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CITY RICHES

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Times Staff Writer

For years, Los Angeles has been a big city without a city, a town known for its endless suburbs and single-family homes. Reach out your window and pick an orange. Hop in the car and drive to the supermarket for a carton of milk. Subway? What subway? ¶ But with developers converting vintage downtown office towers into lofts, and gas prices still painfully high, the original heart of Los Angeles has become a new urban environment for people bored with the suburbs and sick of the freeway. ¶ For a glimpse into what the new downtown lifestyle is all about, The Times turned to two of its Business section editors, Julie Makinen and Patrick McMahon, who are among the new wave of downtown denizens. ¶ Although they hail from different generations, both were intrigued by the prospect of living in a dynamic community -- and commuting on two feet.

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Something wonderful and completely unexpected has been happening since I moved from the hills of Sherman Oaks to a downtown loft this winter: My wallet has been getting fatter.

Part of the windfall has come from trading my hourlong, 20-mile morning crawl down the 101 Freeway for a leisurely 1.4-mile stroll or bike ride to work. That means $160 less in gas expenditures each month. Cha-ching!

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But keeping Big Oil’s grubby paws off my hard-earned cash isn’t the only benefit. There are so many other financial upsides to moving closer to the office and downsizing one’s living quarters that it’s a challenge to tote them all up.

Downsizing may even be an overstatement. I’ve cut back from 1,800 square feet to about 1,400, which still seems bigger than Rhode Island.

Consider these savings:

* My water and power bill has dropped by more than two-thirds, as has the natural gas bill.

* Cable and Internet? My bill has fallen by more than 80%, thanks to the special rate my building negotiated.

* Adios monthly parking pass; you don’t need one when you don’t drive to work.

And my gardener? No longer necessary -- I can handle the half-dozen plants on my balcony myself.

Without a patch of grass to call my own, there has been one major new expense: a dog walker who gives my Labrador, Larry, a stroll every afternoon while I’m at work. That’s setting me back $60 a week. Yet, even with that factored in, I’m still more than $300 ahead each month.

So why, then, has my balance sheet been showing even bigger gains?

New shopping habits

Back in the Valley, my shopping routine went like this: Hop into the car on a weekend afternoon. Spend hours on the typical suburban circuit of Trader Joe’s, Vons or Ralphs, Target or Costco and maybe the mall. Load up the shopping cart, check out, repeat. Stuff the trunk with a half-dozen bags containing provisions for the next week or two.

No more. Now that my primary modes of transport are my feet, my bike and the bus, I’m shopping Euro-style -- stopping for groceries on the walk home and buying only what’s needed for the next few meals.

Since my spending is limited to what can be carried the two long blocks to my building, that means giving up on heavy cases of wine and bulk packages of toilet paper the size of small igloos. But it also means fewer impulse purchases -- and, overall, less cash forked over at the checkout stand.

Downtown’s surprising array of farmers’ markets help keep my produce expenses in check. I buy mainly at Thursday’s market at City Hall. There’s a Wednesday market on West 5th Street, and another Friday at the Bank of America Plaza. And Grand Central Market is open daily.

Once you get past food, downtown shopping has its limits. If you adore South Coast Plaza or think the Grove is the bee’s knees, chances are you won’t dig the area’s retail scene, which can be a bargain but rough around the edges.

If you’re like me, though, and would rather be poked in the eye with a sharp stick than spend an afternoon at the Beverly Center, then downtown might have just what you’re looking for.

Who needs Barnes & Noble when you’ve got the Central Library? If I want to take a nice bouquet to my friends’ party, the Flower District has endless choices that will always be bigger, fancier and fresher than what I would find at a florist -- at half the price.

For my wardrobe, the Fashion District offers cutting-edge styles at cut-rate prices. Need an interesting gift? There are the shops at MOCA, Disney Hall and the Japanese-American Museum in Little Tokyo. (Oh, and if something a little more vanilla is called for, there’s a Macy’s near Metro Center. Two, in fact.)

Hard as it is for me to believe, it’s been five months since I set foot in Target. With the nearest store more than eight miles away in West Hollywood, I’ve looked for alternatives closer to home. Food 4 Less has my dog food for the same price. The 99 Cents Only Store has basic cleaning and paper supplies. And neither stocks any of those wickedly tempting designer housewares that tend to fly right off the shelves, into my red cart and onto my credit card statement.

Night life

Another reason I’m shopping less? Downtown is keeping me so busy with interesting things to do, see and hear -- and in summer, especially, many of them are free.

In the last month alone, I’ve attended a free salsa class, an evening concert on Grand Avenue, an art lecture at MOCA, a “locals” happy hour with complimentary appetizers and a $10 marimba concert at the Colburn Music School.

Then there was a cabaret evening at a bar, a Mexican wrestling-and-burlesque show, a walking tour on historic preservation and a silent movie screening at the Orpheum Theatre on Broadway. My calendar, meanwhile, is littered with notes about upcoming events -- art walks, comedy shows and museum exhibits.

But if I’m not careful about my choices, my entertainment budget could easily be blown. A Lakers game, a night at Disney Hall and a show at the Nokia Theatre would set me back several hundred bucks.

Then there’s the eating out. And the drinking out. With dozens of restaurants, coffee shops and bars at my front door (and vastly many more to come when LA Live opens in six months), it’s all too easy to stop off for a morning latte, meet friends for a pricey meal or go out after work for a beer (or three, as the case may be when driving home safely isn’t a concern).

Here to stay?

Given how much I’m enjoying downtown living, the inevitable question has arisen: Should I buy a place, or just keep renting?

Having owned three properties in the past, and found them to be decent investments, it’s hard to escape the feeling that I’m throwing away money with each monthly rental check. And for the right price, the landlord would probably be willing to sell.

But at the current market price, I’d end up shelling out about $3,200 a month in mortgage alone, plus nearly $1,000 a month in condo fees and property taxes. Heavens to Murgatroyd, that would mean jacking up my housing expenses by at least 70%!

Sure, I’d see some savings with the mortgage interest deduction on my income taxes. And I might -- might -- build some equity. Yet with the real estate market so uncertain these days, now hardly feels like the right time to take such a risk.

Values may continue to stagnate or even fall; several units in my building alone are in foreclosure. And given that thousands of new apartments are coming onto the market soon downtown, waiting six months might bring me a better bargain. Or at least, more choices. I’m getting used to that.

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julie.makinen@latimes.com

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Begin text of infobox

Profitable move

How Times Business section editor Julie Makinen’s monthly expenses changed when she traded in her Sherman Oaks home for a downtown loft

* Water and power: From $150 to $48

* Natural gas: $65 to $20

* Cable and Internet: $105 to $18

* Gardener: $120 to $0

* Parking: $35 to $0

* Gasoline: $210 to $50

* Dog walker: $0 to $240

* Mortgage/rent: $2,900* to $2,500

* includes property taxes

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