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USC Astani Dept Makes Innovative Real Life Impact For Refugees

Kenton Hanson

How an innovative course is taking on the largest mass migration crisis since WWII

By Daniel Druhora
USC Viterbi Spring 2019


The postman only rang once.
Sadiq was at home in Kabul, enjoying tea. Peeking through the window, he caught a glimpse of the postman running off. It seemed odd for the postman not say hello.

“Go check on Irfan,” he told his wife, Raihana. She ran upstairs to their sleeping 3-year-old son.

Just then, the front door burst open, knocked off its hinges by a gang of Taliban, faces covered, weapons drawn. When Raihana came out of their son’s room and saw Sadiq surrounded by Kalashnikov rifles aimed at his head, she fainted and fell over the balustrade to the floor below.

The rest is a blur. Sadiq remembers boots fanning through the house. He could hear things crashing, men yelling and Irfan crying.

The warning letters had finally caught up to them. The first kindly asked for cooperation. The second demanded information and included a “we know where you live” warning. The last threatened his life. What made Sadiq Muhammad Hakimzada a marked man was his work as a translator for the U.S. Special Forces. By the end of 2014, American troops had left Afghanistan, handing over responsibility for security and the rule of law to local Afghans. Shortly thereafter, the names of American collaborators started appearing on Taliban hit lists.

It took Raihana two weeks to wake up from her coma. By then, all their possessions, including their car, were gone. Having retrieved what they needed, the Taliban warned Sadiq he would not escape their watch. Taking Raihan’s hand, Sadiq promised they would leave Afghanistan for good.

The birth of their second son, Rizvan, delayed their escape by one year. But on Nov. 4, 2017, Sadiq, Raihana and their sons set off on a weeks-long trek without food or water, hiding in forests and giving the last of their money to smugglers to pack them into a small boat with 80 people bound for Greece.

“No mother puts her kids on the sea unless she feels the water is safer than the land,” said Raihana, who was shoved to the front with her sons so that guards would not shoot at the boat to turn it around. Sadiq was tasked with steering the boat for the four-hour journey, putting 80 lives literally in his hands. No one on board knew how to swim. Sadiq and Raihana quickly said their goodbyes: “If we die, we die together, as a family.”

At dawn, they landed on the Greek island of Lesvos, picked up by Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, and taken for processing in Camp Moria. Sadiq and Raihana were happy to be alive and on European shores, but nothing had prepared them for the realities of Moria.

As the bus carrying new arrivals approached the former military base, Raihana looked out the window at the giant scrawl across the wall: “Welcome to prison.”

The Challenge
Nearly 7,000 miles away in Los Angeles, 26 students representing seven USC schools were given a challenge: split in teams, partner with refugees and create a solution to help people caught up in the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II.

Innovation in Engineering Design for Global Challenges, offered through the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is the first of its kind at USC and, as of this writing, at any engineering school in the nation. It takes graduate and undergraduate students from a variety of disciplines, puts them in teams, and sends them to hotspots throughout the world to design and engineer solutions to global crises in chaotic environments. The teams have just two semesters and $6,000 each to tackle such problems as improved sanitation, shelters, electricity, mental health, education, access to information and security.

“I was just coming out of jetlag from visiting family in India and a couple of nights playing Fortnite, and you’re asking me to do what?” Arya Bhatia, a USC Marshall School of Business junior remembered thinking. “I understood right then and there that this course was unlike anything I had ever taken before.”

The course has three instructors led by Burcin Becerik-Gerber, USC Viterbi associate professor in civil and environmental engineering. Becerik-Gerber has spent her professional life imagining an intelligent environment and laying the groundwork for smart buildings and systems that can interact with humans. As a Turkish-American, Harvard-educated scholar who has had to redefine what home means multiple times, she says she has been constantly bothered by the question, what about people who don’t have a home at all?

“As a researcher, you always want to work on something that changes people’s lives,” she said. “Each time I visited home in Turkey, I came face to face with the human toll of the refugee crisis, and it motivated me to take this challenge.”

The course’s motto, coined by instructor Brad Cracchiola, is “Lives, not grades.”

