Fall real estate

The appeal of urban, high-rise living is increasing in Los Angeles

Forty-two stories above the bustling Avenue of the Stars, workers in hard hats are toiling away on Candy Spelling's new digs. The widow of TV mogul Aaron Spelling has set a record with her $47 million purchase of the top two floors at the Century, an ultra-luxury residential tower nearing completion next door to the Century Plaza Hotel. It may sound ludicrous that a $47 million purchase could signify a simplified lifestyle, but that's exactly what it means. At 16,500 square feet, Spelling's new home is less than a third the size of her previous residence but it offers, as she says, "ultimate luxury."

Although Spelling's purchase sets the bar, she's not the only Angeleno trading her sprawling estate for an elevated lifestyle that includes five-star service and abundant amenities. The luxury towers sprouting up like mushrooms around Los Angeles are all about downshifting in the fast line.

"The concept of luxury has changed," says Marty Collins, CEO of Gatehouse Capital, developer and co-owner of W Hollywood Residences, which is scheduled to open Dec. 3 after a three-year construction phase. "The opulence of yesteryear -- three people standing around watching while you eat rich French food -- doesn't resonate today. Ten years ago, the rich wouldn't think of driving their own Prius. Today's luxury is about security, sustainability, convenience, low-maintenance and amenities."

At a time when headlines focus on plummeting home prices, foreclosures and bad loans, sales like Spelling's highlight the vast differences in the region's housing markets. (The $2,848-per-square-foot price for Spelling's pad is a Los Angeles condo record.) There are still wealthy buyers keeping the very top end in play; if buyers in the highest price ranges aren't paying all cash for their properties, they're typically putting at least 40%-50% down and financing the rest.

"This slump pales in comparison to the '90s, when the Blair House gave away a Bentley with purchase and Le Tour's plumbing froze from sitting empty so long," says Mark Reavis, a Keller Williams Realtor specializing in high-rise condos who has been through several cycles and expects there will be more. "Today, there's renewed optimism and buyers coming off the fence."

The Century, considered the gold standard, offers four acres of lush gardens, outdoor rooms with fireplaces, a 75-foot lap pool, furnished pool cabanas, the Culture Lounge, a private library designed by French art-book publisher Honor Assouline and filled with her titles, a state-of-the-art screening room with adjacent lounge, fitness center and spa, private wine storage, full-service restaurant and in-home and poolside catering. Stepping over this threshold will set one back $3 million-$15 million.

"A buyer at the Century is a person of considerable net worth who values their lifestyle and time," says David Wine, vice chairman of the Related Companies, which in addition to the Century has built several luxury projects including the Time Warner Center in New York. "They can be even pickier than buyers in New York. They expect their units to be elaborately personalized." When Spelling's wish list included a rose-garden solarium and an indoor pool, for instance, Century builders agreed to make structural adjustments to the top of the building to accommodate her. In addition, Spelling's souped-up digs will have two working fireplaces in the living room, a dining room for 30, a 4,000-square-foot master suite and massage and exercise rooms.

Spelling says she has wanted to downsize for some time. Now that the kids are gone, the 56,000-square-foot Holmby Hills palace she built on six acres feels too big for her and her dog. ("The Manor" is generating interest on the market for $150 million.)

"I looked at everything, and the Century is the one place that seemed to have it all," she says. "It has four acres for walking my dog. None of the others have acreage. I've never had a view before, and now I'll have spectacular views from every room. I no longer have to worry about security. And it enables me to travel, which I was never able to do before because I was my own estate manager."

Experts say the high-rise lifestyle draws empty nesters, busy executives, globe-trotters and those with multiple residences. "Perhaps one in five buyers is a family," Reavis says. Of course, having the world at one's fingertips comes at a price. Titleholders must be willing to cough up anywhere from $1,750-$5,500 per month in association fees, depending upon the building and the unit.

That's no problem for owners like Bruce Willis, who reportedly bought into the opulent Carlyle (an offshoot of New York's famed hotel), the last permitted high-rise in the Wilshire Corridor. "There's a significant appetite for high-rise luxury living in Los Angeles," says Miki Naftali, CEO of Elad Properties, which owns and operates the Carlyle. "We're bullish that this will continue to grow at the top of the market, where buyers are looking for the best properties, highest quality and service, while simplifying living."

