Doing business on historical properties in LA

the-bloc-sign.jpgThe Bloc, Ratkovich's new project in downtown LA. Photo: LA Observed.

As an investor and restorer of important properties around Los Angeles, Wayne Ratkovich has done as much as anyone to preserve LA's architectural legacy. He brought back downtown's Oviatt Building and Fine Art Building and the Wiltern Theatre, freshened up the 5900 Wilshire tower where Los Angeles Magazine and other media outlets are housed, and rehabbed the old Howard Hughes buildings at what's now Playa Vista. His newest attempted saves are the Ports O' Call Village in San Pedro and the bedraggled downtown shopping mall at 7th and Hope streets, which is being opened to the sky and rechristened as The Bloc.

He took questions from the LAT's Patt Morrison about preserving storied buildings in LA and the fail by city fathers who spent hundreds of millions trying to make Bunker Hill into the new downtown. They were chasing the dream of an impressive skyline, says Ratkovich: "In my opinion [the skyline] should have been along Wilshire Boulevard, the great linear downtown in America."


Why do you go to the trouble of rehabbing old buildings?

We'd like to be an example of capitalism in its most admirable form. We function in the private market, not with government subsidies, and we fulfill our mission to profitably produce developments that improve the quality of urban life. That allows us to do well and do good at the same time.

Have you changed investors' minds about such projects?

There's much more interest. The Howard Hughes buildings were in terrible shape. We were able to attract the capital but the field was pretty narrow. [But] once we finished the job, everyone was interested in it. We paid about $60 a square foot, 575,000 square feet on 28 acres in West Los Angeles, and now, four or five years later, the finished buildings are selling for $600 a square foot. We had to spend money, but you can go from $60 and spend a lot and still [make money].


Why does Los Angeles have such a bad track record when it comes to saving its own history?

It's a place of rapid growth and short memories. In the first 50 years of the 20th century, downtown Los Angeles was the center of commerce, of government, of retailing and entertainment. Then we had 50 years of urban expansion. There was a time when "urban" was a dirty word. Now we're back saying cities are pretty good places.

The Los Angeles Conservancy had its first public meeting in the Oviatt — maybe 50 people. Now it's the largest preservation organization in the country, I think. Sally Stewart, one of the founders of the Conservancy, said to me, "We're not really interested in preserving buildings just to be museums; we're interested in preserving buildings to have a new life." That's the right approach.

Can Bunker Hill ever be reintegrated into the city?

They should have left it alone: 155 acres that the city condemned and I don't think it's ever going to work out now. I say this as an owner of an office building on the flatlands, so I'm biased, but the truth is, people want to move out of Bunker Hill and come down here to be a part of the real city.

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