Cracchiola, who led the team credited with building the world’s fastest racing wheelchair at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, crushing four world records and winning seven medals, including four gold, recalls reading the expressions in the room that first day: the stunned, the expectant, the fearful and the hopeful.

“We were doing introductions and students stood up and started excusing themselves for their majors,” he said, “saying things like, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not an engineer.’”

Cracchiola cut the pity party short: “As of this moment, you’re all engineers.

“If you’re designing and building something new, you’re a designer, you’re an inventor. Period. No excuses. Don’t let a label limit what you can do in this class.”

Into Moria
The first group of 15 USC students arrived in Moria on September 15. Siena Applebaum, a mechanical engineering junior at USC Viterbi, as well as a University Trustee Scholar and a Viterbi Fellow, and Erna Redzepagic, a social entrepreneurship graduate student at the USC Marshall School of Business, were among them.

“Our job was to hear what the refugees were telling us the problems were,” said Redzepagic, who grew up a refugee in Germany after she fled the war in Bosnia with her family.

“What we found is shock and disbelief at the conditions people fleeing violence and war were living in,” said Applebaum who’s Turkish language skills helped her communicate with some refugees.

Life in Moria, they learned, is an endless flow of queues. Eighty-five showers are shared among some 9,000 to 10,000 residents. Raihana wakes up at 5 a.m. and lines up in a two-hour queue to take a shower. Sadiq waits by to ensure she isn’t assaulted, an all-too-common occurrence in the camp. After this, he joins a queue for breakfast, which can take another two hours. By the time he brings breakfast back to the family’s tent, he must get back in line for lunch. Then there are the endless, frustrating queues of people waiting for an exit stamp on their asylum papers and a ticket to the mainland. Fights are common and can quickly devolve into riots.

What’s more, tensions are rising among some locals who fear the European Union is bent on turning their island, once a popular tourist destination, into a refugee archipelago. Since the 2016 EU-Turkey Agreement, which effectively bottlenecked the flow of boats, the Greek government has confined refugees and migrants to five islands for the duration of their asylum process. Lesvos, just 6 miles from Turkey, is one of them, and it is seeing continued strain on its resources as an estimated 90 people still arrive on the island daily. The effects are both palpable and visible. In the town of Moria proper, where 67 stores once blossomed with local produce spilling out into the cobbled streets, only 14 remain open. And those are protected by cages and barbed wire.

According to camp management, this was the first time a university course was granted full access to Moria. Typically, only registered NGOs and their volunteers have access. Students also met with representatives from the Moria Community Council to hear the viewpoints of the local residents affected by the crisis.

“Prototypes, Not PowerPoints”
To help guide the course, students were teamed up with 10 refugee global partners — young people whose education was interrupted due to conflict. They advise each team and join course sessions virtually from Germany, Norway, Spain and Greece.

“I am first a human being, then a refugee,” said Maryam Payenda a refugee global partner based in Germany. Payenda is one of the very few women in Afghanistan to graduate with a degree in computer science. “I feel compelled to help fellow refugees. Knowing that I can connect with USC students to solve real problems is a great opportunity for me to show the world, together, that refugees are part of humanity. We shouldn’t be left behind.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported in 2018 that an unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are 25.4 million refugees, more than half under the age of 18. In addition to persecution and war, climate change and economic instability have added fuel to the ongoing mass migration.

“This is about tangible, real-world impact,” said David Gerber, one of the course’s three instructors, an architect and designer whose work integrates computer science, robotics, engineering and architecture. “It’s a paradigm shift to get students to forget about the grade and think about the innovation and the impact. Don’t just tell me what you’re going to build — show me. Build it out of paper, build it out of cardboard, but start with something. This class is about prototypes, not PowerPoints.”

The course is funded in part by Provost Michael Quick’s Wicked Problems Practicum, the Min Family Engineering Social Entrepreneurship Challenge, the office of USC Viterbi’s Dean Yannis C. Yortsos, Los Angeles-based real estate developer Sonny Astani, M.S. ISE ’78, the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, Walter Singer ’B.S. ’82, and Murat Sehidoglu, M.S. ISE, M.B.A. ’80. United Engineering Foundation is sponsoring a documentary film that follows the students as they race against the clock, and themselves, to turn their ideas into reality.

