The downtown construction site of developer Geoff Palmer’s Da Vinci apartment complex—and two nearby buildings—caught on fire early Monday morning. Much of the Da Vinci structure on Fremont Avenue was destroyed, according to an early report, and arson investigators were called to the scene, although an official cause of the blaze has not yet been determined.
This isn’t the complex’s first time in the news. In our December issue, writer Marc Haefele profiles Geoff Palmer, examining his vision and his “$3 billion concern,” a collection of downtown properties that have been widely criticized. Here is Haefele’s story:
You’d be forgiven for wanting to reach out the passenger window of your car and touch the Da Vinci, the newest downtown apartment complex from G.H. Palmer Associates. Built dead against the transition from the 110 to the 101 and opening early next year, it is massive in scale, with medieval brick buttresses surmounted by Italianate dingbats. The Da Vinci is unlike any other developer’s apartment building downtown, though it is nearly identical to the Orsini, a 2011 structure across the street, and for that matter, the Piero, the Visconti, and the Medici—all Palmer projects that dominate the one-and-a-half-mile stretch of the Harbor Freeway between 8th Street and Sunset.
Christened the Renaissance Collection, the pricey midrise residences are the singular vision of Geoffrey Harrison Palmer, who has created in excess of 3,000 apartments in downtown Los Angeles—more than anybody else. Palmer hasn’t granted an interview in eight years but says via e-mail that he wanted to recapture downtown’s former glory with the buildings, whose repetitive design almost certainly saves on costs and, as Alan Boivin, Palmer’s architect, notes, “[is] a form of branding. Geoff had a great deal to do with it.” For Palmer, however, the Italianate buildings also honor the city’s founders. “The Italians actually settled L.A. before the Spanish and Chinese,” he says.
That may be a rather unusual reading of the area’s history, which typically maintains that Spanish settlers founded L.A. in 1781, but Palmer has long demonstrated a tendency to go his own way. Back in 1998, local bankers wanted nothing to do with his scheme to borrow $75 million to put the county’s largest new rental housing project exactly where nobody else wanted to build: just west of the 110 in an area known loosely as Central City West.
The rebirth of downtown was ignited in 2000, when real estate developer Tom Gilmore bought a cluster of classic buildings in the Old Bank District. Tapping into the city’s 1999 adaptive reuse ordinance, which aided the conversion of office buildings to housing, Gilmore also wanted to restore downtown L.A.’s former glory while offering what was fairly uncommon here: a truly urban living experience. The plan worked. Gradually the transformation spread across the central core.
A place the revival didn’t seem to be headed, however, was Central City West. After the riots and the Northridge quake, a high-rise office project slated for the district evaporated, leaving that segment of downtown a wasteland of parking lots, low-rise commercial structures, and depleted oil wells.
“We had to go to Texas to find financing,” says Ben Reznik, one of Palmer’s many litigators. (The veteran lawyer claims to have filed more land-use lawsuits against the city than anyone.) City officials were also astounded by Palmer’s plans. “I remember walking into [then city planner] Con Howe’s office with this heavy bundle of blueprints,” recalls Reznik. “Howe said, ‘You are wasting your time.’ ”
The five-story, wood-frame Medici I and II would go up at Bixel and 8th streets, on a sloping site originally designated for a pair of skyscrapers. Next, in 2004, came phase one of the Orsini and the Piero, properties that the company would eventually enlarge with duplicate buildings right beside them. Palmer’s notion of downtown revival differed markedly from Gilmore’s. Instead of historic units integrating shops, restaurants, and street life, Palmer was erecting inward-facing citadels that appeared to exist apart from the neighborhood they inhabited. Straddling thoroughfares and linked by pedestrian bridges, the structures seemed less about nurturing a locale and more about establishing turf.
That may help explain why the sidewalk-level commercial space in each project has remained largely vacant. As for the apartment units themselves, the company has declared an occupancy rate of 95-plus percent, with available units priced from just under $2,000 to as high as $5,000 a month. To Reznik, the demand for them proves Palmer “a visionary in every sense of the word.”
Carol Schatz agrees. She oversees the Central City Association, which recently awarded Palmer a “Hero of the Renaissance” citation (referring of course to downtown’s rebirth, not to the name of Palmer’s apartments). “He had done his homework,” she says. “He found out that there was a demand for downtown market-rate housing, that the occupancy rate for available housing was over 95 percent. He gambled and won. We all did.”
The Renaissance Collection’s units feature amenities like walk-in closets, granite countertops, and maple cupboards. But the greater lure for many may be the complexes themselves, which are lush with palms, Mediterranean-style pergolas, obelisks, fountains, and flowering arbors along with such “resort amenities,” as Palmer calls them, as fitness centers, movie theaters, conference rooms, basketball courts, libraries, tanning beds, saunas, pools, and spas. The Medici even has a one-acre private park with tennis and picnic facilities and a sand volleyball court.
As with several Palmer properties downtown, it has also generated a bounty of tenant grievances on Google and Yelp. There are consistent complaints about trash and property damage around the premises, about the noise from other tenants (many are students), and about what people describe as lax oversight. Unlike most sizable apartment operations, Palmer’s $3 billion concern possesses its own management subsidiary. In fact, the company has its own construction teams, which makes sense when you’re a company that has added at least one building—and often more—to its downtown portfolio in 6 of the past 12 years.
