At the corner of Have and Have-not
By Gina Piccalo For Los Angeles Times.
May 22, 2005
The developers meet the downtrodden at downtown's Alexandria Hotel.
Inside the Rudolph Valentino suite, Room 1202 of the Alexandria Hotel, flies swarm near red velvet wallpaper and dilapidated furnishings, a dusty chandelier dangles from the ceiling, and the only sign of the silent film star is an old picture screwed to the wall.
But the view from this room is nothing if not optimistic. Nearly every building in every direction is under construction as formerly vacant or derelict properties are converted to high-end condos and loft apartments -- glamorous units that are so hot, buyers are reselling them before they're ever occupied. Photographers, architects, designers and filmmakers are moving in from Los Feliz and Silver Lake, even the Westside. Down at street level, sidewalk cafes and art galleries are cropping up on every block.
"In six months, it's going to be a dramatically different sidewalk scene," says Brady Westwater, who heads downtown Los Angeles' neighborhood council. "In 18 months, you won't recognize it."
Yet right in the heart of this boom, the Alexandria stands at 5th and Spring streets, a monument to the past, the same rundown weekly rate hotel it has been for decades. Elderly tenants still amble through its marble lobby to the local drugstore while others pass their days on shredded red leather benches. And the hotel is still rich with eccentrics: the voodoo woman who curses passersby; Dr. Smellgood, who sprays everyone who gets near him with air freshener; and the Preacher, whose sidewalk "sermons" can be heard for blocks.
The Alexandria's star attractions, the Valentino suite and grand ballrooms, serve almost exclusively as sets for film crews. Beefy security guards, braced for occasional violence, still patrol the entrances while outside, glassy-eyed peddlers work pedestrians, selling heroin and Vicodin, and single cigarettes for a quarter.
"It is what it is," says Martin Yacoobian Jr., whose family has owned the hotel since 1979. The Alexandria, he says, will never be anything more than a home to downtown's downtrodden class, the elderly and the disabled, folks priced out of housing just about everywhere else.
It's too complicated and too costly to convert the rent-controlled building to luxury condos, and any developer considering it "is kidding themselves," says Yacoobian. Evicting the hotel's 350 or so tenants to make room for a more affluent clientele would ensnare developers in a legal and political quagmire for years.
"There's only so much you can get out of a building like that," he says.
But these warnings can't cool the fever that drives this real estate frenzy. Here, every building owner who hasn't already sold his property is shopping it. Even Yacoobian, who says he has no plans to sell, has set a "bottom line": $30 million cash and the buyer takes full responsibility for the tenants. Rumors of an impending sale have been floating for months among downtown's real estate community -- an exciting and daunting prospect for developers, a terrifying one for the Alexandria's tenants.
Transforming the hotel could dramatically alter this area of downtown Los Angeles by virtue of its size -- the 477-room hotel features a restaurant, a bar, a coffee shop, two ballrooms, three service kitchens, underground parking, 11 street-level stores -- and a central location.
Then there are the Alexandria's architectural gems -- the magnificent Palm Court ballroom with its stained-glass Tiffany skylight, for example -- that made it the most luxurious hotel of its era. It was the film industry's first home in the early 1900s, a place where dozens of studios maintained offices, where Charlie Chaplin and friends formed United Artists, where the lobby bustled with so many deal makers that a Persian rug there was deemed the "million-dollar carpet."
Today, the Alexandria represents the mixed blessing of redevelopment. Tenant rights activists call the hotel "a line in the sand" in the battle to save downtown's affordable housing. Business owners and developers consider it a hurdle to "uplifting the neighborhood," a haven for crime, the last domino that needs to fall to make the area's gentrification complete.
Meanwhile, the older tenants, some of whom have watched this corner for decades, bide their time as always, keeping an eye on the shifting tides outside their door.
IT'S HIS NEIGHBORHOOD
BRADY WESTWATER'S speech takes on a kind of stream-of-consciousness flow as he walks along Spring Street, rattling off the neighborhood's newcomers, cafes and art galleries and identifying nearby buildings as "lofts, condos, lofts, condos."
An L.A. native, Westwater spent his childhood downtown in the 1950s and 1960s. "I got blood splattered on me at the Main Street Gym," he says. "And I saw my first naked woman backstage at the Burbank Theater, which was by then a burlesque house....Downtown was my playground."
He remembers when the banks left Spring Street in the 1970s and so many drug dealers took over 5th Street that it became known as "the Nickel." Now, Westwater is the neighborhood's most devoted gadfly and promoter.
