February 9, 2007 - From the February, 2007 issue

Adaptive Reuse Program Will Continue to Enliven L.A.'s Urban Core in Absence of Longtime Director

Under Hamid Behdad's watch as director of the city of L.A.'s adaptive reuse program, the city of L.A. built or planned over 11,000 units in renovated, recovered buildings in the urban core. Behdad is leaving after six years to go into development, but his fervor for adaptive reuse is unabated. TPR was pleased to speak with him about the benefits and future of the program in the second of a two-part interview, which first appeared in last month's TPR.


Hamid Behdad

Last year Kor Group's Kate Bartolo told TPR that the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance "is one of the best programs ever devised to encourage restoration." But she also said, "the Balkanization of L.A. city departments makes it difficult to get all the approvals necessary for an ARO project." Was she correct?

She is and she isn't. Kor Group-and I love Kate; she is a wonderful lady-has a mixture of projects. Kor Group has the Broadway Building in Hollywood, the Eastern Columbia, the Pegasus, the Molino, Barker Brothers and all that.

Pegasus, Eastern Columbia, and even Broadway were pretty much mainstream. But Kor also has projects in the industrial area, such as Barker Brothers and the Molino project. I can see why she said what she did, because developing a loft project east of Alameda is not as easy as developing one west of Alameda.

There is a simple reason for that: the ARO area does not include the industrial land for industrial properties east of Alameda. As a matter of fact, it intentionally excludes it. The projects that we are doing there are "artist in residence," which is a slightly different category of loft versus adaptive reuse.

If you remember during Joel Wachs in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the city of L.A. passed the "Artists in Residence" ordinance, which would allow you to convert certain warehouses or industrially zoned buildings into artists in residence. That is a different product, and had a different philosophy behind it.

What impact does the ARO have on industrial land, which is growing ever more scarce in L.A.?

When we passed adaptive reuse we excluded the industrial land because that was not the main intention. The intention was to bring back life into the historic commercial buildings in the historic corridor of Downtown, not necessarily the warehouses east of Alameda.

Also, we were concerned that by opening the floodgates and allowing all of those buildings east of Alameda for converting to residential lofts, we might start losing industrial land, which is a big discussion nowadays. Later on there was an attempt, from CD 14 even, when we expanded the ordinance from to Lincoln Heights, to Mid-Wilshire, Chinatown, and South L.A, to expand adaptive reuse to east of Alameda.

I specifically argued against it because Mayor Hahn had recently launched the Industrial Development Policy Initiative. At the time Mitch Menzer was the head of the Planning Commission, and I told him, "Mr. Commissioner, we should really be careful about opening the floodgate because we want to preserve the industrial land. Maybe we should take our time and think about this." And I am glad I did. The Planning Commission unanimously voted to exclude east of Alameda.

What tweaks in the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance of 1999 do you think are appropriate today?

Adaptive reuse creates great flexibility. If we didn't have it, some of these projects would never take off. For example, parking is always an issue. We have waived some parking requirements, for good reason. What are we going to do with a 100-year-old building that doesn't have a subterranean basement, or if it does, the columns are so close to each other that you can barely even make a parking space out of it?

If we were to require, for instance, yard setbacks for these projects because they were being converted from commercial into residential, all of these historic buildings should have been torn down and rebuilt. How are you going to push the building back 15 feet from the back or front yards? It's impossible.

The zoning code of the city of L.A. has been written for a suburban style of development, not for urban. It is very obvious. Parking, setbacks, height restrictions, on and on-if these things were not anticipated in the adaptive reuse ordinance, none of them would be built.

What could use improvement? I wish we had a crystal ball and we had passed an ordinance like Division 85 that we did in 2005 from day one to streamline the safety guidelines for these projects. But we didn't know what we were facing, so how could we write a comprehensive ordinance about what we don't know? So, we decided to start these ordinances by a Building Department policy.

As we go forward, we are going to learn, and when we feel like we've learned, then we'll turn it into an ordinance. That is exactly what happened. From 1999 until July 2005, we were working under a guideline for fire/life safety provisions. Once we understood and felt confident, we thought we could turn it into an ordinance.

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Now, if some other city asks for some advice from my experience, I would tell them to do it all in one shot. I wouldn't go back and issue all of the modifications between 1999 and 2005 for safety, which everyone questioned at the time. But we didn't know where it was going, but we had to show flexibility to make the projects happen.

Development in Downtown L.A. has been significant, but most agree that it hasn't yet generated a true community. What more has to happen to have a vibrant, distinctive downtown?

The Adaptive Reuse Ordinance was never intended to solve all the problems in the city of Los Angeles. People have asked me a similar question when it comes to affordable housing. They say, "You have 11,000 units, but what have you done for affordable housing?" I'm sorry, but the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance was not supposed to be the solution for the affordable housing crisis in this town. It has a different intention, which it has fulfilled.

Urban revitalization, Downtown coming back to life, and Broadway being rejuvenated, are not the responsibility of the ARO. But I can tell you what we should do to help achieve this dream of transforming our Downtown into a livable urban environment.

Downtown is caught in a dilemma regarding density and land-use regulations. On the one hand, we are talking about multi-level, multi-family, high-density residential buildings. On the other hand, the CRA says, "Let's put a development condition on almost every property in Downtown L.A. that limits the density of 6-to-1."

This is an interesting dilemma to me because the charter of the city allows that all of these lands be developed based on the density of 13-to-1. Now an agency comes along and says, "Sorry, we're going to limit you to 6-to-1." On the one hand, the developer has to buy the land for $500-$700 per square foot; on the other hand the charter allows you to build 13-to-1, but the CRA wants 6-to-1, and then if you are lucky they will sell you density for $25 per square foot.

Developers are willing to pay even that amount, but it is not always available. So you are talking about how to make this dream of urban development real, but on one side you tie the hands of developers on one of the main, basic tools that you need to create an urban environment-the density.

That is only one of the dilemmas that we have. Then we get into the issue of amenities in Downtown. I am glad to say that recently we have been very lucky to be able to recruit a lot of these amenities. A wave of restaurants, clubs and lounges has been opening Downtown; these are things that will make that urban living a reality.

Another major problem, still, is public transportation. We have a Dash system that, with all due respect to the Department of Transportation, I believe is an old-fashioned solution. Somebody may need to sit down one of these days and bring back what we had in Downtown 100 years ago, which was a beautiful trolley system.

There are certain requirements of urban life that are still missing. I am hoping that one-by-one we can overcome these obstacles and go forward.

What advice would you offer your successor?

Never, ever take no for an answer. Had I wanted to take no for an answer from day one, I should have resigned in 1999. Unfortunately the bureaucratic machine is set in such a way-and maybe rightfully so, because we are the enforcers of the law-we're not the developers or the promoters. But if nine of ten times you refer to a public employee of a public agency, they will have to tell you what they have to tell you. This comes from the nature of being a regulator. That answer is usually a "no" because that is exactly what the "book" is about -what you can't do.

Whoever is going to take over my position, I just hope that he or she will never, ever take no for an answer. There is enough positivity out there to make a lot of those "no's" turn into "yes's." Every adaptive reuse project that I did had at least three-dozen modifications. Every one of those modifications represents a big "no" that I turned into a big "yes." I hope they will realize that and keep doing the same because "no" is not an acceptable answer when you are turning a 100-year-old building into a brand new, state-of-the-art loft complex!

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