Leonard Hill dies at 68; developer converted old downtown L.A. buildings into lofts
Leonard Hill, a producer of made-for-TV movies turned developer who gave new life to old buildings in downtown L.A.’s Arts District — and then produced a romantic comedy about the area — has died.
Hill, who also donated $1.9 million for a new downtown park, died Tuesday at his home in Hancock Park, said his wife, Dr. Patricia Gordon. The cause was not disclosed. He was 68.
For the record:
9:20 a.m. June 16, 2016This obituary incorrectly states that along with partner Yuval Bar-Zemer, Leonard Hill co-founded Linear City Development, which has developed four major residential projects. It was an earlier partnership, Linear City LLC, with a third member, Paul Solomon, that developed the Biscuit Company and Toy Factory lofts.
With partner Yuval Bar-Zemer, Hill co-founded a company called Linear City Development that developed the Biscuit Company Lofts and the Toy Factory Lofts in the Arts District, and transformed a former Metropolitan Water District headquarters into the Elysian, a startling glass rampart of 96 lofts on the eastern edge of Echo Park.
He “felt passionately” about his gift earlier this year to the Mayor’s Fund for Los Angeles for construction of a 1.4-acre arts plaza beneath the new Sixth Street Bridge, said Rick Jacobs, executive vice mayor. The gift includes funds for a stage and performing arts series.
“He loved Los Angeles and he was all about restoring it,” said Hill’s stepdaughter, Allie Weinstein. “He found so much beauty in things that were old.”
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Born and raised in L.A., Hill “could not stand the strip malls and the shoddy construction” that proliferated across the basin in his youth, his wife said.
He rebelled against the faceless character of many buildings constructed in those boom years of sprawl, “and the way they took no care in slapping up a building,” she said. He wanted a different path for the city.
Leonard Franklin Hill was born Oct. 11, 1947, in Westwood to Herbert Hill, a businessman, and Edith Hill, a social worker. He went to Emerson Middle School, University High School, Yale and Stanford, where he earned a master’s degree.
His wife said that other than what she called his “homesick years” at college, “he had never been away from his beloved city.”
He became a TV writer, writing scripts for shows that included “Adam 12,” then was an executive at NBC and vice president of movies at ABC. He produced dozens of TV movies, four miniseries and three dramatic series, and founded Allied Communication Inc., a distribution company.
But in 2001, after TV movies faded in popularity, he launched something new.
Though he had joined the Los Angeles Conservancy in 1986, and became a board member in 1993, he had little experience in construction or real estate development. Yet he started with a project that even experts would consider challenging: He invested in a seven-story bankrupt factory in the Arts District, which, at the time, was flanked with tent encampments and hosted a lively open-air prostitution market.
He was soon joined by Bar-Zemer, an Israeli immigrant and builder with ample experience in adaptive reuse projects. But even for him, “it was uncharted ground,” said Bar-Zemer.
The pair were taking “a tremendous gamble,” said Carl Muhlstein, a real estate broker familiar with the area.
Bar-Zemer described “a few hairy moments.” At one point, an easement problem prompted city officials to suggest they shave back the building’s footprint — not what developers looking to convert a historic factory want to hear.
Despite difficulties, the Toy Factory Lofts were completed in 2004, and the Biscuit Company Lofts followed a couple years later.
“He was not afraid of anything,” Bar-Zemer said.
He credited Hill with teaching him what it means to see projects in terms of a legacy, he said.
Hill would tell him, “here is an abandoned part of the city. We have an opportunity to do something about it. It’s a serious responsibility, and it has to be done right and it has to last,” Bar-Zemer recalled.
Up till then, Bar-Zemer had been a more workaday developer, moving pragmatically from project to project. Hill urged his partner to ponder the long-term effect on neighborhoods of his buildings, and what he called “the archeology” of each structure.
Bar-Zemer emerged from their collaboration with a new sense “that what we create will have a lasting impact on its environment,” he said.
Mayor’s aide Jacobs credited Hill and Bar-Zemer with “reimagining that part of downtown” and helping create the commercial momentum that continues there today.
Hill and Bar-Zemer went on to complete a project called 7+Bridge in 2011, home to lofts and the Bestia restaurant, and finished the Elysian in 2014.
Broker Muhlstein called the Elysian “outstanding.” The William Pereira-designed structure had been so down on its luck that it had been rendered almost invisible, Muhlstein said. It became as conspicuous as a beacon.
Hill never quite left movies behind: He and Bar-Zemer made documentaries for each of their historic reuse projects.
Hill also produced a movie called “Dorfman in Love” in 2011 about living in downtown lofts. Many sequences were filmed in his restored buildings.
Besides reuse work, Hill served on the board of the California Film Commission, Common Cause, and the Caucus of Producers, Writers and Directors, and established the Leonard Hill Foundation.
Bar-Zemer called him a “brilliant guy.” He said Hill was a fast thinker with political sophistication and negotiating flare who “knew how to pick people” and then trusted them without reserve.
At his Hancock Park home, Hill “was the kind of person who read the newspaper from cover to cover before anything got done,” said his wife. It was a second marriage; they wed in 2011.
The planned park he funded at the Sixth Street bridge will be named for him, Jacobs said.
Besides his wife, he is survived by brothers Andrew Hill and Rick Hill.
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