Geometric Progression

  • Urban Land
  • November 1, 2005
  • William P. Macht

A tower looms in the distance alone, separated from the rest of downtown Los Angeles by the 110 Harbor Freeway. Its base is a massive 16 story concrete cube that holds 700 parking spaces – spaces that have been empty for almost 20 years. A 21-story glass triangular prismatic pentahedron sits atop the cube, its floors empty as they, too, have been for nearly 20 years.

About a year ago, two Los Angeles-based urban developers, Cleveland based Forest City Enterprises, along with partners The Martin Group and MacFarlane Partners, paid $37 million to buy the geometric behemoth and devised a plan to increase its value dramatically.

Unlike many modern businesses, development is still more than an art than a science. Locally based developers intuitively integrate vision, knowledge of local markets, financial acumen, and timing to form and lead a team of architects, engineers, contractors, financiers, and brokers to capture the imagination – and dollars – of users and the public. In short, developers create value, and the story of the initial construction and later redevelopment of the 1100 Wilshire building shows that fact – in bold relief against its geometric forms.

The 1100 Wilshire building, at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Bixel Street, was built by Tsai Ming Yu, a Japanese citizen of Chinese ancestry who was active in the redevelopment of Tokyo’s upscale Ginza district. In 1985, he came to Los Angeles hoping to extend Asian cultural influence abroad. Tsai envisioned an office building that would accommodate ancient principles of feng shui (meaning wind/water) – the positioning of buildings based on a belief in patterns of yin and yang and the flow of chi (energy) to achieve harmony with the environment. He intended it both as an architectural landmark for Los Angeles and as his flagship building for Asian businesses in the United States.

Tsai hired Los Angeles architects A.C. Martin Partners, Inc., to design the building. The firm advised Tsai that the 16 story, spiral-ramped parking structure would make drivers dizzy, that the buildings triangular shape would not appeal to tenants accustomed to laying out space in more efficient rectangles, and that its small, 12,000-square-foot triangular floors would not work well for multiple tenancy. But Tsai had it built that way anyway. Once the building was complete, Los Angeles experienced a slowdown in the real estate market, and Tsai, unwilling to discount rents, was unable to fill the building with tenants.

Ironically, precisely the same factors that made the building uncompetitive as an office building make it ideally suited to conversion to condominiums. Since it has an unusual shape and is slightly separated from downtown, 1100 Wilshire has a high profile on the skyline. It also is in an area toward which downtown is growing. Its location on a hill surrounded by lower structures make it “the tallest residential structure in all of Los Angeles, and air restriction rights will prevent new developments from obstructing views,” notes Thom Cox, CEO/managing partner of Los Angeles – and Irvine-based TCA (Thomas O. Cox Architects), the firm hired by Forest City to be the interior architects. A.C. Martin Partners is again the executive architect.

With the 16-story concrete cube parking structure as a podium, condominiums start on the 17th floor, which means that all units have unobstructed views through the glass walls. Moreover, the 17th floor was originally built at more than double height to house a health club with a skydeck pool that is already installed and which the developer is lengthening. This means the space can easily be divided into two-story lofts that open directly onto private roof terraces. The ability to build penthouse units on both the lowest residential floor and the top, triple-height 37th floor means that more units at 1100 Wilshire will compare favorably with any new downtown condominiums, particularly in automobile-oriented Los Angeles where owners often have more than one vehicle per person. Because upper-story parking spaces are less desirable, the Developer expects to sell the lowest parking spaces at a premium; spaces not sold to unit owners can be used to derive additional income.

The fact that the building was vacant for so long and never built out means that demolition costs are relatively low and building shells can be custom finished to suit different buyers. And, because the building is complete, presale buyers can actually inspect the views, orientation, and light qualities of units before purchasing them, providing an advantage over competitors who must pre-sell units sight unseen. Buyers, therefore, may be more willing to enter binding purchase contracts with non-refundable deposits of 5 percent of the purchase price. Moreover, the building has been so little used that developers are able to adapt and reuse original mechanical systems, reducing additional conversion costs.

It also was unnecessary for the developers to retrofit complicated seismic reinforcing systems because the building’s unusual cube and triangular prism geometric shapes went through seismic and wind testing before initial construction. The torsion was found to be greater in the triangular portion in the base, so structural engineers designed a rigid frame along the perimeter of both shapes. To compensate for the change in mass and stiffness between the two parts, a common rigid frame was added at the core as a kind of spinal cord. A 42-foot replica of the building’s most sharply angled corner was tested for wind, wind-driven rain, and seismic effects on the curtain wall’s connections and gaskets.

Also benefiting 1100 Wilshire is the Los Angeles adaptive use of ordinance adopted in 1999, which allows developers greater flexibility in converting offices to housing. Thousands of new condominiums in development within a one mile radius of 1100 Wilshire, the new high-rise conversion is expected to be the anchor for an emerging urban neighborhood in the downtown area.

Because 1100 Wilshire was constructed as an office building, ceilings are at least 11 feet high, and some are as high as 23 feet. In addition to accommodating the unusual triangular shape, TCA had to produce more than 40 different floor plans. The triangular ends produce spaces with opposing glass walls that are both intimate in scale and expansive, providing 180-degree, unobstructed views. The small floor plates mean that each floor has no more than seven to 11 units reinforcing a sense of privacy and exclusivity. Removal of four of the elevator shafts still left five high-speed elevators serving the units.

The spaces opposite center of the hypotenuse of the triangular form, behind the elevator core, can produce deep units. TCA principal Daniel Gehman points out that deep floor plates create spaces in which the exterior windows can be 50 to 60 feet or more from the back walls. “That presented a huge challenge,” he explains: bedroom areas in lofts are placed on raised platforms overlooking the kitchen and living area, allowing light to enter through the tall glass curtain walls. Gehman notes that operable windows will also be installed to bring fresh air into the units.

Condominium prices range from the mid-$300,000s to over $1.7 million. Sizes range from 550 square feet for studios to 800 square feet for one-bedroom lofts, 1,200 to 2,000 square feet for two bedroom lofts, and 1,800 to 3,500 square feet for two-story penthouse lofts. Though the building was valued at over $80 million at one time, the purchase for $37 million makes the company’s average raw cost for the 228 condominiums $162,000 per unit. With a reposted $60 million rehabilitative and conversion cost, average costs rise to about $425,000 per unit. But if prices average $650 per square foot in early presales, the average price will be about $750,000 per unit for the condominium portion of the building, significantly more than double its highest previous valuation. There are also 700 parking spaces and about 10,000 square feet of retail space that are intended to be leased as owner amenities to such tenants as a spa, market, a bistro, or a coffee shop. If presale interest in the geometric uniqueness of 1100 Wilshire continues – 150 of the 230 units are reportedly sold – the geometric shapes may be the only things that progress geometrically.