Texaco never did things on a small scale.
So when the Texas oil giant needed a Western headquarters in the 1950s, it turned to prominent architect Welton Becket, who designed Los Angeles landmarks including the Capitol Records building.
Becket created a grand high-rise shaped like a T (when viewed from the sky) for a spot on Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles’ storied thoroughfare. It rose next door to what was then the Ambassador Hotel, one of the city’s most exclusive inns, where celebrities cavorted at its legendary Cocoanut Grove nightclub.
It’s hard to imagine what office toilers from the “Mad Men” era would think of the place today.
Known as the Crosby, the building has a rooftop swimming pool with cabanas, fitness center, fire pits and a karaoke room. Monthly rents start around $2,250 and hit $6,500 for a penthouse.
The former Texaco high-rise is part of a national push to convert aging office buildings to residential use as demand for housing surpasses the need for offices in many locations.
Turning old office buildings into apartments or condos is hardly new, but expected cutbacks in office rentals as companies’ permanently adapt to remote work prompted by the pandemic have spurred new interest among landlords. Most haven’t acted yet because overall demand for office space as COVID-19 wanes is yet to be established, but candidates for conversion are thick on the ground.
Some neighborhoods such as downtown L.A. and Koreatown, where the Crosby stands, have concentrations of tall, aging office towers suitable for housing but many other candidates are less obvious, architect Karin Liljegren said. She specializes in conversions and is bedeviled by what she sees driving around L.A.
“There are opportunities everywhere,” Liljegren said. “It’s just that people don’t have the vision.”
Among those who’ve taken on conversions at a large scale are Jaime and Garrett Lee, two leaders of the Jamison real estate empire founded by their father, David Lee. The elder Lee is an internist and immigrant from South Korea who bought up struggling office high-rises in Koreatown after the 1992 Los Angeles uprising depressed their values.
In 2013, Jamison took a chance on converting the use of one of its office towers, the former headquarters of U.S. Borax. Borax left for Valencia in the early 1990s and the building was not much of a draw for business renters in the years that followed. Jamison turned the former Borax building into 127 apartments.
“Much to our surprise,” Jaime Lee said, “we leased them all in three months.”
So far, Jamison has converted seven office buildings to residential use with a combined total of more than 1,200 units, nearly all of which are leased. More makeovers are in the works.
“We’re maybe halfway through” converting adaptable Jamison buildings, Jaime Lee said.
Although it can cost millions of dollars to convert a high-rise office to apartments, it’s cheaper than erecting a new building from the ground up. Former office buildings also tend to come with ample parking and other large spaces that can be put to new uses. Jamison has dropped in gyms, golf simulators, basketball courts, dance studios and karaoke rooms.
Jamison has found room in former offices to add coworking spaces, community rooms for recreation and good-sized theaters. There are rooftop decks and swimming pools, along with putting greens and dog-washing stations.
The company will keep converting offices to apartments as market demands dictates, Jaime Lee said, but Jamison is still banking on the office-rental market to rally.
“We still have high hopes that a large contingent of office workers are coming back at some point,” she said. “We’re not giving up on that.”