Historic Commercial Reuse
More than one million sq. feet of commercial space is vacant and not all buildings are suitable for adaptive reuse to housing. Current ground floor retail vacancy is at 15-20%. Mom & Pop shops are sometimes discouraged from opening businesses on Broadway because of difficult a change of use process which is often faced in historic and older high-rises. It is unacceptable that, in the center of L.A.’s urban downtown, such beautiful buildings are so significantly underutilized, producing no jobs, no revenue and no support for revitalization in the area. With the Historic Commercial Reuse effort, that can change.
Beginning in 2008, the L.A. Fire Department and L.A. Department of Building & Safety worked with Bringing Back Broadway and a dedicated group of architects and code experts to review case studies and identify common obstacles faced by historic buildings undergoing changes of use and commercial reuse after prolonged inactivity.
We are very pleased that after five years of dedicated effort and hard work, the Bringing Back Broadway Historic Commercial Reuse Guidelines were announced on Dec. 12, 2013. The press release and further information can be found below:
Councilmember Huizar’s Bringing Back Broadway
Announces New City of L.A. Historic Commercial Reuse Guidelines
Councilmember leads effort to create City’s new comprehensive Historic Commercial Reuse Guidelines designed to activate dormant historic buildings on Broadway and fill more than one million square feet of empty upper-floor space on the historic corridor - Policy will encourage millions of dollars of investment on Broadway and an increase in historic preservation
LOS ANGELES (December 12, 2013) – In what could be Downtown Los Angeles most significant policy announcement since the residential adaptive reuse ordinance that led to the area’s population boon,Councilmember José Huizar was joined today by City officials from the Department of Building & Safety and Fire Department, historic preservation advocates and building and architecture professionals to announce the city’s new Historic Commercial Reuse Guidelines, a pilot project for revitalizing the historic Broadway corridor in Downtown L.A.
The Historic Commercial Reuse Guidelines are the culmination of five years of dedicated efforts and are expected to encourage significant development investment while ensuring that Broadway’s historic buildings are safely reactivated and preserved – all key goals of Councilmember Huizar’s Bringing Back Broadway initiative. While protecting fire and life safety, the new guidelines clarify compliance triggers with current code, offer significant flexibility and streamline the process for safely reactivating Broadway’s historic buildings. This will dramatically reduce time and costs – an impediment in the past to revitalizing many historic buildings on Broadway.
“Today, we are knocking the dust off of decades of layers of red tape and impossible and conflicting codes that have resulted in our historic buildings on Broadway sitting empty for far too long,” said Councilmember José Huizar. “This pilot project will undoubtedly infuse Historic Broadway with millions of dollars of investment, create hundreds if not thousands of jobs and bring new services and commercial uses to the area – all the while preserving the beautiful historic buildings that line Broadway. Simply said, our Historic Commercial Reuse program will be a dramatic game changer for Downtown Los Angeles.”
The new guidelines offer a clear roadmap, where none previously existed, providing developers and property owners with specific interpretations of the California Historic Building Code for use in the City of Los Angeles. In 2008, Councilmember Huizar introduced a motion calling for the new guidelines to address the challenges for historical buildings in terms of compliance with current Los Angeles Building Code.
A five year process of policy development followed among Councilmember Huizar’s Office, LADBS, LAFD, the City Attorney’s office, and private sector architects and code experts. The private sector participation included a range of professionals, led by Karin Liljegren, principal at Omgivning Architecture and Interior Design; and Rocky Rockefeller, Senior Partner at Rockefeller Partners Architects.
“These Commercial Reuse guidelines represent a giant step towards reducing development uncertainty and ultimately making it easier for developers and property owners to reactivate the gorgeous historic buildings along this once great theater and shopping street,” said Rocky Rockefeller. “A lack of certainty for building owners, developers and builders and the time and expense of reinventing the wheel with every project has dogged Broadway’s revitalization for years. These guidelines will change that and provide the certainty, guidance and cooperation we need to make smart, sound investments along Broadway. It’s been an honor to be a part of creating this change.”
The Historic Broadway Theatre District is a National Register Historic District and a vital part of our city’s Historic Core. Broadway is known as the birthplace of theatrical and cinematic entertainment in Los Angeles and in decades past was hailed as the commercial and retail capital of the United States.