Their support allowed students to return to Moria on February 5 with prototypes in hand. Led by Becerik-Gerber, Cracchiola, course coordinator Daniel Druhora and accompanied by Astani, the students spent over a week testing their prototypes inside Moria R.I.C. and Kara Tepe, officially called the Hospitality Center for Refugees and Migrants Mavrovouni (Kara Tepe).

Redzepagic returned with a portable shower that can be built by refugees using readily available materials. The team struggled through several prototypes, multiple failures and roadblocks before they committed to one idea they want to implement.

“We learned from this second trip that people want to participate in building their own shower because it gives them a sense of accomplishment in an otherwise powerless situation,” said Nina Singh, a biomedical engineering senior who helped develop the shower prototype. “The solution may not be us building and shipping showers to these camps as we originally thought.”

Before leaving, the students gave their prototype to a young family in need, namely, Sadiq and Raihana Hakimzada.

“I’m not happy to live in a camp,” Sadiq said, “but I’m happy that you didn’t forget us. People like us, who fought alongside Americans, to see people like you did not forget — it gives us hope.”

“You can’t innovate in a bubble,” said Becerik-Gerber. “It’s important to expose students to the realities of the crisis and to help them make the connections to local stakeholders, international aid organizations, regional and local governments, private enterprise and refugees themselves. We need all of these actors to tackle the problems as a whole.”

“We are thankful for the help provided by USC and its students,” said Moria’s commander, Yiannis Balbakakis, who has led efforts to relieve overcrowding in the camp by transferring over 3,000 asylum seekers to the mainland since September. “We need fresh ideas, your ways of thinking about the problems we face,” he told the students.

In addition to testing in the camps, teams presented their prototypes at a major pitch event on March 7 in Lesvos to officials from Greek federal and local governments; representatives of UNHCR and other major NGOs, Greek universities and local business leaders such as the Lesvos Local Development Co., ETAL S.A., which is responsible for over 100 million euros in local development projects on the island over the past 15 years.

“The mission of USC in Lesvos had a variable we don’t often see in the past four years of the crisis,” said Anastasios Perimenis, CEO of ETAL, an instrumental partner in the course’s efforts in Lesvos. “It went deeper. It got inside the heart of the local challenge to manage the situation. It inspired local action. We have already benefited from invaluable friendship, knowledge, experience and lessons in solidarity — a rare opportunity for two opposite sides of the world coming together in a common effort.”

For the students, the opportunity to leverage engineering skills to help solve intractable problems is exhilarating.

“I’ve been working on a lot of theory-based ideas, but so far none of my classes gives me the opportunity to demonstrate what I’ve learned,” said Sofia Tavella, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering whose team is building an information aggregator smartphone app for Moria. “This class actually uses the skills we learn and puts them to the test.”

“Give it wings”
The instructors want to offer the course again next year and hope it becomes a model for how to train a new generation of engineers to respond to global crisis.

“Through rapid iteration and through questioning their assumptions, but not only — through tangible and visceral experiences — our students are learning how important empathy is to the success of their projects,” Gerber said.

As for Sadiq and Raihana, three days after the USC students left the island, they got their stamps to leave for Thessaloniki. They hope to make it from there to Washington where Raihana’s sister lives. And the portable shower? Passed on to another family awaiting their ticket.

In fact, before thousands of units are manufactured and shipped to camps all over the world, they all left something behind. Team Waterway, which designed a backpack system for carrying water, left their prototype to an expecting mother in Moria. Team Duet, which is rethinking the way philanthropy is done, successfully delivered their proof of concept: a bag of diapers purchased by someone in Los Angeles for a family of refugees resettled on the island.

Other teams left less tangible things behind — ideas forever implanted in the minds of stakeholders. Team Safar, which is building the world’s first camp-specific information aggregator, inspired a group of often disjointed government agencies and NGOs to envision a way for their life-saving information to come together. Team Amber, which is making an ultra-low-cost thermal fleece with special features for refugees, left an indelible impression on one young refugee woman who didn’t want to part with their first cool-looking prototype — an “inflatable” jacket that keeps the wearer warm using air. “You forgot one thing,” she told them. “Give it wings so I can fly away from here.”

