range and fridge, a bathroom is resplendent in mirrors and marble and a private outdoor landing has a view of the building’s much-photographed turquoise terra cotta clock.
At 717 Olympic, penthouse units renting for as much as $20,000 a month feature picture windows, egg-shaped soaker tubs and his-and-her closets. Built-in wine chillers and access to a special subterranean level of parking are special perks reserved for those who rent one of the building’s five penthouse units.
But perhaps no unit downtown is as sprawling -- or as hyped -- as the biggest penthouse at the Biscuit Company Lofts. On the market for nearly $5 million, the penthouse unit has 3,500 square feet inside and nearly as much space outside, including a rooftop deck with 360-degree views. It boasts a private elevator; a sleek kitchen with Wolf appliances; and hardwood floors throughout.
It takes care and diligence to sell the million-dollar-plus penthouses. They are the subject of marketing campaigns that boast of upgraded amenities and celebrity-driven rumor mills. Did John Stamos really buy a penthouse unit in the Eastern Columbia? Were David and Victoria Beckham scoping out a luxury loft in Biscuit?
“These penthouses are so unique and so kind of new to downtown, they really are raising a lot of attention,” said agent Kerry Marsico, who has two penthouses for sale in the South Park neighborhood, both priced above $2 million.
Downtown penthouses are anomalies, certainly -- the equivalent of a couture dress by a designer who also does ready-to-wear. They create a lot of buzz from the design-savvy and the curious but ultimately are attainable for only a select group of buyers. The rest, as it were, must buy retail.
“The idea, I think, is that you get a broad spectrum of units,” said Richard W. Thompson, director of urban planning and design for the architectural firm AC Martin and himself a downtown resident.
But, he added, “You have to recognize that these penthouses are really the primo units. If anything is going to remain and hold its value, it’s that one with the view and the terrace.”
Penthouse buyers, said Rhonda Slavik, director of marketing for Evo, a new building in South Park, tend to arrive with their financing already lined up.
At Evo, developers say that despite the economic downturn, six of the building’s eight sleek penthouses, featuring marble-slab bathroom countertops, wine coolers and Kohler bath fixtures, have already sold -- for more than $2 million apiece.
Marsico said some buyers are foreigners looking for an American investment and taking advantage of favorable exchange rates. “We’re seeing a lot of Chinese and Koreans,” he said.
Tripp DuBois, vice president of sales for the KOR Group, which developed the Eastern Columbia building, said his organization has been targeting buyers in Paris, London and other European cities. They are using digital marketing -- e-mail blasts, advertising on websites and upping the building’s placement on Google searches, for instance -- to advertise the four penthouses that are still for sale in the building.
Interest in the penthouses for lease at 717 Olympic has come from all types, said Joanna Wiese of the Hanover Group, the building’s owner. She has shown units to executives who work downtown, Westsiders interested in a pied-a-terre, and self-employed workers thinking about a move to the city center.
Some guard their privacy.
One penthouse buyer in the Evo building, who asked that his name not be used over concerns of people knowing where he lived, said he is moving from a high-rise on the Wilshire corridor in part because the 3,600-square-foot penthouse came with a 2,500-square-foot outdoor terrace. “We know enough about the high-rises in Los Angeles to know that’s very rare,” the buyer said.
He said that proximity to attractions such as Staples Center and L.A. Live factored in to his decision -- as did cost. “That same unit on the Westside would probably go for twice as much as it did downtown,” he said.