Today, Broadway suffers from one of the largest inventories of underutilized historic buildings in the nation. Due to their 19th Century design and functionality, many of these commercial and theatrical buildings have fallen to substandard safety levels during decades of vacancy and can no longer be legally occupied. More than one million square feet of commercial space remains vacant in upper floors along Broadway.
A long-term, comprehensive solution had been debated for years making the new Historic Commercial Reuse plan a widely hailed effort by developers and preservation experts alike.
“A policy of this sort was among the hopes and dreams we had when the Councilmember launched the Bringing Back Broadway initiative,” said Linda Dishman, executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy. “To see it come to fruition marks an incredible accomplishment. The Los Angeles Conservancy applauds Councilmember José Huizar, his staff and everyone involved with developing the Historic Commercial Reuse Guidelines. The guidelines will help significantly in the development process and make it easier to revitalize the remaining historic commercial spaces along Broadway.”
The City’s Department of Building & Safety and the LAFD representatives made it clear they want to collaborate and be a part of Broadway’s revitalization as a business-friendly, development-friendly corridor. Dedicated plan checkers from both departments will be assigned to the Broadway projects, ensuring Broadway’s developers interface with staff trained in the in-depth specificity the guidelines offer. A wide variety of projects are expected to utilize the program to activate the upper floors along Broadway, including modern tech and creative office uses, boutique hotels, restaurants and commercial and professional services.
“Creative office and hotel uses are a big part of the future for Broadway’s buildings, and these new guidelines pave the way for a much easier process than we had before,” said Karin Liljegren. “Many of the buildings most suited for residential have already been converted. What remains are beautiful pieces of architecture perfectly suited for amazing creative office and hotel uses. Before today, conflicting codes, and lack of clarity on what alternative methods of code compliance would be acceptable and in what form has made redevelopment very difficult and risky. There’s not a more exciting area in the city in terms of the potential for transformation than Broadway. Councilmember Huizar’s Office was committed to seeing this through and never letting it falter. These five years of hard work are going to pay off for decades to come.”
The guidelines assist in determining fire/life safety provisions that might be required based on which of three categories of commercial reuse is being undertaken, based on whether the work being proposed would trigger compliance with current code or not. Many of the changes outlined in the plan provide common-sense solutions to age-old logjams for developers and property owners including:
- allowing a building that previously had a permitted use in decades past, say as a restaurant, to bring back the previous use (restaurant) today even if there have been periods of different use or non-use, without requiring a costly and time-consuming Change of Use process and requirements to meet modern code;
- assembly occupancy uses (such as art galleries, yoga studios, restaurants, etc.) will be allowed on any existing floor within the building and can use an existing safe and operational fire escape as a secondary exit (in addition to an existing stair) as long as the occupancy does not exceed the capacity of the existing stairs, does not exceed the occupant load originally intended for the building, or does not exceed 299 people per floor, whichever is lower. Without these guidelines, a second (new) stair would be required to be constructed to accommodate any assembly occupancy above the ground floor.
- Occupancy limits on particular floors will now be based on the width and capacity of existing stairs rather than requiring the construction of new stairs to meet modern code – meaning the capacity of existing stairs dictates the floor’s maximum occupancy and existing stairs need not be replaced;
- Existing safely operable elevators need not be upgraded or replaced;
- Building height levels that trigger costly water pump and storage tank requirements to combat fires will be based on modern fire-fighting equipment capabilities instead of those from the 1950s (which was the previous benchmark). Modern fire-fighting trucks and hoses have twice the gallons per minute power as they did when the code was written, so water pump and storage tank requirements will not be triggered on buildings less than 165 feet, instead of the previous 150 feet;
- Stair pressurization requirements will be based on the 1992 or 1996 building code, which calls for high velocity to remove smoke, which is safe and more applicable to older buildings, instead of today’s modern systems for new construction that require separate vestibules for positive and negative pressure.
Up until now, the City has not had the tools, interpretations and training in place to implement the California Historic Building Code (CHBC) and provide specific interpretations for application of the CHBC within the City of Los Angeles.
In conjunction with the City’s regular building code, the California Historical Building Code may be used to provide solutions that are reasonably equivalent to the regular code when dealing with historic buildings on South Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles from 1st Street to 12th Street. This area encompasses the Broadway Theater and Entertainment National Register Historic District and directly adjacent blocks.
After some time, it is anticipated the Commercial Reuse Guidelines being piloted on Broadway could be applied to historic buildings in other parts of Downtown and throughout the City of Los Angeles.