Wil­shire Grand Cen­ter makes its dizzy­ing debut

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Roger Vin­cent

At 1,100 feet and the tallest build­ing west of the Mis­sis­sippi, L.A.’s new­est sky­scraper is hard to miss.

With a sweep­ing sail of a roofline, it stands out by day among the flat tops of its tall ri­vals and is il­lu­mi­nated at night with an en­velop­ing ex­panse of ever-chang­ing col­ored lights.

But for its owner, the best view of the Wil­shire Grand Cen­ter is look­ing east from Kore­atown, where the just­com­pleted $1.35-bil­lion tower can be viewed as a sym­bol of how much Korean im­mi­grants and their de­scen­dants have shaped their adopted city of Los Angeles.

“From Olympic Boule­vard, you can di­rectly see this build­ing, the tallest and in the cen­ter” of the down­town sky­line, said Yang Ho Cho, chair­man of Korean Air. “All the Korean com­mu­nity in L.A. is very proud of this.”

At the peak of vis­i­bil­ity is the air­line’s logo, em­bla­zoned atop the 73-story build­ing that houses an In­ter-Con­ti­nen­tal hotel, sev­eral floors of leasable of­fice space and five restau­rants.

Cho, who also heads Korea’s Han­jin Group, the air­line’s largest share­holder, was ex­pected to cel­e­brate the grand open­ing of the sky­scraper on Friday evening with par­ties and a florid show of the build­ing’s danc­ing LED lights vis­i­ble for miles.

“The Wil­shire Grand is a new tent pole for Los Angeles,” said Mayor Eric Garcetti a few days be­fore it opened.

In­deed, the build­ing with

a curl­ing lobby sky­light that looks like a ski jump re­flects the resur­gence of down­town Los Angeles as the city’s cul­tural cen­ter and eco­nomic en­gine. New apart­ments and con­dos are at­tract­ing thou­sands of res­i­dents — and the long-suf­fer­ing white-col­lar of­fice market is start­ing to turn around as more busi­nesses fol­low.

For all its scope, the Wil­shire Grand Cen­ter is only one of sev­eral largescale real es­tate de­vel­op­ments being built by for­eign in­vestors, in­clud­ing Chi­nese and Cana­di­ans who have homed in on Los Angeles in re­cent years.

For Cho, 68, the com­ple­tion of the Wil­shire Grand Cen­ter ends an odyssey that be­gan in 1989 when he and his fa­ther, Choong Hoon Cho, the founder of the fam­ily’s Han­jin busi­ness em­pire, paid $168 mil­lion for a hotel they hoped would serve trav­el­ers ar­riv­ing on their flights from Korea.

That com­mu­nity in Los Angeles and Orange coun­ties is now home to an es­ti­mated 225,000 Korean im­mi­grants, the most in the United States.

The Chos bought the for­mer Statler Hotel, built in 1952 at Wil­shire Boule­vard and Figueroa Street, be­cause they thought it was a prime lo­ca­tion. For more than two decades, it wasn’t. Down­town’s hotel market was re­lent­lessly weak.

Cho’s com­pany spent $40 mil­lion on im­prove­ments to the hotel, which was re­named Wil­shire Grand, but oc­cu­pancy didn’t im­prove much. Cho held on through eco­nomic re­ces­sions.

“Ev­ery­one told me to sell in tough times,” he said. “I’m stub­born. I don’t be­lieve in ‘right’ de­ci­sions. I be­lieve in mak­ing de­ci­sions and then mak­ing them right.”

Cho eventually de­cided that it would be best to level the old hotel and start over. Los Angeles ar­chi­tec­ture firm A.C. Martin was cho­sen to de­sign the build­ing and man­age con­struc­tion.

The project was orig­i­nally en­vi­sioned as two smaller tow­ers but was eventually com­bined into one grand ar­chi­tec­tural state­ment at the sug­ges­tion of Cho’s daugh­ter Heather, a grad­u­ate of the USC Mar­shall School of Busi­ness who man­aged the fam­ily’s hotel op­er­a­tions.

De­mo­li­tion of the 16story orig­i­nal hotel be­gan in 2013 and the fi­nal piece of steel was put in place last Septem­ber, but along the way Cho faced more than just the enor­mous chal­lenges of rais­ing the sky­scraper and a con­nected seven-story build­ing that houses ball­rooms, a pool and a restaurant.

Han­jin, which was founded in 1945, grew by serv­ing the U.S. mil­i­tary and pioneering con­tainer­ized freight ship­ping for South Korea. But the fam­ily’s ship­ping busi­ness was hit hard by last decade’s re­ces­sion and it col­lapsed last year, leav­ing its cargo ships tem­po­rar­ily stranded out­side ports world­wide for lack of fees.

Korean Air was the largest share­holder in its sis­ter com­pany, Han­jin Ship­ping, which Cho per­son­ally tried to res­cue by lend­ing it $46 mil­lion of his own money, ac­cord­ing to Reuters. But that was to no avail as a South Korean court in Fe­bru­ary ruled that the car­rier’s as­sets should be sold off.

His tim­ing on the Wil­shire Grand Cen­ter has been more for­tu­nate. Af­ter years as a back­wa­ter, the down­town hotel market has be­come a des­ti­na­tion of choice for busi­ness, leisure and con­ven­tion trav­el­ers to Los Angeles.