As he reaches the Alexandria's corner, it's clear this spot is among the neighborhood's most dynamic; there's change in nearly every direction. The Security Building's 153 loft apartments across the street on the southeast corner will likely be flush with affluent young professionals by year's end. By next summer, the enormous Rowan building on the northeast corner will welcome a similar clientele with 206 condos and a restaurant. On the northwest corner, scores of commercial artists have moved into the Spring Arts Tower, including the Filmmakers Alliance and Magical Elves, a TV production company that, with Miramax Television, is producing "Project Greenlight." Within a few blocks of the hotel are 14 new art galleries.
Last month, the Midnight Mission, which has served the homeless from its 4th and Los Angeles site since 1922, moved to a new building a few blocks away at 6th and San Pedro streets. Locals hope the derelicts and drug dealers move with it.
The Alexandria, meanwhile, stands at the crossroads of all this transition, suddenly more valuable than it's ever been. Its renewed viability is "forcing people to look at it and try to come up with answers," says developer Tom Gilmore, part of the Rowan Building's development team and a pioneer in the redevelopment of downtown.
"Even five years ago, the Alexandria wasn't worth anything to anybody," he says.
Yacoobian says brokers and investors have been hounding him for months to list the hotel and that one even started marketing the building without his approval. Every prospective buyer wants him to "empty the building," but he says he won't do it.
"These people that have lived in this building all these years -- that's their home," he says. "It'll be their home."
Of the hotel's 477 rooms, about 350 are occupied. State rent control laws prohibit Yacoobian from converting them to market-rate apartments but allow the conversion to high-end condos, which now sell for $500 per square foot in this neighborhood. Each tenant who is displaced by a condo conversion is eligible for a "relocation" fee, which could total more than $1 million. Many of them know this and are holding out for their money.
Yacoobian says he has no interest in converting his building to condos. He wants to keep it affordable, he says, and rent to the seamstresses and sales clerks, assembly-line workers and downtown's other low-wage employees.
He has already renovated a dozen vacant rooms with fresh paint, carpets, drapes and furnishings and plans to lease them for $600 to $800 per month, about half the cost of the market-rate lofts across the street. Yacoobian also says he may reopen the restaurant and coffee shop.
But he won't spend the $50 million or more on the building-wide overhaul that prospective buyers say the Alexandria needs. Yacoobian says that even if the rooms could be rented for market rate, there wouldn't be enough profit to justify such an investment. Besides, he says, city officials and tenant activists would almost certainly wage costly legal and political battles to fight the Alexandria's conversion to market-rate housing.
Hundreds of affordable units have been lost to redevelopment in recent years, say activists. The Bristol Hotel, the Pacific Grand-El Dorado, and portions of the Frontier are being converted. The San Julian, long considered a neighborhood nuisance, was demolished after a 2003 fire to make way for a playground. The loss of the Alexandria, one of the largest, safest and best kept of downtown's 104 residential hotels, would be dramatic.
"It's truly the classic example of the haves and have-nots," says activist Pete White, founder and co-director of the L.A. Community Action Network, which monitors tenants at downtown residential hotels. "It's really like drawing a line in the sand. The last bastion of hope [for affordable housing] is Spring Street."
YACOOBIAN calls the Alexandria "just a nice residential place," but living there isn't without risk. At night, security guards insist on walking lone females down the dark corridors to their rooms. In a few cases, tenants have installed floodlights and security cameras outside their doors to monitor the hallways. Elevator rides can be uncomfortable when mentally ill tenants share the car.
Five months ago, the guards kept Polaroids of every troublemaker evicted from or arrested at the hotel -- suspected prostitutes, drug dealers, addicts and pimps, mostly -- to make sure they didn't slip by. One guard, a Gulf War vet who served in the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne, said he broke his wrist on duty while wrestling a 300-pound man wielding a Bowie knife.
"The guy who works the graveyard shift at the front desk tells me that my building averages three deaths a week, usually from someone who was just released from prison OD'ing, or fights over money, sex and/or drugs," writes a longtime Alexandria tenant named Celia on her blog http://5thandspring.blogspot.com.
Celia, who doesn't reveal her last name, works in the entertainment industry and has lived on the 10th floor of the Alexandria for seven years. She and her roommates used to host parties on the roof and, occasionally, they still watch sunsets from up there.
