Designers of the Bloc, a 1.8 million-square-foot (167,000 sq m) mixed-use development in downtown Los Angeles, are creating a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The centerpiece of this $421 million project is an upscale 400,000-square-foot (37,000 sq m) outdoor shopping, dining, and entertainment district fashioned out of Macy’s Plaza, a brick-clad, fortresslike indoor mall that was erected in 1973.
While many people may have considered Macy’s Plaza the worst structure in downtown L.A., the building’s bones provided an opportunity to create something unique that would have been impossible to replicate in a ground-up project, says Alan Pullman, senior principal at Long Beach, California–based Studio One Eleven, who designed the retail component and serves as the architect of record for the entire development.
The concrete-and-steel framework beneath the structure’s “modern brutalist” facade is being used to activate the space and give the overall project architectural interest, Pullman notes. “We stripped it down [and] peeled away the brick and finishes to find a very interesting skeleton underneath—an authentic framework of the building that gives the project an edgy feel,” he says.
“There’s lots of interest by retailers in honesty or authenticity, like at the Gansevoort Market, [a warehouse district] in New York City,” adds Nord Eriksson, a partner and principal at EPT Design in Pasadena, California, which is handling landscape and hardscape design for the overall project. “We’re trying to create an L.A. version of that—something that’s timeless.”
Scheduled for completion during the third quarter of this year, the Bloc—so named because it occupies an entire city block in Los Angeles’s financial district—will include a 32-story, 750,000-square-foot (70,000 sq m) office tower being converted into creative office space. Creative office space offers occupants a flexible, open environment—sometimes structural authenticity like in old industrial buildings and warehouses—to encourage creativity and collaboration. The developers are also giving facelifts to the 40-year-old Sheraton Hotel and to the 240,000-square-foot (22,000 sq m) Macy’s department store on the site.
This is southern California’s largest single-asset, mixed-use development—it is considered a single asset because the retail center, office building, and hotel are all owned by one developer/owner and are three components of one large mixed-use project—and it provides a core focus for the downtown community and region, “much like Rockefeller Center is to New York City,” suggests project developer Wayne Ratkovich, president and chief executive officer of the Ratkovich Company.
Noting that the mall structure currently faces away from street activity, Pullman says, “We’re repositioning the retail component as a ‘gallery with interest’ concept, where storefronts, art, lobbies, and other public spaces become the heroes of the space, making it more relevant to the downtown community and travelers.
“We’re removing the glass roof over the atrium and reconfiguring exterior walls to open up the interior to the sky,” he says, explaining that this arrangement allows for the creation of storefronts and restaurants accessible from the street and gives architectural movement and expression to activities within. In addition, two custom murals by San Francisco artist Chris Lux and the Sumi Ink Club—a collective, participatory artist project established in 2005 by Los Angeles artists Luke Fischbeck and Sarah Rara—will permanently adorn the mall’s new facade along Eighth Street.
The design’s infrastructure accommodates foot traffic and cyclists as well as motorists. The project incorporates midblock passageways into the mall interior from Flower, Hope, and Seventh streets, providing welcoming entries for pedestrians. Bike parking is being installed along Seventh Street, at the Seventh Street/Metro Center transit station, and in the parking garage. The parking facility has 1,500 spaces and is expandable to 2,000 spaces, according to Ratkovich, who notes that parking will be available for a nominal fee, regardless of whether visitors shop at the Bloc. People can park there and go somewhere else in downtown, he says. The L.A. Live entertainment complex and Staples Center sports arena are just three blocks away.
The retail component is situated atop the Seventh Street/Metro Center Station, the city’s busiest light-rail transit facility, a transfer point for the Red, Blue, and Purple lines. Eriksson notes that when the station was built, the city installed a knockout panel to provide access to the Metro station from Macy’s Plaza, but the previous owner did not use it. The Bloc, however, will connect the entire complex directly to this light-rail station via an underground corridor.
