Before rows of trendy restaurants and luxury residential towers became common in downtown Los Angeles, developer Geoffrey H. Palmer had a vision for some of the city center's more neglected corners.
Over the last 15 years, he built a series of fortress-like faux-Italian apartment blocks across downtown, several of them clustered along the 101 and 110 freeways and visible to commuters as they negotiate the four-level interchange.
The Da Vinci was the latest in Palmer's so-called "Renaissance collection," apartment complexes with such names as the Orsini and Lorenzo. But early Monday morning, the 526-unit project under construction along the 110 Freeway was severely damaged in a fire that investigators said appeared suspicious.
The massive blaze has again focused attention on Palmer and his much-debated developments.
Business leaders describe Palmer, 64, as a trailblazer in the long effort to revive downtown, saying that he built housing in places where others wouldn't. Critics contend that he has shown little interest in quality architecture or the neighborhoods where he puts his projects.
Palmer has more than 3,500 residential units completed in the greater downtown area and more than 2,500 planned or under construction, according to city records and figures posted on Palmer's company website. Even critics generally agree that he has perfected a successful formula: purchase comparatively inexpensive land next to freeways or on lower-income streets, then construct luxury apartments on a large scale, with hundreds of units in a complex.
"If you look at some of the areas where he put those buildings, you can't imagine people would pay that type of rent there," said Jeff Luster, chief executive of Major Properties, an industrial and commercial real estate firm. "He's getting high-end rents in a lower-end area, which is very impressive."
Palmer issued a statement Monday saying that even after the fire, he expected the northern section of the Da Vinci development to open next year.
"Though we have temporarily lost Building B, we will be opening Building A across the street at the end of January to those families looking forward to occupying their new homes," he said.
A resident of Beverly Hills, Palmer was one of the pioneers of downtown's revival in 2001, when he completed the 632-unit Medici complex on 7th Street near the 110 Freeway. Until then, he was known as a cautious and methodical developer who owned or operated about 5,000 units across Los Angeles and Ventura counties. For the most part, his firm focused on suburban complexes in the Santa Clarita Valley.
When the Medici opened, many saw downtown as too weak a market to support new housing. Palmer and developer Tom Gilmore, who converted some older office buildings to housing at about the same time, have been credited with showing the appetite for apartments downtown. The area is now one of the hottest urban housing markets in the country.
Palmer has "been part of this renaissance since the very beginning," said Carol Schatz, chief executive of the Central City Assn., a business group that focuses heavily on downtown.
In the years that followed, Palmer continued to select Mediterranean-sounding names for his downtown apartment projects — the Orsini on Cesar Chavez Avenue, the Piero east of Good Samaritan Hospital, the Lorenzo on 23rd Street. He made sure each building looked similar to the other, connecting many of them with elevated pedestrian bridges. To the frustration of some urban planners, the buildings had little if any activity at the sidewalk level.
As his empire expanded, he also antagonized neighborhood activists, city commissioners and some L.A. politicians.
In 2003, Palmer infuriated then-Councilman Ed Reyes after his company demolished an 1887 Victorian that preservationists had been looking to relocate. A few years later, he drew the ire of housing activists by persuading a judge to overturn a city policy requiring developers in parts of downtown to include some affordable housing in their projects. In May, he came under fire from pedestrian advocates after he requested an elevated bridge at the Da Vinci to help his tenants avoid a nearby homeless encampment. But the City Council approved it.
Those issues and others have made Palmer a deeply unpopular figure.
"The fake-Italian look — that's definitely the No. 1 thing people hate," said Los Angeles architect Daveed Kapoor, a longtime critic of Palmer's approach. "Then there's the size of them. They're these unrelenting big blocks.
Even the real estate website Curbed L.A., normally a cheerleader for development, was critical of the Da Vinci. "We can't say we feel too sad about it going up in spectacular flames," said a story posted on that site.
Luster, the commercial and industrial real estate broker, praised Palmer for his business acumen. But he said he was baffled by the desire to put high-density homes so close to freeways.
"It's noisy, it smells and there's crashes," he said. "I don't see why anyone would want to live on a freeway. But evidently he's very successful."
Palmer's apartments have attracted students and young professionals, who find themselves in close proximity to downtown attractions. An Orsini two-bedroom can cost $2,395 per month and a Medici penthouse $4,765, according to the company''s website.
Despite his hard-charging reputation, Palmer has begun making some concessions to community groups. When the City Council approved his 913-unit Lorenzo project in 2011, Palmer agreed to set aside 46 apartments as affordable housing with below-market rents, said Joe Donlin, associate director of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, an advocacy group that sought the concessions. Palmer also provided free rent for an on-site health center and a revolving loan fund for local entrepreneurs.
Palmer's company is now moving ahead with a plan to add around 650 apartments to the increasingly hip Broadway corridor. And earlier this year, Palmer notified city officials he is interested in building 1,500 residential units along Beaudry Avenue, just south of Temple.
That project, if completed, would sit directly on the opposite side of the 110 Freeway from the Da Vinci, where the fire broke out Monday morning.