Palmer entered the real estate development business almost four decades ago, after earning a law degree from Pepperdine (he doesn’t practice, but he did fund the university’s Geoffrey H. Palmer Center for Entrepreneurship and the Law). The second of five children, he grew up in Malibu, where he and his wife own a home assessed at $13.6 million (their other is an estate in Beverly Hills assessed at $16.3 million). Asked about his personal life, the developer demurred, saying, “I don’t want to be notorious.”
But notoriety came early in his career. In 1978, he formed G.H. Palmer Associates, developing broad tracts in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys. Perhaps fearing that the move to incorporate Santa Clarita in 1987 would result in more building regulations, the company unlawfully had employees contribute funds to a political action committee opposed to cityhood and then reimbursed them. It was also discovered that it made illegal contributions to L.A. city councilwoman Joy Picus, in whose district he was building a housing complex. In 1992, the company paid $30,000 in fines for 15 violations.
Palmer ran afoul of Los Angeles again 11 years later when he destroyed the last original building left on Bunker Hill. A neglected 1880s Queen Anne cottage, the Giese House sat on Palmer property at Cesar Chavez and Figueroa, where the Orsini would go. Although the cottage was to be moved by preservationists to Angelino Heights, Palmer’s crew reduced it to clothespin-size chips, claiming that the property needed to be demolished after a bulldozer had accidentally backed into it. “There really aren’t many buildings left from the 1880s,” says L.A. Conservancy chief Linda Dishman. “It’s a shame they tore this one down.”
By lacking the proper permit for demolition, the company violated a city law protecting old houses. Facing a five-year suspension from completing the Orsini and even possible jail time, Palmer sued the city (something he’s done many times). He wound up paying a $200,000 settlement and agreed to public mitigations. Which is why the Orsini is the only Palmer property with an outdoor ornamental fountain that even nonresidents can dip their fingers into.
There’s good reason, however, why Palmer has a reputation for being a fierce opponent. (“He’s not that large,” says one former city official, “but he’s like a bantam rooster—very feisty.”) “The city’s extraordinary measures against me were shown to be politically motivated and baseless,’’ Palmer says of that episode. If he’s right, one possible political motivation was his objection to a mandate requiring developers in Central City West to price 15 percent of their units for lower-income tenants. As Palmer resisted, protesters from the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now picketed and chained themselves to bulldozers. A 2004 settlement with the city for $2.8 million allowed the Visconti to elude the rule.
Two years after his first battle over low-income housing, Palmer fought the same rule in connection with the Piero II development at 6th and Bixel. Taking a new tack, the developer successfully argued that the requirement violated the state’s 1995 Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act forbidding municipalities from setting rent levels for new buildings. His victory was widely seen as weakening similar “inclusionary” zoning laws throughout the state.
Affordable-housing advocates often blame that decision when they point to the paucity of low-income housing downtown. (Not that pricey rent is limited to that area alone: A recent New York Times report found that L.A. as a whole has the nation’s least affordable rental housing, owing to the city’s combination of steep rent and low prevailing incomes.) Palmer, who has more than 9,200 apartments countywide, remains unswayed. “Affordable housing isn’t appropriate in all areas,” he says. “Where appropriate, I support it. I have built and still own one of the largest portfolios of affordable units in the county.’’
Perhaps he had no choice, but Palmer was more conciliatory after he announced plans in 2006 to put one of his trademark ersatz Tuscan buildings on Hope Street near West Adams Boulevard in South L.A. The $250 million Lorenzo was originally reported to be planned as luxury housing on the site of a former orthopedic hospital near USC. But a coalition of South Los Angeles community groups known as United Neighbors in Defense Against Displacement (UNIDAD) opposed luxury apartments going up in a predominantly poor area; what they wanted were jobs and more options for health care services.
Because the land was zoned specifically for educational and medical uses, UNIDAD couldn’t be ignored. So the project was repositioned as high-end student housing—2,700 beds total, with the usual Renaissance Collection amenities, plus a climbing wall and a café that delivers pizza. After prolonged negotiations, Palmer didn’t only agree to fund a clinic that could serve as many as 20,000 patients annually; he included 46 low-income units in the complex, offered $1 million to build more off the Lorenzo site, and promised to provide jobs to people from the area. UNIDAD declared the concessions a victory. “There was a great deal of struggle to make this happen,” says Joe Donlin of Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, one of the participating groups.
But Palmer isn’t focused on investing only around the fringe of downtown anymore. He envisions a city core that two decades from now will resemble Manhattan, and to that end he expects G.H. Palmer Associates to add at least 1,200 other apartments to the area. In fact, plans are already being laid for the 650-plus-unit Broadway Palace at Olympic and Broadway—Palmer’s first venture into the type of terrain that Tom Gilmore has specialized in. Only, Palmer isn’t revitalizing an old edifice; he’s starting from scratch, having agreed to part with the Italo-fortress look and aim for something more in context with the 1920s steel-frame structures that define the neighborhood. Lest anyone get the idea that Palmer is going totally soft, however, the plan does call for twin structures joined by a pedestrian bridge. Because when you’re contributing to the rebirth of a neighborhood, you can’t forget the Renaissance.