For the last two years, she has documented her life at the hotel. She posted the number of sex offenders that the Megan's Law website states live in the building (15) and detailed her strange encounters with the Alexandria's eccentrics, such as the voodoo woman, the Preacher, Dr. Smellgood and other characters such as Puppet, a big man with a shaved head and tattooed neck who suggested he and Celia make out when they got stuck in the elevator together.
Police say the Alexandria is among the safest of the weekly rate hotels and that violent crime in the area is down significantly, as it is all over downtown. But 14% of the narcotics arrests in Los Angeles take place within two blocks of the hotel, says Capt. Blake Chow of LAPD's Central Patrol Division.
For the Alexandria's 100 or so elderly or disabled tenants, these hazards are mild compared with the alternatives. Some came to the hotel from the streets. Others were priced out of housing elsewhere. Most consider themselves lucky to land housing at the Alexandria.
Their rooms vary in size and condition and often reflect their histories. One tenant, who says he's a former bounty hunter and stunt man, covered his walls with movie posters. Another packed his small room with antiques and books. In yet another room, a tenant prepares meals on a full-size, outdoor barbecue.
Many of them refused to be interviewed on the record, because they feared they might inadvertently insult the owner and risk eviction or endanger their hefty relocation grants if the building is sold. "What I'm paying here, it's a blessing," says one 55-year-old tenant. "And I don't feel like breaking the plate that helps feed me."
For about $350 per month, they get a furnished room with a private bath. There are no kitchens and generally, no air conditioning. Many tenants must pay $20 to $25 for every person who visits their rooms. But security guards patrol the building 24 hours a day. Maids clean the rooms each week. Then there's the energy that bustling film crews bring to the hotel. They commandeer the Alexandria's grand marble staircases, moody corridors and vast ballrooms nearly every week. Tenants still brag about the hotel's role in the 1995 Brad Pitt thriller "Seven." More recently, scenes from Keanu Reeves' film "Constantine" and Keira Knightley's upcoming picture "Domino" were shot there.
The presence of these crews creates a familiar L.A. dichotomy: the gritty environs of the city's poor as backdrop to Hollywood's concept of the hard-luck life.
At the Alexandria, abundant craft services tables crowd hallways, just outside the rooms of tenants who can barely afford three square meals a day. Celebrities pose as drug dealers and vigilantes inside the hotel, just as real drug deals and other crimes of desperation take place on the streets below.
These contrasts became especially stark for Hollywood publicist Siri Garber during a photo shoot in the Valentino suite two years ago. At the time, she and the crew were talking about the hotel's history, wondering whether it was haunted when they heard moaning out in the hallway.
There, Garber found an elderly man face down in front of Room 1206, his bags and his cane strewn around him. It was 76-year-old tenant Guy Waters. He'd been mugged. Garber rushed to his aid, called 911 and then fed him from the craft services table until a hotel security guard, police and paramedics arrived.
That meeting led to a months-long correspondence. In letters, Waters described his quiet life on the 12th floor as "living in exile." He told her he never married, had no children or living relatives. He said he'd spent 13 years in San Francisco working for the California Coastal Commission but left after he retired because he could no longer afford the city. He landed at the Alexandria in 2000 and was virtually confined to his room by fragile health.
"He was extremely bright," says Garber, whose clients include Jeremy Piven, Cary Elwes and Cole Hauser. "His apartment was immaculate. He had some nice antiques and a library with his books. It was bright and pretty and airy. It was like walking into another little world in the middle of that dismal, junky hotel."
Waters' mental condition rapidly declined after the mugging. When Garber showed up with a Thanksgiving dinner months later, he didn't recognize her. A few weeks after that, a hospice nurse called. Waters had died. Garber was his only emergency contact.
"These are people that get completely forgotten," says Garber. "When you don't have anybody left in the world, that hotel has kind of become a place where people go to die."
Tenant John Webb, 59, considers the Alexandria his home base, a place where he says he has thrived. He says it's safe, convenient to transportation and shopping and home to a lot of people like him.
Webb spent two tours in Vietnam as an Army Airborne Ranger and 20 years traveling the world as a petrochemical engineer. He sent his kids to college, cared for his mother after her stroke and then ran out of money and ended up living in a cardboard box on the street.
"Coming from upper-middle class to rock bottom was not only scary, it was terrifying," he says. "I still have nightmares."
A year later, Webb found the Alexandria. Lately he's been in and out of the hospital with lung cancer. "Just another thing I have to beat in life," he says.