Firefighters continue to spray down a seven-story apartment complex in downtown Los Angeles after an early-morning fire consumed the building on Monday, Dec. 8, 2014. Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Geoffrey Palmer, the wealthy developer of the seven-story apartment complex that burned to the ground in a massive fire early Monday morning, has been a controversial and even reviled figure in Los Angeles. The popular real estate blog Curbed LA recently called him "the man destroying downtown L.A."
"Developer Geoff Palmer has built more apartments in Downtown Los Angeles than anyone else (more than 3,000) and they're all f--king terrible," Curbed posted two weeks ago and added even more biting criticism:
His squat, nearly-identical fortresses, with embarrassing names like the Visconti and the Medici, aren't just ugly (although they are very ugly), they're vacuums designed to suck the life out of a neighborhood that has worked so hard to become lively in the past decade.
Palmer is the subject of a now very timely feature story by Marc Haefele in this month's Los Angeles Magazine, which says Palmer's downtown real estate portfolio is worth $3 billion, and he has built at least one new building downtown – and often more – in six of the past 12 years.
Haefele wrote that, in 2003, Palmer's crews demolished the last house standing on Bunker Hill, the historic 1887 Geise house. (You can hear more about that incident, as well as other aspects of Palmer's background, in conversations with Haefele broadcast on KPCC's Off-Ramp. Those additional audio clips accompany this story.)
A woman who answered the phone Monday at Palmer's Beverly Hills-based company, G. H. Palmer Associates, said Palmer declined to be interviewed by KPCC. Haefele noted that Palmer has not given an interview in eight years.
Sued to build less affordable housing
"Geoff Palmer is no doubt the symbolic anti-affordable housing developer in the city," said Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, a tenants rights group. "Palmer doesn’t want to build affordable units, and he’s made it difficult to allow the city to pass laws that require new affordable units be provided in new units built in the city."
Gross pointed to a 2007 lawsuit Palmer won against the city of Los Angeles, challenging the city's 1991 inclusionary-zoning requirements as a violation of California state law.
Gross has also been among those critical of Palmer's apartments, saying they've been designed to wall off residents from the rest of the city.
"What Palmer envisions with his housing is sort of a tale of two cities, where he’s catering to the wealthy and well-off and doesn’t want to have any responsibility for the poor," Gross said.
For example, Gross said, Palmer planned to build a pedestrian bridge linking his "Da Vinci" apartments to other complexes nearby because of fears about homeless people living under the 110 freeway.
"The best form of self-defense is not being placed in a situation where you have to defend yourself," Palmer's proposal to city officials said, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Palmer's buildings have also been criticized for their faux-Italian style, which bears little resemblance to their surroundings.
"Perhaps they’re out of scale, and perhaps they lack authentic design quality or character," said Will Wright, Director of Government and Public Affairs at the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
Wright said building such large apartments so close to the freeway should be reviewed, as should the construction material.
"I think in the scheme of things for the density of downtown Los Angeles, it might be important to review whether or not wood-frame construction is the best type of construction and whether or not that had any unforeseen consequences."
While stressing that Monday's fire was a great tragedy and that he was not an expert on fires, Wright said wood-frame construction is likely much more inflammable than the the steel and concrete that has usually been the material of choice for downtown buildings.
A pioneer in building apartments downtown
But Palmer does have his supporters. The Central City Association, a downtown business lobbying group, recently gave him one of its "Hero of the Renaissance" awards for his role in revitalizing downtown.
"He was the first developer, post-1999, to build new rental housing in the downtown area at a time when people thought he was crazy to invest," said Carol Schatz, the Association's president and chief executive officer. "He had a rough time getting financing because the traditional sources of financing were not available because this was such an untried concept in an untested area."
As for people who don't like Palmer's designs, Schatz said it's a matter of personal taste and in which neighborhood the apartment is being built. She said the perimeter should have a different look than the core of downtown, where one of Palmer's more recent projects more closely aligns with the surrounding buildings.
Late Monday afternoon, Palmer released a statement to KPCC:
"We would like to thank the men and women of the Los Angeles Fire Department for their bravery, swift actions, and effective response in putting out the fire. We understand that the cause of the fire is under investigation, and we defer all such questions regarding cause directly to the LAFD. Though we have temporarily lost Building B, we will be opening Building A across the street at the end of January to those families looking forward to occupying their new homes."