Ease of Reconfiguration
Considering that retail concepts continue to evolve, Pullman says that the central public space—a large, sunlit plaza on the lower level of the project—is an open, informal place. All amenities, including planters and furniture, are movable so that the space can be reconfigured as needed for different events.
Eriksson is developing an environment in the central plaza that will make it a focal point for the entire project. The goal is to create a flexible gathering space and destination for downtown residents, workers, and visitors. “The retail plaza is highly programmable,” he says. “We did away with all things immovable that get in the way of ‘morphability.’ Retail concepts come and go, so we designed it with a flexibility that ‘allows life to happen’ for years to come.”
Known for approaching projects by interconnecting the site with local history, architecture, and art, Eriksson looked at neighborhoods within a one-mile (1.6 km) radius and created a microcosm of that on the retail plaza. He used different colors of concrete and mixed various types of pebbles, rocks, and sand into the concrete, grinding it down to expose the different textures. The different colors differentiate various districts within the retail complex.
Eriksson notes, however, that the biggest challenge “was how to add stuff to make it interesting within limited budget constraints.” His solution was to create an urban-theater concept throughout. “We’re creating places where people can stop, land, hang out; places people can inhabit and celebrate living and working in downtown L.A. and our wonderful climate,” he explains. The retail component has a variety of “places to be and look down on,” Eriksson says. “We’re creating a unique view [for visitors to] experience on this site,” he continues, noting that curated experiences are being created throughout the project. In addition, retailers are allowed to bring their own facades. “The idea is to create visual freedom so they can marry up [with the urban-theater concept].”
The design team is highly collaborative, according to Eriksson. “We’ve been in each other’s business in a positive way,” he says. For example, Colum McCartan, principal at McCARTAN, an architecture firm with offices in New York City as well as Belfast, Northern Ireland, that specializes in hospitality design, created a staircase descending into the main level and restaurant underneath the hotel that serves as a stage for people-watching.
McCartan carried out the edgy feel of the retail sector, using raw walls, exposed ducts, and the concrete floor in the hotel’s restaurant and bar, which connects to the retail plaza.
He also transformed an empty outdoor structure on the first floor into a luxurious deck big enough to host special events. The space was leveled and a 500-square-foot (47 sq m) reflection pool, lounge furniture, cabanas, and planters were added to provide a comfortable atmosphere for hotel guests to relax and socialize. On the third floor, a large terrace adjacent to meeting space and guest rooms with private terraces allow visitors to look down upon the deck and reflecting pool.
This is Sheraton’s new national flagship hotel, says McCartan, noting that he used the brand’s classic design elements—patterns, marble, and polished bronze—but is giving the look a twist, with multifaceted layers of patterns, imagery, and shiny and embossed metal.
“We’re modernists, inspired by the art deco nature of downtown L.A.’s architecture,” he says. “Ours is a very modern interpretation of patterns, new marble and brass, and walnut wood furniture. These are classic elements, but definitely a new look for Sheraton hotels.
“The lobby, for instance, has the feel of a really cool coffeehouse,” says McCartan, noting that a bar dovetails with a 22-foot-high (7 m) walnut cabinet wall in the lobby, which has a sliding ladder that gives it the feel of a library. “Visitors can find a corner with a visible social connection [to the surrounding environment] and be alone without feeling lonely. Interactive worktables offer an invitation to come in—even off the street—to sit down and work,” he says, noting that there are entrances to the lobby from the retail area and from Hope Street.
His firm also custom-designed furniture, lighting fixtures, and other elements in new guest rooms, two floors of which incorporate Delos Living’s Stay Well program requirements that were developed in conjunction with the Cleveland Clinic and Deepak Chopra.
The overall complex is pursuing both WELL Building certification and a Gold rating from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program of the U.S. Green Building Council. WELL Building certification requires a series of technologies that enhance the health and well-being of occupants and a passing grade on performance-based measures across seven categories, including air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. The Bloc would be the first WELL-certified mixed-use project in Los Angeles.
