Gene Blevins / Reuters

Downtown LA apartment complex fire underlines stark development divide

Some urban planners were ambivalent about — or even celebrated — the fire at a complex built by an infamous developer

Downtown Los Angeles was transformed this week when a building that represented the good, the bad and the ugly of the city's newly revitalized center burned to the ground.

The building, the size of a city block and seven stories tall, was called the Da Vinci and was slated to open in January. It was built by local developer Geoffrey Palmer, who is best known for his grand, sprawling, faux-Italian-style apartment complexes across California. More than 250 firefighters responded to the Monday fire, and there were no injuries reported.

His apartment buildings stand unapologetically in opposition to their surroundings — mainly constructed of wood, not concrete, set back from the street and designed for people who drive, not pedestrians. And Palmer is unapologetic about them, resisting calls to conform to the buildings’ surrounding and to incorporate affordable housing. 

In the 15 years since the Los Angeles passed an adaptive-reuse ordinance that encouraged developers to convert office buildings into residential spaces in the city’s struggling downtown, the entire character of downtown has changed, with an influx of lofts, high-end restaurants and, increasingly, luxury developments.

His brash structures and even brasher demeanor have come to embody the worst fears of many architects and others who care about urban planning in L.A. Many are worried developers like Palmer are stepping on the downtown’s unprecedented opportunity to become pedestrian friendly and equitable.

So when the blaze at the Da Vinci lit up the night sky on Monday, many who care about architecture and city planning were ambivalent — and some even celebrated the building’s demise.

Rumors abound, but enough people disdain Palmer’s developments to make the architectural hate crime rumor seem plausible in L.A. Even development-cheering blog Curbed L.A. wrote, “There’s been a fair amount of delight in the aftermath of the fire (including from us).”

“The last thing I want to do is say someone definitely burned it down,” said Stephen Corwin, a downtown-L.A.-based Web developer who works on urban planning projects. “But there are so many people that constantly complain about this guy’s impact on the downtown area. I personally have been so frustrated and feel like I don’t have an outlet. I can imagine there was someone who was very frustrated.”

Brigham Yen, a real estate agent who blogs about the transformation of downtown L.A., said, “I guess that would be shocking to someone from outside L.A. — that people would be happy about something like this. But the theory isn’t too outlandish. He has such an infamous reputation.”

Palmer declined a request for comment.

The investigation into the fire is ongoing. The Los Angeles Fire Department and 45 investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are combing through the ashes of the place and haven’t ruled out arson.

“One of the concerns is the volume and the amount of fire and the ferocity with which it was burning,” said Los Angeles Fire Department spokeswoman Katherine Main.

But Main said that even if the blaze wasn’t started intentionally, a building like the Da Vinci, with its 1.3 million square feet built mainly of wood, “is basically like a matchstick.”

Palmer’s buildings might have been less controversial had they been built anywhere else in Southern California. But because they were built in downtown L.A., an area caught up in the nationwide debate about the merits of revitalization and gentrification, they’ve become symbols of everything that can go wrong with urban planning.

Median household income in downtown L.A. has increased 10 percent in just two years, according to the area’s business improvement district. The newer, wealthier residents have brought with them restaurants, shops and glowing magazine profiles of the area.

Supporters of and contributors to the revitalized downtown have often clashed with those who say that while the downtown wasn’t pretty in the past, it was at least affordable for L.A.’s low-income population. Those clashes have intensified as L.A. has become more expensive in recent years. The city is now often cited as the least affordable city for renters in the nation, with one study released in September by UCLA’s center for the study of inequality showing the average resident dedicates 47 percent of his or her paycheck to rent.

But there’s one thing downtown’s developers and people concerned about affordable housing can agree on: their dislike for Palmer.

“For affordable housing advocates, he’s somewhat of a villain,” said Larry Gross, the director of the local nonprofit Coalition for Economic Survival. “It’s not only what he’s done with actual developments. He’s done more to handcuff local government from enacting key tools for affordable housing than practically anyone.”

Palmer has been an outspoken critic of zoning that would require developers to incorporate affordable housing in their new developments — one of the tools rapidly gentrifying cities like New York and San Francisco have used in recent years. In 2009, after L.A.’s government tried to force Palmer to include some affordable apartments in a new development, Palmer took the city to court over its affordable housing ordinance and won. His victory removed the affordable housing requirement not only for his own developments but also for every other rental development in L.A.

He has also been criticized for applying to the Central Area Planning Commission to build a bridge over a public street between the now burned section of the Da Vinci apartments and another section to protect residents from “potential incidents that occur during the evening hours when the homeless population is more active.”

Architects and planners say that regardless of whether you think of downtown L.A.’s redevelopment as displacement-causing gentrification or an exciting revitalization, Palmer’s buildings help very few people.

“His projects don’t add value to the neighborhood,” said Will Wright, the director of government affairs at the American Institute of Architects Los Angeles. “It doesn’t make people feel like they want to belong there. The fire was devastating, but at the same time, let’s wake up and think about construction and downtown and what’s the best way to build L.A.”

Some, like Carol Schatz, the director of the Central City Association, a downtown L.A. business group, have applauded Palmer for taking risks on building developments in downtown L.A. in the early 2000s, before most developers would.

But Palmer’s critics say he could have chosen a different way to make his mark on downtown.

“At the time he was coming into downtown, the perception was that it was very dangerous, so maybe he had to make [his buildings] seem like a resort at some tropical destination,” Yen said. “Unfortunately, that model doesn’t take into account that downtown L.A. would eventually be a place people wanted to be.”

What the city is left with now is a downtown bursting at the seams with residents, retail and restaurants — and more than 6,000 units of Palmer’s developments either built or in the works, which critics worry will constrict growth.

“He’s essentially prevented downtown from being able to expand outwards,” Yen said. “He could have been the most lauded developer in downtown Los Angeles instead of the most hated developer in downtown Los Angeles. But I don’t know if he cares a lot either way.”

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