Urban Infill Grows Up in Downtown Los Angeles

I’ve been watching downtown LA slowly bloom for over a decade.  In a previous life, as a partner in Industrial Color, we spread our wings from New York City and opened our second office in LA.  Coming from New York it seemed natural to locate downtown where the tall buildings were concentrated and where the words ‘Los Angeles’ were written on the map.  But in the end it was not an ideal location because of traffic patterns but also because there was not really any photo production going on in downtown.  There was not much of anything going on down there.  It was easy to park, but it was genuinely sketchy and for the first few years there weren’t really any options for food or entertainment.  Not a lot of fun for our staff or clients.  But there were early signs of change; artist studios, adventurous galleries, and bars that served cocktails I had never heard of but no obvious indication that there was critical mass.  This was 2005. Fast forward to 2016 and downtown LA is now blossoming. I visited in late February, mainly to meet with my friend Steve who owns and runs Smashbox Studios in Culver City, but also to have a fresh look downtown and specifically at the giant One Santa Fe development at the edge of what’s now called the ‘Arts District.’  The photos I had seen reminded me of a giant cruise ship built with highly modular components and living and retail units.  At Blokable we’re breaking housing down to its core elements and one industry that’s long built units, in this case ‘cabins’ is the cruise ship industry.  Cruise ship cabins are built in factory, on an assembly line, similar to the way in which cars are manufactured.  The cabins are then installed in the cruise ships, bringing the housing units together with a foundation which in this case just happens to float.   I wanted to see this fantastic structure that resembles a giant ship on the border of LA’s main railway artery.   I wanted to walk the neighborhood to get a feel.  I was looking for optimism and to see whether this modular building was connected to the community that it is depending on for success. One Santa Fe is an immense building.  510,000 square feet with 438 units on a 4-acre site; a $160 Million development project.  This is a mixed-use complex with a Pilates studio, grocery store, cafe, architectural and arts bookstore, and a number of other small shops all within the main structure and with a focus on the creative customer.  It feels like a grand experiment, concentrating the elements of an up and coming neighborhood into a single, purpose-built complex.  I visited mid-morning on a Thursday and the area immediately around One Santa Fe was quiet.  Stores and cafes were open and I had a lovely fresh juice at Cafe Gratitude then strolled over to Hennessy + Ingalis which is a small bookshop with a fantastic selection of architecture books.  I browsed through what was easily the largest number of books on modular, prefab, container, and manufactured housing I have ever seen.  It was difficult to buy only one book. Signs along Santa Fe Ave indicated that a number of new shops were on the way including one called ‘Amaze Bowls’ which made me laugh out loud.  Collectively, these shops are consistent with a new kind of retail that fits in with mixed-use development projects that we’re seeing in urban infill areas.  Farm to table restaurants, organic grocers, interesting and ethnically diverse small restaurants, arts and indie focused bookshops, and small arts and music venues.  These are generally not chain retailers and they’re selling more crafted and difficult to find items that speak to creatively minded residents.  Richard Florida calls these residents the Creative Class.  

Creative class customers don’t want commodity goods that can be easily ordered from  They want experiences and locally made food and goods.  They want to buy from people they know who have really curated their selection and have an idea that they want to share in the form of a store, cafe, or restaurant.  I also prefer to shop in smaller stores and eat food made by people who care.  It’s just more interesting, rewarding, and healthy.  One Santa Fe is a mixed-use building in an urban infill area and the retailers they’ve brought on board to fill the street front retail spaces were clearly chosen to serve the needs of a creative residential community.  This is the first development of this size that I’ve seen that has brought independent stores and small chains into a large development as part of the overall mixed-use strategy.  There are no national retailers as they simply wouldn’t belong. Had this been an isolated building, disconnected from the local community, the architecture and mixed-use philosophy would feel more alien.  But One Santa Fe is a large-scale expression of the organic growth of the surrounding neighborhood.  The ‘Arts District’ sign is usually an indicator that a neighborhood has reached critical mass on its own to reach the awareness of municipal government who then bestow the appropriate label, signage, and zoning.  As I stood in the middle of the road taking photographs I could see through the window of the Southern California Institute of Architecture as a group of students mapped the future on a whiteboard; the ultimate collaborative creative endeavor.  It made me happy to see these students thinking about architecture.  And it made me happy that it was hard to find parking, easy to find fresh food and art, easy to find lunch for a vegetarian, easy to find locally designed and made fashions, easy to see young, creative people who are trying new ideas and ways of living, and easy to bump into a photo shoot or catch a glimpse of the downtown skyline though a little bit of smog.  People are making stuff. Southern California Institute of Architecture Urban infill is in a different state in Los Angeles than in cities like Detroit and Oakland.  Los Angeles is huge and there’s a wealth of industry and upward mobility for creative people.  Unlike Detroit, there’s a large market of local buyers who have the interest and means to purchase fresh food, books, art, fashion, music, and culture.  Los Angeles is on the map and connected to New York City and the global creative scene, which can help young makers build their customer base and sell into markets around the country and the world.  There are also many people who work in non-creative industries but who want to stay engaged with new ideas and culture.  Unlike San Francisco, Los Angeles is sprawling with miles of industrial land; enough to change zoning to allow mixed-use and experiment with different concepts of what it means to converge residential and commercial interests.  For now, there’s enough space for everyone to thrive without the kind of conflict for affordable housing that we’re seeing in San Francisco and, increasingly, Seattle.   Classic art deco buildings reminiscent of ‘Barton Fink’ can coexist with industrial warehouses straight out of ‘To Live and Die in LA’ and new concepts like One Santa Fe all within easy access of the busy downtown core.  Vastly different models of development that happily coexist thanks to the experimental and creative preferences of the new neighborhood residents and business owners. One Santa Fe wouldn’t work in the downtown core and it wouldn’t work in the suburbs.  It likely wouldn’t work in most other cities but somehow it does seem to work in the Arts District in downtown LA.  It was quick walk from One Santa Fe to Wurstkuche for a quick bite on the recommendation of an LA savvy friend.  This is a lunch spot that specializes in sausages but they had several delicious vegetarian options.  Again, it was clear that I was in an area where I was welcome and where the retailers had thought about me.  A Lincoln Continental passed by driven by a model and tailed by a film crew who appeared to be shooting a hip hop video.  There were a number of sidewalk cafes open and serving lunch to fashionable dressed millennials and boomers.  Around the corner at Urban Radish, another local grocer, the lineup for sandwiches wound out the door.  On every corner, in between warehouses, and in the remaining empty lots I could easily picture Blokable units dropping into place and adding residential and retail capacity to this energetic neighborhood.