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Old Bank District's San Fernando Lofts Turn Ten

By Eric Richardson
Published: Thursday, August 19, 2010, at 04:34PM
Tom Gilmore Eric Richardson [Flickr]

Developer Tom Gilmore stands outside the San Fernando Building, which welcomed its first tenants on August 19, 2000.

On August 19, 2000, developer Tom Gilmore opened the doors to his first tenants in the San Fernando Building at 4th and Main and kicked off a new chapter in Downtown's revitalization.

Many thought Gilmore crazy for his plan to open hundreds of lofts on a corner that was so close to Skid Row, but the project was a quick success. An L.A. Times story from July of 2000 noted that half of the 70 units in the project's first phase had already leased two months before they opened.

Ten years later, the success of the Old Bank District complex -- comprised of the San Fernando, the Hellman and the Continental -- is still a surprise even to Gilmore.

"It is amazing to me when I read the old articles from 1999 and 2000 that so much that could have been boosterism or could have been rhetoric or could have been whatever, ended up becoming real," he said today. "I'm sort of bowled over by the fact that it all actually worked."

Not all of Gilmore's ideas from the time panned out. The developer bought the Palace Theatre in early 2000 with the intention of returning it to its roots in live entertainment. He also planned to convert the El Dorado into a boutique hotel and envisioned a multi-use complex with a school and hotel around the former St. Vibiana's cathedral.

"You can't have one idea," Gilmore explains. "You can have one process, but I don't think you can have just one idea because then if that idea doesn't hit you lose the process of the momentum you've begun to create."

"It's literally like throwing a bunch of stuff against the wall and seeing what actually hangs on. I was lucky that the thing we invested a lot of chips in was the one that hit."

The developer cites Vibiana as an example of a project that simply took longer than he envisioned, and notes that his company sold the Palace when they realized that Broadway was farther away from transformation than the rest of the neighborhood.

Gilmore wasn't the only developer creating housing Downtown at the time. 2000 was also the year that Geoff Palmer opened the first phase of the Medici, the beginning point for his empire of Italian-named upscale residential complexes.

"I give a lot of credit to Geoff Palmer in a weird way," Gilmore says. "He used to think that I was building in the worst place in L.A., and I always thought he was building in the worst place in L.A. He was basically building on empty parking lots adjacent to the highway where nobody wanted to do anything."

The two developers' products are very different from each other, but that range of options is important to a healthy Downtown, Gilmore notes.

So what do the next ten years hold?

"Unfortunately I think depends on the city a little bit, and that makes me uncomfortable because I think that the city is to some extent rudderless right now," Gilmore says. "I think they need to become more enablers than just administrators." If that happens he sees increased densification, the return of Broadway and new density in South Park.

He sees the most potential in another unlikely place: Skid Row.

"I'm sure everyone on the planet will take this wrong, but I think Skid Row is an extraordinary opportunity to find a new mixed-income model that is actually heavily based on affordable housing but also has moderate income in there as well," he explains. "If the city uses their head and doesn't prohibit development but does smart development, I think Skid Row can become a much more balanced component of this so that Skid Row, the Arts District and the rest of Downtown can all connect."

Gilmore also still sees new potential in the Old Bank District. "Our vision was to build a framework, have people enter that framework and then see what happens," he explains. "We've responded to the people who inhabit this. It's kind of like a petri dish."

That dish continues to produce new results. Gilmore says that he's thrilled with the way that the complex's retail has developed and the community that has been created.

That community will be on hand for the Old Bank District's 10th anniversary block party on Saturday. It will run from 4pm to 1am. 4th and Main streets will be closed off for the event, which will feature local businesses, food from the corner's restaurants, beer, wine and live performances by Pepper Rabbit, Helen Stellar, Sing Orpheus, Mississippi Man, Gedina Jean and Very Be Careful. More information can be found on the event web page.

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