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Romancing the Blackstone

A 1916 Department Store Becomes 82 Upscale Apartments

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GARY LEONARD

Less than two months after opening, the Blackstone is more than 70% leased. The husband and wife team of Allen Gross (above) and Arax Harutunian turned the 1916 former department store into 82 apartments. Photo by Gary Leonard.

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DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - At first glance, it doesn’t look like there is much going on at the former department store at Ninth Street and Broadway. The seven-story building has only been open a little more than a month, and the management concedes that some final touches are still being applied.

The pool is not installed yet, and neither is the dog park. The hotel-like services, a stylish lobby and community rooms also have not been completed.

Yet this is a case where looks are deceiving: Despite the list of pieces to come, the 82-apartment complex called the Blackstone is already more than 70% leased.

“We’ve had a great response,” said Kerri Moran, the manager of the 1916 building. “It’s been a lot of word of mouth.”

The project comes courtesy of Standard Developments, a subsidiary of Neighborhood Efforts, a company that has been in business for 15 years and specializes in historic renovations. It is run by the husband and wife team of Allen Gross and Arax Harutunian.

Their previous projects include the Los Altos Apartments, a Mission Revival style building on Wilshire Boulevard, and renovations to the Victor Clothing building in Downtown.

The couple purchased the Blackstone two years ago for a price they would not reveal. Their goal, said Gross, was to do something different than many of the other conversions in Downtown.

“We saw a lot of historic renovations in Downtown and what we noticed was that most of it was mainly rectangle lofts with concrete floors, exposed systems,” he said. “We thought what we would do instead of the more typical loft was we would go with more higher-end finishes, more urban luxury.”

Gross credits the quick occupancy to word of mouth and bus tours organized by the Downtown Center Business Improvement District that introduce potential residents to Downtown living opportunities.

Of course, the historical aspect might also play a role. The building was designed by John Parkinson, whose work includes City Hall, Union Station and the L.A. Coliseum. Today, the exterior looks much like it did when it was the Blackstone Department Store (founded by Nathanial Blackstone, the brother-in-law of J.W. Robinson of the Robinson’s Department Store). The baroque-style building features a glass-walled first floor retail space and in some units, floor-to-ceiling windows cover entire walls.

The Big Dig

The building opened at 901 S. Broadway, but closed after the Great Depression. It has remained mostly vacant since then, Gross said.

After a two-year renovation, the Blackstone includes studio, one- and two-bedroom units ranging from 400-1,300 square feet. Prices are $1,450-$3,200. There is also 8,000 square feet of retail space.

The hardest part of the building, said Gross, was a subterranean, two-level parking facility.

“We dug underground and retrofitted the entire building because we wanted to have underground parking,” Gross said. “That was a big undertaking. That was almost like working on two separate buildings for us.”

However, it has not solved all the parking issues. The garage only has space for 54 cars (one parking space per unit is included in the rent). Thus, the last people to move in will have to park at a lot next door.

Inside, the apartments hold hardwood floors, black granite countertops, porcelain sinks and Hansgrohe faucets, which Gross said cost $500 apiece. There are high ceilings and windows that are approximately four-by-eight feet in most units, but no exposed ducts.

Residences on the third floor, which is where the main window dressings for the department store were concentrated (there were also displays on the ground floor), have views of the Eastern Columbia Building across the street. The units also include smoked-glass closets and bathroom doors.

The original marble floor was maintained in the lobby. Gross said he plans to add a fountain near the entrance. Currently, white, high-backed suede benches and TVs displaying images of a fire greet residents.

There is also a courtyard in the center of the building surrounded by about 16 units. Balconies hang over the courtyard.

“We wanted to bring in natural light and ventilation. That allowed us to have more open space for the tenants,” Gross said.

Coming Up

Gross also wants to give his tenants some hotel-like service. He said he has signed leases with a coffee shop, a clothing store, a beauty store, and has garnered some interest in a bar.

As part of the lease agreement, the coffee shop will have to supply room service, and tenants will have their own electronic key and private entrance once the bar opens, Gross said. The retail is slated to open within a few months.

Residents have also been promised a rooftop dog park with fountains and trees, and a Jacuzzi or pool, as well as a theater, a gym and a conference center with Wi-Fi. Gross said these amenities should be completed within a year.

Jennifer McGinnis noticed the Blackstone building while she was apartment hunting in Downtown.

“I looked at a lot of buildings, and I liked the neighborhood. The layout had more structure,” she said. “The apartment’s not just a big empty room and it includes parking, which definitely makes the rent comparable with other buildings.”

While she is happy with the building, she said she is looking forward to the promised amenities.

“It was a bit of a leap of faith I guess,” she said about moving in before everything comes online. “But they seem to know what they’re doing.”

Contact Richard Guzmán at richard@downtownnews.com.

page 6, 10/11/2010

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2 images

GARY LEONARD

Less than two months after opening, the Blackstone is more than 70% leased. The husband and wife team of Allen Gross (above) and Arax Harutunian turned the 1916 former department store into 82 apartments. Photo by Gary Leonard.
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