Culver City gets wired for the future

In the marriage of high tech, entertainment interests and city hall, Culver City has become a model community — bent of preserving its past while embracing the future. Through a combination of government-driven business incentives, the repurposing of industrial space, a downtown facelift and streetscape improvements, Culver City is rapidly becoming a “technologically updated version of a hometown community,” in the words of vice mayor Sandi Levin.

Indeed, a drive through downtown is not unlike a stroll through the city’s pristinely renovated Sony Pictures Entertainment lot — former home to MGM — where false storefronts suggest an idealized Smalltown USA as it might have looked 50 years ago. And yet proceed slightly northeast and one witnesses the modernistic, concrete-and-glass sway of the Hayden Tract, with several buildings designed by award-winning architect Eric Owen Moss.

Previously the ramshackle remnants of heavy and light manufacturing buildings designed to be serviced from the rear by trains, the 57-acre Hayden Tract constitutes roughly two thirds of the ambitious “Conjunctive Points” project developed by Frederick and Laurie Samitaur Smith who, through their company Samitaur Constructs, are attempting to bring about nothing less than a cultural renaissance to this once-defunct industrial stretch.

With tenants like Website Magazine, Digital Planet, Lightspeed Media and Kodak’s Digital Imaging Division, the Hayden Tract is a major factor in Culver City’s newfound reputation as a hotbed of technology-based entertainment and multimedia companies. Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow with the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and a leading expert on urban planning, calls the Hayden project “a quintessential networked neighborhood.”

According to Chris DuMont, a real estate broker with CB Commercial, within the last 60 days, new tenants have taken over more than 75,000 square feet within the Hayden Tract. Lightspeed, an America Online company, subleased the old IRS Records building in its entirety; while award-winning graphic designer Pittard Sullivan occupies 50,000 square feet. DuMont refers to Samitaur Constructs’ efforts as “high-end conversion of industrial spaces into high-end creative environments.” He estimates that in the last three years, monthly lease rates in this progressive business compound has increased 26%, from the $1.50 range per square foot to around $1.90. “There’s a whole new market in West L.A. for creative space and our rates are going up just like everybody else’s are,” says DuMont.

He points to the parallel growth that is taking place in such places as Santa Monica, Venice and Playa Del Rey. “Our area is riding the wave of the merger between high tech and creative,” says DuMont. “And I’m sure you’re seeing that theme pretty strong throughout the west side.” The response from start-ups and established businesses have been such that, according to DuMont, Culver City’s “biggest challenge is having enough of this space ready to go.”

Located in what city sloganeers refer to as “the heart of screenland,” tenants of the Hayden Tract not only benefit from their proximity to Hollywood, but to one another. According to Kotkin, in a piece he wrote for Inc. magazine, this symbiosis is “what the industry’s company builders need to keep abreast of technical advances and find roles for their businesses on fast-forming project teams.”

In recruiting architects like Moss, Frederick Smith advocates taking work spaces beyond the purely utilitarian mold. The result has been a Pittard Sullivan building that met the 1% art requirement for Culver City. “A developer of a new building or a large-scale renovation of an existing building has to set aside 1% of the construction budget for art,” says Levin. “That could be done either by contributing to the city’s art fund or placing a piece of art on the developer’s own property.” However, a change in guidelines now allows the developer to submit a building’s architecture as art, which makes Pittard Sullivan’s building the first to qualify under the new ordinance.

“If the entertainment business is as progressive as some people like to think it is, I think in the perspective on renewing both L.A. and Culver City the architecture ought to feed the entertainment industry and the entertainment industry ought to feed the architecture,” says Moss, who is also responsible for designing the cutting-edge Samitaur Building for Cineon Kodak at the east end of Conjunctive Points.

“A lot of jobs are dreary, pain-in-the-ass tedious,” adds Moss. “And if you’re on the 9th floor of Century Park East, that building envelope probably doesn’t help. “One of the things I’m interested in doing is putting people into places where the energy, the creativity, the strangeness or the surprise of the building becomes contagious to the work and the work becomes contagious to the building.”

Visionaries like Moss and the Smiths aren’t the only ones involved in Culver City’s rebirth. The mayor’s office, the city’s enterprising Redevelopment Agency, Sony’s efforts to spruce up the old MGM studio, and property owners all helped the community rise out of its recessionary doldrums of the early ’90s. All told, the Redevelopment Agency has poured roughly $40 million into city improvements since 1992, according to Miriam Mack, redevelopment administrator. Efforts included the renovation of City Hall, upgrading the city’s streetscape, landscaping, downtown improvements and rehabilitation grants for businesses.

“During the recession I think we suffered as much as any community in the region,” says Mack. “General property values were down and we were under construction everywhere. Now we have properties in downtown Culver City that were rehabbed and the owner is asking for $2 per square foot, which we thought a few years ago would be an outrageously expensive property.” It’s gotten to the point where downtown property owners are holding out for the best tenants they can sign, says Mack. “They’re not anxious to jump in and sign leases because they recognize the potential that’s going to exist.”

That potential includes a planned 125,000 square-foot entertainment retail complex consisting of a multi-screen theater, restaurants and retail space. OliverMcMillan was selected by the Redevelopment Agency after a three-month process of evaluating 11 competing developers. For those who fear this kind of building might constitute a modern albatros after the city spent dearly to preserve its vintage downtown character, Oliver McMillan assures that it’s more interested in architectural harmony than disruption.

In its proposal, OliverMcMillan envisions “that these different buildings will be designed to relate to the many quality older buildings which exist throughout the central area of Culver City so that the project feels more like a re-use of (historic) buildings as opposed to being a new ‘project’ that has dropped into downtown Culver City.”

Also in the negotiating phase is the takeover of the 16,000 square-foot Culver Theater by the Center Theater Group, which runs L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum and the Ahmanson. This proposal “should be decided by the end of the year,” says Mack.

All of this cultural refinement, beautification and enterprise is designed to make Culver City — once a community gone to seed — a place where businesses and residents can plan their future into the next millenium. “We want it to be very liveable in terms of clean streets and quiet residential neighborhoods — safe environments,” says Levin. “But we want it to be attractive to business, especially newer business. So we’re trying to keep up with the new technology.”

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