Design concepts incorporated throughout the complex will help to meet both WELL and LEED certification requirements. The retail project, for example, has attractive stairs designed to encourage fitness by enticing people to take the stairs instead of the elevator. Air quality at the retail project was improved by removing the roof, and other buildings have ventilation and filtration systems that expel toxins and particulates from indoor air and occupant-controlled HVAC systems.
In leasing restaurant space, top consideration is being given to tenants that offer healthy menus. An urban garden on the office tower’s roof meets both LEED’s green-roof criteria and WELL’s nourishment and mind categories, as it provides space for chefs throughout the Bloc to grow organic vegetables and herbs, as well as provides a space for office workers to relax, socialize, and relieve stress. This space also features a work-desk area surrounded by planters to create an appealing space that encourages people to work outdoors.
“There’s a big push for ‘emotional space,’ ” says David Galullo, a principal at RAPT Studio, based in San Francisco. The firm is transforming the office tower into creative space. He notes that the design “reimagines” public spaces throughout the office project, providing office occupants with places to congregate and a sense of community. “People want to have a connection to other people working in the building, so they feel like they’re part of something bigger,” he says. “We’re trying to give them that.”
“Businesses today must look at office space as key to attracting the most desirable employees.”—Wayne Ratkovich
“Our piece redefines office lobby space to make it a destination for office workers,” says Galullo. “We’ve taken lobby seating outside so people can connect to outdoor space and congregate at the mall level,” he continues, explaining that the lobby extends onto a balcony that connects to the retail space next door.
The management office on the 26th floor features a gathering space for building occupants, with comfortable seating, including restaurant-style booths, and a bar with a beer keg and coffee. “It’s meant to be the heart of the building, more like a community center or concierge area in a hotel,” says Galullo.
“We’re trying to break from the rules of what kind of space you’re going to get in downtown L.A.,” he says, noting that all tenants looking for creative office space want the authenticity of a warehouse. “We’re showing them that a high-rise office building offers the best of both worlds when [it is] well planned: great light, incredible views, and open spaces with raw, edgy authenticity.” Offices are fronted with glass, there are no ceilings, there is less personal space than in traditional design—and there is a lot of open space to give as much light and views to as many people as possible.
Citing downtown Los Angeles’s remarkable comeback, Ratkovich notes that there is no shortage of consumers, as more than 50,000 people now live downtown, and the daytime population exceeds 1 million. Besides Macy’s, the Bloc has already signed up Wingtip, a San Francisco–based men’s fashion emporium, and Alamo Drafthouse, which offers moviegoers food and beer. A coffee operator and a large fitness facility were recently in lease negotiations.
The office project is also actively signing up tenants, using its own office on the 26th floor as a showcase.
“We are very pleasantly surprised at the interest in our office building,” Ratkovich says. “We thought it would take a lot of time to find tenants, because people are reducing the size of their spaces. But we’ve had remarkable response to our marketing efforts and are far ahead of our leasing goal.
“Businesses today must look at office space as key to attracting the most desirable employees,” Ratkovich continues. “They have to be in an environment where millennials want to be, and that’s the type of experience we offer here.”
Ratkovich says this was a financially driven project. Considering its size and location atop a major transit station, at the heart of downtown’s core, and close to the entertainment district, the purchase price of $241 million, or $150 per rentable square foot ($1,614 per rentable sq m), was a bargain. “We felt we could spend an equal amount and still be under replacement cost,” he says, noting that renovation of the entire complex will cost $180 million.
Another incentive to take on this development was that construction could begin immediately, because rehabbing existing buildings eliminates the entitlement process and California Environmental Quality Act requirements.
Summing up how the Bloc’s design concepts and curated experiences may affect visitors, Eriksson concludes, “People won’t know why this is a great place, they’ll just know it is, and that will be a reason to come back.”
PATRICIA KIRK is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.