Point of Interest: LA's Wilshire Professional Building

The Wilshire Professional Building, a Los Angeles landmark officially designated in 2015 via the city’s Historic-Cultural Monument process, was constructed for medical and dental professionals in 1929.

The building’s opening came during a period of explosive outward development in LA, right as the city was on the verge of pioneering the concept of the “linear downtown” along Wilshire Boulevard, a built form that would come to dominate U.S. cityscapes in subsequent decades. Primarily credited to real estate developer A.W. Ross who developed the “Miracle Mile” further west, this mode of constructing anchor buildings along a single street with ample car parking tucked behind them would see much of Wilshire Boulevard filled in between LA’s existing downtown and Ross’s satellite downtown as personal cars became more common and people sought destinations that they could drive to more readily than downtown.

In addition to its intended medical tenants, the Wilshire Professional Building’s architect, Arthur E. Harvey, kept his office here throughout boom years for what was broadly known at the time as the Wilshire District. But as time went on, the linear downtown itself gave way to new car-centric built forms, like parking lot shopping malls and further-flung office parks. The area around the Wilshire Professional Building became far less desirable to investors, high-dollar commercial tenants, and monied white families by the end of the 1960s. At the same time, Korean Americans seeking a foothold in Los Angeles began to call the area home, finding affordable housing and an abundance of available commercial space. Over the next several decades, this portion of mid-Wilshire found a new identity as Koreatown, the largest Korean community in the U.S. With its proximity to downtown and adherence to a grid with good public transit access, it also had the bones of a highly functional urban neighborhood - today, after several on-and-off building booms since Korean-American interest in the area began (and the addition of many Latino residents, who now make up more than half of Koreatown’s population), it’s become one of the densest neighborhoods in the entire country.

The steady increase in population has, in recent years, produced winners and losers in Koreatown as housing affordability has become a more salient issue. All of the elements that made Koreatown and exceptionally fruitful place for LA’s Korean American community to flourish are in high demand today - the walkability, density of businesses and services, and easy access to transportation. Rather than the linear downtown that once characterized this portion of Wilshire Boulevard (and still characterizes sections of it further west), Koreatown today more closely resembles a traditionally dense city neighborhood with its own petit downtown, uncharacteristic of LA. And with household incomes averaging below the median for the city and an overwhelming majority of residents renting rather than owning their homes, many residents are becoming priced out of one of LA’s few truly urban neighborhoods.

Standing to benefit from this are longtime landholders, some of whom are locally politically powerful and deeply embedded in community organizations in a way that is challenging to navigate. One name you’ll hear a lot is that of Dr. David Y. Lee, a former medical doctor who purchased a series of office buildings on and near Wilshire Boulevard in the aftermath of the 1992 Rodney King riots, which disproportionately damaged Koreatown (a fact that’s attributed to reaction to a light sentencing decision handed down to a Korean American convenience store owner who killed 15-year-old Black ninth-grade student Latasha Harlins the year before after accusing her of theft). Lee’s holdings purchased during that period include the Wilshire Professional Building. His property management company, Jamison, pursued a strategy of minimal upkeep and aggressive recruitment of tenants via low rents in its early years, which was highly successful in older commercial structures like this one filled with small storefronts and office suites. Jamison rose over the subsequent decade and a half to be the largest commercial property holder in Koreatown, and eventually one of the largest commercial landlords in all of Los Angeles, acquiring a reputation among some tenants as a sort of commercial slumlord for lack of maintenance performed on the company’s buildings.

Eventually, as Jamison grew to several billion dollars in market capitalization, they began to change tactics. Lee and several of his family members who form much of Jamison’s executive team began to acquire properties downtown and in other neighborhoods, and started thoroughly renovating some new acquisitions and pieces of their older portfolio. As time went on, they even began to develop brand new real estate, and moved into housing. In the mid-2010s, when Los Angeles passed an ordinance incentivizing high-density residential development near public transit, the Lee family saw gold in many of their existing holdings, converting some of their commercial structures in Koreatown to residential uses and demolishing others to make way for new structures. In the past half-decade, there have been multiple years during which Jamison developments have accounted for more than half of the new residential units permitted for construction in Koreatown. Directly behind the Wilshire Professional Building, they’re turning a decades old parking lot into an eight-story, 230-unit apartment building.

A wide range of community stakeholders in Koreatown support the notion of increased housing supply as a way to relieve price pressure in the neighborhood, but there are complications to the role of Lee and his companies in the mix. Part of this comes from a slow shedding of local goodwill - despite his deep ties to several powerful neighborhood stakeholder groups and status as a funder for a handful of local nonprofits, Lee has lost some measure of active support or passive acceptance among in-the-know Koreatown residents. Jamison’s headquarters is now downtown, having moved out of Koreatown in the late 2000s. Lee himself lives in Beverly Hills. And his company has utilized a bare essentials framing of its legal obligations to provide affordable residential units in its new developments, so while observers tend to shrug and agree that increased unit count in the area likely has a cooling effect on rents in other nearby buildings, it also feels to many like Jamison’s new residential buildings are meant solely for monied newcomers, a sign of continued upward market movement in a place where many residents can only tenuously afford their housing as it is. In many ways, the company in its current form mirrors the actions of other real estate developers that lack local roots, but has the advantage of significant existing land holdings in a hot area.

But conflict also appears in the ways that Lee and his company haven’t changed. Lee, notoriously reticent in the press, has long had a reputation in Los Angeles real estate circles and Korean American civic circles as strong-willed in private settings and very willing to exercise the power he knows he has. This came to a head in an extreme manner in 2018, when a coalition of local groups sought to preserve a privately-owned green space that Jamison held and sought to develop. In a meeting with stakeholder groups, brokered by a local elected official, Lee commented matter-of-factly that he would bring his assault rifle to Koreatown and shoot anybody who attempted to access his property (referring to the green space, which had been used as an informal park for so long that many residents were unaware that it was privately owned). The comments led to an LAPD investigation and extensive press coverage, and resulted indirectly in the legal designation of the subject space as a local Historic-Cultural Monument, the same designation given to the Wilshire Professional Building. It marked the first major development defeat for Jamison, a company that was accustomed to getting its way.

That major negative press coverage and resulting project cancellation has not entirely broken old habits, however. Though Jamison is involved in a wider range of property development and management activities than in the ‘90s, and has formalized its corporate operations significantly over the years, it still retains a reputation for neglect of buildings that aren’t currently a priority for the company. A few years before Lee’s firm announced their new residential development in the former rear parking lot of the Wilshire Professional Building, they emptied the building of tenants - 90 years after the building’s opening, it still mostly contained medical and dental practices - and left it essentially unmaintained.

Even as work has commenced on the new residential building behind it, the Wilshire Professional Building sits with many windows open to the elements and several entrances unsecured. Jamison has been permitted to sit on the empty building with what appear to be clear, visible violations of several Los Angeles building codes. They have not yet performed a planned full renovation of the building, applied for and approved in 2021, and have not been cited or fined for leaving the structure rotting in the meantime. This is despite many attempts by locals (including Koreatown residents and LA architecture preservation advocates) to bring the issue to the attention of the city’s Department of Building and Safety and seek action - several reports submitted to the department have been closed with no violation findings, in spite of all obvious evidence. It is not clear why this is the case, but Lee’s influence continues to loom large, leading to speculation about lenience he and his company may be allowed by city officials. The Wilshire Professional Building will likely eventually get its intended renovation, but right now, it sits vacant and deteriorating in the hands of a corporate steward with plenty of cash to spend if they so chose.