The In­terCon­ti­nen­tal has 889 rooms, with nightly rates around $250 and up. Guests check in on the 70th floor, in front of floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows where blocks of the city can be seen far be­low. There is a 24-hour cafe and a French steak­house on the 71st floor that Cho’s ar­chi­tect, Chris Martin, de­scribes as “Marie An­toinette meets caballero Cal­i­for­nia” in style.

Though Cho is proud of the Korean prove­nance of the tower, he de­lib­er­ately pri­or­i­tized American in­flu­ences in the de­sign. The curved glass top, for in­stance, re­flects the shape of one of Cal­i­for­nia’s most fa­mous rock for­ma­tions, Half Dome in Yosemite.

“This is in the mid­dle of Los Angeles, Cal­i­for­nia, U.S.A.,” he said. “We want it to be Western.” Korean touches are mostly lim­ited to a fancy Korean restaurant with a tra­di­tional Korean drum out­side.

The Wil­shire Grand’s In­terCon­ti­nen­tal joins a boom­ing market down­town, where de­vel­op­ers are con­vert­ing his­toric build­ings into bou­tique ho­tels and erect­ing new glass tow­ers.

A short walk away is the Hotel In­digo — a 350-room hotel that opened ear­lier this year at the mas­sive Me­trop­o­lis project. More rooms are on the way, in­clud­ing the 184-room Park Hy­att hotel at the up­com­ing Ocean­wide Plaza project across from Sta­ples Cen­ter.

The de­vel­op­ment fol­lows years of crit­i­cism from city boost­ers that down­town lacked enough hotel rooms to at­tract events to the Con­ven­tion Cen­ter.

Ernest Wooden Jr., pres­i­dent of the Los Angeles Tourism & Con­ven­tion Board, called the rooms at the Wil­shire Grand “crit­i­cally im­por­tant to our abil­ity to at­tract larger con­ven­tions.”

Even with all the new ho­tels open­ing up, down­town should be able to ab­sorb the rooms with lit­tle prob­lem, said Bruce Baltin, managing di­rec­tor of CBRE Ho­tels’ Con­sult­ing.

“We know down­town has come very far,” he said. “What was one of the weaker sub-mar­kets for decades is now one of the strong­est.”

That’s be­cause in many ways, down­town is now defin­ing “the im­age of Los Angeles,” Baltin said.

He said oc­cu­pancy is around 78% down­town and should dip a bit with all the new prod­uct but get back up to that level in two years.

The down­town of­fice market is less ro­bust, but as the first new sky­scraper with of­fices com­pleted since 1992, the Wil­shire Grand Cen­ter has ca­chet.

When the project was en­vi­sioned as two build­ings it in­cluded hotel rooms, con­dos and 1.5 mil­lion square feet of of­fices, but the sin­gle tower has far fewer of­fices and no res­i­dences.

Cho has 372,000 square feet to rent be­tween floors 11 and 29 and so far has leases or ten­ta­tive agree­ments for about half of the space with such ten­ants as real es­tate bro­ker­age Cush­man & Wake­field and the South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Assn. of Gov­ern­ments, he said.

Of­fice va­cancy down­town de­creased from 17.2% in the first quar­ter a year ago to 16.5% this year, ac­cord­ing to CBRE Group Inc.

To be con­sid­ered a suc­cess, the Wil­shire Grand would need to keep its hotel rooms mostly oc­cu­pied and fill the of­fices at rents above the rest of the market. Po­ten­tial ten­ants have ex­pressed interest in more space than there is avail­able, Cho said.

Although sev­eral U.S. de­vel­op­ers are build­ing projects down­town, for­eign in­vestors such as Korean Air are among the big­gest players.

Con­struc­tion on the $1bil­lion mixed-use Grand Av­enue Project is ex­pected to be­gin next year on Bunker Hill af­ter New York de­vel­oper Re­lated Cos. re­ceived a fi­nan­cial in­fu­sion from and es­tab­lished a part­ner­ship with one of China’s largest state-owned com­pa­nies, China Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Con­struc­tion Group.

Other mon­eyed Chi­nese de­vel­op­ers such as Green­land Group, Ocean­wide Hold­ings and Shen­zhen Hazens Real Es­tate Group have al­ready launched mega mixed-use projects that are chang­ing the sky­line with res­i­dences, ho­tels and stores.

Onni Group of Van­cou­ver, Canada, has bil­lions of dol­lars’ worth of mixed-use de­vel­op­ments un­der­way or in plan­ning stages down­town, in­clud­ing a 49-story tower on Olive Street that will be one of the tallest res­i­den­tial tow­ers in Cal­i­for­nia.

On Thursday, Cho stopped at the open-air lounge atop the Wil­shire Grand Cen­ter to snap a photo of the spire that rises about 175 feet above the build­ing, giv­ing it the brag­ging rights as the tallest in the West, sur­pass­ing the U.S. Bank Tower on Bunker Hill, which opened in 1989.

Korean Air pas­sen­gers ar­riv­ing on more than 30 flights a week from In­chon will be able to see it from the air as their planes cir­cle into LAX, he said.

“Af­ter 25 years,” he said, “I have achieved my dreams.”

Wally Skalij Los Angeles Times

YANG HO CHO, chair­man of Korean Air, is the man behind the Wil­shire Grand Cen­ter in down­town Los Angeles. It is the tallest sky­scraper in the West.

Mel Mel­con Los Angeles Times

PEDES­TRI­ANS cross in front of the gleam­ing 73-story, $1.35-bil­lion Wil­shire Grand Cen­ter in down­town Los Angeles.

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