Condos in the 23-floor building, which range from 2,700 square feet to 5,000 square feet, are on the market for $2.4 million-$12.6 million. Available to each home owner is a 24-hour concierge, valet, doorman, Sports Club/L.A. fitness center, pool, private dining room, wine cave, lounge and entertaining room with full catering kitchen. Each unit also has its own private elevator entrance.

Bells and whistles notwithstanding, security is one of the biggest draws to high-profile individuals considering a purchase. "The Century and Carlyle are literally paparazzi-proof," Reavis says. "They've got around-the-clock patrols by security guards with earpieces. It's like the Secret Service how they communicate with one another and check to make sure you are who you say you are. Residents never have to wait for a valet. Private elevators open directly into apartments, while high hedges shield the grounds from shutterbugs. The other buildings aren't as water tight but there is still strictly controlled access."

While the Century and Carlyle are destination condos, the Portland, Ore.-based South Group is bringing the concept of a pedestrian-oriented "neighborhood" to the South Park district of downtown Los Angeles. The neighborhood is formed by a collection of residential buildings, an active pedestrian path that features plazas, fountains and gardens, and a streetscape of sustainable retail shops and services. South Group's first two condominium towers -- Luma and Elleven -- are sold out. Its third and final high-rise, Evo, is more than 70% sold or under contract, with prices ranging from $400,000-$3.7 million. Although Evo's grand opening in October 2008 was affected by the economic downturn -- it opened a day before the Lehman Bros. collapse and "we lost a lot of buyers (in the lower price ranges)," says marketing director Rhonda Slavik -- like most buildings similarly affected, Evo's handlers adjusted prices by 20% and sales are now back up and running at 20-30 units per month. (Experts are quick to point out that the highest-end units may stagnate, but they never depreciate.) It's within walking distance to L.A. Live, the Metro Blue Line station and 40 bus lines. Perhaps more impressive than the concept and size is South Group's decision to go green. Because of the company's use of sustainable materials in the construction of the buildings, each have received Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification. According to Jack Kyser, senior vp of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp., Evo and South are "a genuine success story in what is a tough residential real estate market."

Just to the north, the Ritz-Carlton Residences at L.A. Live are drawing buyers drawn to the cache provided by a hotel brand. (The same holds true of the units at the W Hollywood.) They offer the benefits of home ownership complemented by the hotels' service and signature facilities including spas, fitness facilities, room and maid service and controlled access. At the Ritz-Carlton, 224 luxury homes are situated on the hotel's 27th to 52nd floors. The price range for a two-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath property is $2.4 million-$2.7 million. Sixty-four% of the homes are sold (reportedly one to former Laker Shaquille O'Neal), though escrows won't close until March.

The Ritz Carlton's five-star status and the excitement of L.A. Live peaked the interest of producer Burt Sugarman and his wife, Mary Hart. At this point, Sugarman says he isn't sure how he's going to use the place. "I just wanted to get in on the action. AEG is so stable, as evidenced by their work with the Staples Center, that I knew it would get built no matter what. The building is gorgeous. And my God, the views! I can see the ocean to the west and Dodger Stadium to the north. There's not a bad view in the place."

The W lifestyle and the iconic Hollywood and Vine location appealed to Reno R. Rolle, CEO of Red Rock Pictures, which produces National Lampoon-branded films. "I've stayed at W Hotels throughout the country and always loved them; it's a perfect pied-a-terre after a screening or dinner when the drive back home is grueling," says Rolle who appreciates how the developer worked to ensure that his unit could accommodate a bed hanging from the ceiling. "I've got business associates from all over the world. It's nice to be able to offer them a place to stay."

Although the W Hollywood draws a young and hip crowd, with prices ranging from $700,000 to upward of $3 million, the units are hardly starter homes. Included in the sales price is access to a Victor Drai rooftop nightclub, Bliss Spa, Sweat20 Fitness, a residents-only pool as well as to W's legendary Whatever/Whenever service. "As long as it's legal, we'll provide it -- dog walking, soup at 4 a.m., whatever," says developer Marty Collins, adding that a Trader Joe's is set to move into the LEED-certified building and the remaining spaces will be occupied by "upscale casual" retail shops. "We want to fit into the Hollywood fabric but we want to redefine Hollywood for a new millennium."