Pioneers in the Los Angeles Arts District

The roof of Yuval Bar-Zemer’s condo is a very nice place to be.

It’s mid-summer, and a grape arbor thick with leaves and hard green fruit winds along one side of it. There’s a pond, fig trees, several raised beds filled with herbs and vegetables, and, just around the corner, a swimming pool.

Oh, and then there’s the view: A few blocks west is downtown Los Angeles’ skyline. A couple of blocks east lies a forbidding stretch of the concrete-lined Los Angeles River. You could heave a rock to the north and hit the enduring shame of Skid Row. And in every direction are boarded-up industrial buildings, half-empty warehouses and abandoned railroad tracks. Or, what Bar-Zemer calls: the future.

Bar-Zemer lives on the top floor of the Toy Factory building, near Seventh and Alameda streets. As a partner in the real estate development firm Linear City, Bar-Zemer and his colleague Leonard Hill, a former television writer, have been at the forefront of efforts not only to rebuild and repopulate downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District, but also to do it in a way that creates green, sustainable neighborhoods.

“What we think about,” Bar-Zemer told me, “is what would be the best model for a community? How do you do that?”

The thought process becomes clear as you walk through Bar-Zemer’s and Hill’s developments. Their Toy Factory Lofts, Biscuit Company Lofts and new 7 & Bridge developments fill massive old buildings with hip live/work lofts. They held back from selling ground-floor condos, which would have reaped larger profits, and instead leased the space to what would become some of downtown’s best new restaurants: Church & State, Pour Haus, Daily Dose and Little Bear. A suitably cool quick-mart and a soon-to-open new concept urban supermarket, The Urban Radish, supply tenants.

Where trains used to haul goods from San Pedro, Bar-Zemer and Hill have introduced something else: nature. Bar-Zemer ripped up pavement to put in garden plots for tenants, installed dense courtyards of native plants and set up Los Angeles’ first 480v fast-charge station for electric cars. Linear City also provided the first two Nissan Leaf cars to kick start a community car sharing program on the Wheelz platform.

“In five years,” Bar-Zemer said, “we have changed the perception of the Arts District.”

For a guy who grows grapes on downtown roofs, it’s not surprising to discover that Bar-Zemer helped turn a corner of Israel’s desert green. A native Jerusalemite, he did part of his army service building Kibbutz Sufa in the Negev. After, he studied tenor saxophone at the prestigious Rubin Academy of Music. (Bar-Zemer’s father is a leading bassoonist — fittingly, their last name in Hebrew means “son of melody.”)

Bar-Zemer took a break, hooked up with Israeli army buddies in London, then visited Los Angeles.

“I came for a weekend, and stayed,” he said.

Bar-Zemer worked as an electrician, his army pals from Garin Nahal as gardeners and electricians. The trio then decided to try their hand at fixing up and flipping houses, forming Dekel Construction & Development, Hebrew for palm tree. After returning from an extended visit in Israel, Bar-Zemer rejoined his friends in their new company, CIM. Eventually the old army buddies from Kibbutz Sufa would go on to develop and own Hollywood & Highland as well as other major Southland projects.

“Not bad for a gardener and an electrician,” Hill observed.

By then Bar-Zemer had left to join forces with developer Paul Solomon and Hill, a former TV writer and producer who started in the business scripting shows for Jack Webb, such as “Adam-12.” Hill handles the financing; Bar-Zemer oversees the construction (Solomon has since moved on).

While much of downtown development focused on the core areas like Broadway, Linear City turned their sights on the 250 million square foot Toy Factory building, constructed in 1924 for the Star Truck Warehousing Company and later purchased by the Ace Novelty and Play-by-Play companies.

“We bought the building naively believing conversion was a simple process,” Hill said.

The two fought bureaucrats and skeptics. But Hill was able to fund the project himself, and Bar-Zemer fielded a team of experts he’d developed over the years, going all the way back to his kibbutz days. As soon as the projects were finished, they filled. 

The Toy Factory was assessed at $2.7 million when Linear bought it in 2002. After the project sold out, its assessed value was $60 million.

“All in all, it’s been an economic engine,” Hill said. 

The restaurants and stores have brought dozens of new jobs, young people flock to the streets, and green space has multiplied. The Israeli and the Jewish Angeleno have created the capitalist, urban kibbutz.

The two are now working on similarly transforming architect William Pereira’s 1973 Metropolitan Water District building in Echo Park as well as other projects. They also produced a feature film, the romantic comedy “Dorfman,” set against the part of the city they love.

I spent the afternoon with Bar-Zemer and Hill, gazing out across the city from Bar-Zemer’s rooftop garden, eating at a recently opened Daily Dose cafe by some reclaimed railroad tracks, walking with Hill through the large empty spaces that would be two new restaurants, and ending, finally, at the EV charging station to juice up my Leaf. 

“We see ourselves as pioneers,” Hill told me. “And this is the new frontier.”