You may not be cool enough Developers offer lifestyle, not just location

Times Staff Writer

There's no conniving Amanda Woodward -- Heather Locklear's "Melrose Place" character -- in the building. Not yet, anyway. But residents of the Rob Clark, a new condo conversion in West Hollywood, say life there often imitates the campy '90s TV show where the overwrought dramas of successful, wildly attractive twentysomethings played out inside an L.A. apartment complex.

The 105-unit Rob Clark, which is owned and operated by New York's Athena Group, marketed itself to "the young Hollywood set" -- hipster professionals in the entertainment industry and other creative fields. And much to the credit of that effort, those are exactly the buyers it's reeling in.

At a time when new home sales are lagging, and countless builders and developers have slashed prices or mothballed their inventories, selling a lifestyle -- not bedrooms and location -- to a narrow band seems to be paying off.

Rob Clark is a fictional character conjured up by Athena's director of sales and marketing, Harry Dubin, to model the rich 'n' free lifestyle the company is selling. "He's in his mid-30s," Dubin said. "He's single, he travels and he has incredible taste."

To bring "Mr. Clark" to life in an early model condo, Dubin scattered women's clothing around the living room and spritzed a little perfume in the air before walking prospective buyers through -- as though the cad had been "entertaining" only minutes before. The building still pays homage to the imaginary Clark with his own chair in the building's lobby, which has chic, Midcentury Modern decor.

How did Dubin zero in on his target audience? For one, he made sure the building's website was darned near impossible for tech-challenged (read: older) people to navigate. Its home page depicts the fictional office of Rob Clark; you have to be savvy enough to know that there are links hidden throughout. "I don't want someone like myself living here," deadpans Dubin, 42.

A measure of the campaign's success is that there are only 11 vacant condos after less than a year on the market -- a testament to the power of niche marketing in a down real estate market.

And Athena isn't the only company narrowing its target demographics to move units. Malibu-based Villa Development is using similar creative marketing tactics to lure buyers to its newest project, the Villas at Carbon Beach -- eight two-story town homes along Malibu's Carbon Beach stretch of Pacific Coast Highway.

The 3,200-square-foot, three-bedroom homes -- featuring private rooftops, elevators and four-car garages -- recently went on the market starting at $3.2 million, which is comparatively cheap for the neighborhood. "We're trying to target the people who are priced out of the beach side of Malibu," said Madison Hildebrand, with Coldwell Banker -- Malibu West, who helped strategize the marketing campaign for the properties.

To reach its target demographic -- Hollywood types who assumed they couldn't afford to buy into one of California's ritziest ZIP Codes -- Villa Development is bringing its message straight to the entertainmen industry.

Guests of the annual Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. luncheon this summer at the Beverly Hills Hotel will be gifted with a luxurious bamboo blanket wrapped in ribbon -- and the properties' brochure and realty business card. "That's hitting celebrities, agents and everyone in the industry," Hildebrand said.

The company also will host a wine-and-cheese event at the Malibu Beach Inn -- embedded in the purchase price of each town home is a year's membership to the hotel amenities -- that spotlights hotel owner and media mogul David Geffen's collection of David Hockney paintings.

Even "in this market, there are still buyers out here," Hildebrand said, "but with conventional advertising you're competing with a lot more companies. Using a niche marketing campaign, you're catching [the target buyer] in places and events where they are relaxed and it doesn't feel like an advertisement. They're more apt to pay attention."

Careful research of target buyers is how the new real estate game is played. Randy Bucklin, professor of marketing at UCLA's Anderson School of Marketing, said niche marketing is "really just an extension of very careful marketing," which is integral to sales success in any ailing market.

"All good marketing actions have something distinctive about them," Bucklin said. "But it's a calculated risk. You say, 'I'm going to give up the opportunity to reach a lot of people and narrow my target because I have a very distinctive product.' But what works for one property may not work for another."

Dubin's gamble at the Rob Clark has paid off. The condo conversion, which started selling units last August, is bursting with celebrity hairdressers and stylists, personal assistants to celebrities, actors (including Kathleen Quinlan, who bought a condo as a pied-a-terre) and -- according to management -- a member of a well-known rock band who shall remain nameless.

And though you may not see gorgeous blonds having catfights in the halls, residents say the uncommon camaraderie among neighbors echoes the "Melrose Place" lifestyle.

Ashley Wynn, a full-time acting student and niece of Las Vegas tycoon Steve Wynn, said hardly a week goes by where she doesn't receive an invite or two to a happy hour, barbecue or wine-tasting at a neighbor's.

"You don't even have to leave the building to feel like you're in a hip, chic community," she said.

Resident Riawna Capri, a hairdresser at the swanky Ken Paves salon, who held a barbecue on the roomy pool deck recently with a gaggle of her neighbors, compares it to living in a dorm. "Everyone is always saying, 'Come over and check out my place and grab a drink.' "

The 1973 building, on Clark Drive less than a block away from stylish shopping street Robertson Boulevard, has studios, one-bedroom units, one-bedrooms with a small enclave space Athena calls a "den," and two-bedroom condos ranging in size from 500 to 1,200 square feet.

The condos, which are set in a maze of outdoor hallways, are slick and no-frills -- with white walls, dark engineered-hickory floors and simple balconies that can accommodate a couple of chairs. Stark and efficient, they feel like bachelor pads. They are, after all, Mr. Clark's apartments.

Studios start in the mid-$400,000s, one-bedrooms with dens in the low $500,000s and two-bedrooms in the high $500,000s. Homeowner fees are about $300 a month.

Small galley kitchens feature Frigidaire appliances and small Eurotech washer-dryers (there are larger washers and dryers available in a room just off the lobby). Bathrooms feature CaesarStone countertops, ceramic tile flooring and aquamarine glass tile in the combo tub-shower.

Second only to its uber-happening location, the building's amenities were cited by residents as a big lure. There's a heated courtyard pool bordered on all side by condos (you almost expect "Melrose Place's" Marcia Cross to saunter out), a separate barbecue area and a small indoor gym, with treadmills, stationary bikes and weights.

But Rob Clark's biggest draw may be its upwardly mobile residents -- kinder, gentler facsimiles of "Melrose Place's" dastardly denizens.

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emili.vesilind@latimes.com

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday, May 28, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 74 words Type of Material: Correction Niche markets: An article in Sunday's Real Estate section on niche marketing said the Rob Clark condo conversion was in West Hollywood. It is in Los Angeles. The same article reported that the purchase price of a Villas at Carbon Beach condominium included membership to the Malibu Beach Inn. That potential partnership fell through; membership is not included. Also, the UCLA Anderson School of Management was misidentified as the UCLA Anderson School of Marketing. For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday, June 01, 2008 Home Edition Real Estate Part K Page 12 Features Desk 2 inches; 72 words Type of Material: Correction Niche markets: A May 25 article on niche marketing stated that the Rob Clark condo conversion is in West Hollywood. It is in Los Angeles. That same article reported that the purchase price of a Villas at Carbon Beach condominium included membership to the Malibu Beach Inn. That potential partnership fell through; membership is not included. Also, the UCLA Anderson School of Management was misidentified as the UCLA Anderson School of Marketing.
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