Izek Shomof is driving the Downtown L.A. revival
Walk along Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles with Izek Shomof and you’ll likely encounter a couple of passersby waving hello. That’s because the real estate developer has become a bit of a celebrity in the area, buying and rehabilitating a number of historic buildings in the vicinity.
“All of those buildings were old, neglected and vacant for many years,” he said. “I turned each one of them into apartment buildings, and on the ground floor I opened restaurants, coffee shops, etc.”
Shomof, 56, is a longtime entrepreneur and developer who first invested in downtown Los Angeles in the early ’90s. He started by purchasing the building at 639 S. Spring St. (Spring Tower Lofts) for $1 million, even though the area had a bad reputation and he wasn’t sure what to do with the property. Shomof kept the building until 2000, when the city implemented an adaptive reuse ordinance that facilitates the conversion of old commercial buildings into residences. This caused a domino effect, and within a few years, Shomof owned numerous buildings on Spring Street between Eighth and Fifth streets.
The native Israeli was careful to restore and preserve the historic buildings — most in the area were built between 1900 and 1930. For example, when he purchased Premiere Towers, the 120-unit building at 621 S. Spring St., he restored its Art Deco facade and retrofitted its elevators. Other projects he’s been involved with include the King Edward Hotel and the Alexandria Hotel.
Even though he helped give the area a new life, the streets outside were problematic. On the corner of Spring and Sixth sat the Hayward Hotel, a 525-unit, low-income hotel with a liquor store on the ground floor. To help change the image of the area, Shomof purchased the hotel in 2002 and started making changes. First to go was the liquor store, which was replaced by a music store.
Ken Bernstein, manager at the Office of Historic Resources and principal city planner for the Department of City Planning, said Shomof was one of the first developers to believe in downtown’s great potential.
“Initially, in 1990, it was difficult to convince investors to buy into this vision. Izek was truly among the first to see the potential of downtown’s remarkable historic buildings and saw the potential to attract new residents into the heart of the city. So he actually took over two buildings in the Spring Street National Register Historic District, which had failed financially after being rehabilitated as condominiums with the support of the Community Redevelopment Agency in the 1980s. Izek stepped in and was among the very first to successfully convert historic buildings into adaptive reuse projects. Within a decade, more than 70 projects of adapted reuse were completed, representing 9,000 new housing units. Those housing conversions created the basis of downtown renaissance.”
The Alexandria Hotel, with its elegant ballroom, is one project with which Shomof has been involved.
According to Shomof, the change in the area has been dramatic since then.
“It turned [into] one of the most popular entertainment areas in L.A.,” he said. “Back in the days, downtown was a business place. People used to come to work and go back home at 5 p.m. It was completely dead during the evening hours. Today it’s full of life, with many young people and professionals who live here or come for entertainment.”
Shomof was born in Tel Aviv, where his family owned a bar. He moved to Los Angeles with his family in the summer of 1973, when he was 14. He attended high school in Van Nuys, but dropped out when he was 16 to pursue business opportunities.
“My brother Jacob opened a restaurant, and my parents started working with him. I started working in the restaurant during summer vacations. When I was 16, I saved enough money and, with a little help from my father, opened my own restaurant.” The downtown eatery he created was called Maxim.
His parents, Sara and Hanan, couldn’t say anything to dissuade the determined young man. By the time he turned 18, Shomof had already opened and sold three restaurants. With the profits, he purchased an auto shop, Star Auto Body, on Pico Boulevard.
“Cars had also been my passion in life,” he said.
These days, on the ground floor of his Beverly Hills home, Shomof keeps a car collection that includes a Ferrari 360, Shelby Cobra, Chevrolet Corvette C1 and NASCAR race cars.
But the founder of Pacific Investments found his true calling in the real estate market.
“I purchased my first real estate in 1977 for $90,000,” Shomof said. “I was always passionate about cars and wanted to open my own body shop. The old Jewish man who owned the place said to me, ‘I’ll give you the best advice ever: If you can, always buy, don’t lease. I’ll give you a good price for it.’ And so, at 18, I purchased the place.”
Today, this self-made millionaire is working on a new big project, the transformation of the historic Sears complex in Boyle Heights into 1,030 live/work units. The Sears store, which takes up about 250,000 square feet of the 1.8 million-square-foot building, will be joined by another 99,000 square feet of additional retail space. Another 250,000 square feet will be converted into creative office space.
Shomof, who has five children with his wife, Aline, bought the property in late 2013 but had to wait for plans to be approved by the city. “We hope to start construction in the next six months,” he said.
Shomof has dabbled a bit in Hollywood as well, producing a 2012 movie based on his life story called “For the Love of Money.” It stars James Caan, Paul Sorvino, Steven Bauer and Jeffrey Tambor, with Israeli actor Yehuda Levi playing the part of Shomof.
The narrative begins in Tel Aviv, where an illegal casino set up behind the Shomof family bar attracts criminals. The family relocates to L.A., where Shomof pursues his ambitions, but trouble finds them again when a local gangster (Caan) isn’t happy with the work at Izek’s auto shop.
“I offered him to bring the car back to the shop and that we’ll fix whatever needed to be fixed, but he refused and started threatening me,” Shomof said.
“The movie tells the story of people who are driven by the love of money. When people are turning greedy and try to make money illegally, they either end up in jail or dead. It happened to some people I knew.
“I also had many opportunities to make money not honestly, but I was never tempted,” Shomof said. “What’s important is the path you take. The message of my film is you can still fulfill the American dream and do it honestly.”