Breathing new life into old buildings

Before the pandemic, downtown L.A. was experiencing a renaissance. New bars, restaurants, hotels and apartment buildings were turning the sleepy urban core back into the popular shopping and entertainment destination it was a century ago.

Now, however, you’re more likely to see “For Lease? signs than the announcement of a grand opening. But signs of economic life are slowly returning, said architect and UCLA alumna Karin Liljegren, and finding use for empty ground-floor commercial space will be key to downtown’s recovery.

“We should have no empty spaces,’ she said. “We’ve got to get the ground floor activated.’

That can be done in creative ways, she adds, such as restaurants that become co-working spaces, pop-up galleries or community drop-in spaces.

Walk into any old downtown L.A. building that’s been converted into a new use, and chances are Liljegren had something to do with bringing it back to life.

Over 20 years, Liljegren has overseen or consulted on the rehabs of more than 400 buildings in downtown’s urban core.

Last year, the American Institute of Architects named Liljegren to the College of Fellows, considered one of the architecture world’s highest honors.

A New Jersey native, Liljegren received her bachelor’s in architecture from UNC Charlotte and her master’s in architecture from UCLA. At that time, UCLA’s architecture program was housed within the school of public planning, which meant her education included form-building as well as placemaking.

Upon graduating in 1994, she was hired at Killefer Flammang Architects, a firm founded by Wade Killefer and Barbara Flammang, who had met as graduate students at UCLA.

In 1999, the city of Los Angeles passed the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance, which incentivized developers to convert historic, mostly empty office buildings into residential projects. Over the next decade, Liljegren helmed the firm’s adaptive reuse projects, stripping away decades of additions and restoring the buildings’ original character.

Then, “in 2009, in the middle of the recession and also getting a divorce and being a single parent, I decided to jump ship and start my own company, which everybody thought was totally crazy,’ she said with a laugh. “And it was the best decision I ever made.’

Her company, Omgivning (a Swedish word that means environment or ambience, or the way a space feels) has since grown to 40 employees.

She feels strongly that adaptive reuse is the greener option (it’s far more sustainable to reuse a building than replace it with a new one) and it also maintains the historic charm of old neighborhoods.

“Even when I was a little kid, I would ask, ‘What can I do with that? That building could be so much better if we did X, Y or Z,’- she said.

As a woman working in a field long dominated by men, Liljegren has found inspiration and friendship among some of her female contemporaries, including Annie Chu, Barbara Bestor and Andrea Keller, who also run their own firms.

A few Omgivning rehabs are slated to open this year: the Downtown L.A. Proper, a high-design hotel on Broadway, across from the Herald-Examiner Building; the Singer Building, a former music store and a warehouse for the Singer sewing machine company, will be six live/work lofts and new ground-floor retail; and the Desmond, a former department store, will become creative offices and a rooftop restaurant and bar.

Meanwhile, there is plenty of adaptive reuse work ahead, and Liljegren doesn’t wait for projects to come to her.

“It is shocking how many buildings still need to be redone,’ she said. “We actually have a list in our office of a bunch of buildings that we know of that we want to do, or that would be perfect for housing, and we’re trying to make it happen.’

For example, they are on the search for a building that could be a hybrid of private and co-working space. It would house a few like-minded businesses that would have their own workstations but share common spaces such as a kitchen, lounge, outdoor space and garden.

The pandemic will likely change how offices are designed, with more employees wanting to work from home fullor part-time. But the office itself won’t go away, she said.

“We need places to gather. We need places to be together. We need to be able to have a sense of community in our office. And if we’re working completely remotely, we’re not going to have that,’ she said.

Offices might have fewer personal work spaces and more phone booth-style pods, which offer privacy for video conferencing. But there will still be a need for gathering spaces for large meetings or workshops.

For Liljegren, the thrill of adapting a new building is in peeling back a wall or ceiling and finding the delicate details made by a craftsman that had been buried under decades of additions.

While in graduate school at UCLA, “it was a little bit of a struggle for me because I was so interested in spaces and I was less interested in form,’ she said. “I was really interested in human needs, social needs and community. And it was very hard to integrate that into designs on the level of dialogue that is usually expected in a high-level design school. But it is interesting how those early things that I was passionate about have evolved into exactly what I’m doing now, and that’s exciting.’

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