USC Viterbi Named a Partner Institution for State Department Program

Diplomacy Lab offers students and faculty an opportunity to tackle urgent issues in world affairs

The University of Southern California has been selected as a partner institution for Diplomacy Lab, a program of the U.S. Department of State that provides students and faculty with hands-on experience on global policy challenges.

Starting this spring, USC Viterbi will serve as the central hub for this new USC-State Department partnership, which will call on faculty and their students from across campus to consider solutions for urgent issues governing international affairs. Najmedin Meshkati, professor of civil and environmental engineering, industrial and systems engineering, and international relations, is the program’s academic lead.

“We are honored to be recognized as a Diplomacy Lab partner by the U.S. Department of State,” said USC Viterbi Dean Yannis C. Yortsos. “This distinction recognizes the enabling nature of engineering and of technology innovation in our times, which we have promoted at USC Viterbi as Engineering+. We look forward to our students and faculty providing interesting, empowering solutions to vexing problems in international diplomacy.”

USC’s involvement in the program is an outgrowth of Meshkati’s Engineering Diplomacy course. Meshkati, a former Jefferson Science Fellow and senior science and engineering advisor to the Office of the Science and Technology Adviser of the U.S. Secretary of State, has incorporated Diplomacy Lab challenges into his courses.

One of Meshkati’s students, Stefani Mikov, B.S. ’17, an industrial and systems engineer, was a finalist in the Diplomacy Lab’s Wonk Tank competition in April 2016, presenting an innovative project to redesign Syrian refugee camps in Turkey.

“This partnership recognizes our efforts to fuse an engineering thought process with foreign policy and international development,” said Meshkati, who is currently on sabbatical as a fellow with the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

“The Office of Global Partnerships builds and facilitates partnerships that leverage the creativity and innovation of the private sector and civil society, and Diplomacy Lab is a unique opportunity for the Department of State to tap into the vast intellectual reservoir that is the American higher education system,” said Thomas Debass, the State Department’s acting special representative for global partnerships. “We’re thrilled to welcome USC into our diverse network of over 30 partner institutions, knowing full well that their students and faculty will contribute meaningfully to achieving the Department’s foreign policy objectives.”

The State Department is responsible for responding to a wide array of challenges, including climate change, weapons non-proliferation, democracy and human rights, counterterrorism, global health, energy security, gender equality, economic policy, trafficking in persons, food security and conflict stabilization. Each semester, the agency releases a list of proposed projects to its 30 partner universities. Universities then identify faculty members to lead teams of students in research and innovation that address a given challenge. These teams bid on a maximum of four project proposals that align with their strengths. Once a project bid is approved, teams work in a semester-long sprint to develop a final work product that accomplishes the goals outlined by the department.

Finding Solutions to Real-World Problems

The student-teams in the Innovation in Engineering Design for Global Challenges course are working on the following prototypes.

Safar, which means “journey” in Farsi and Arabic, is a mobile app built that serves as an information aggregator to help guide refugees upon arrival at a refugee camp. Safar will be the first app to address location-specific refugee needs in real time. It achieves this by pulling critical information from several official sources and user feedback, then integrating this data into an easily accessible, dynamic interface, much like the Waze app does for drivers.

Sol is building a portable, lightweight shower that will help refugees and others enjoy the dignity of a proper shower in an outdoor camp or hospitality centers, or inside ISO containers, reducing the shortage of shower stations and increasing privacy. Unlike existing shower solutions made for outdoor camping, Sol’s design uses a water recycling system to reduce environmental impact and improve sanitation.

Amber is a clothing brand focused on making highly functional, low cost, sustainable clothing designed specifically for emergency response scenarios. Their first product, the amber thermal will provide cost effective protection from the cold, from disease, and from noise, while keeping users' essential documents safe. This can be a life-saving solution when conflict or disaster first breaks out and refugees or internally displaced people are fleeing.

WaterWay is a durable, lightweight container to help people comfortably transport water over long distances. The container will include over-the- shoulder straps and weight manage- ment reinforcements to help the user carry water on their back. Offering fill and spigot simplicity, this water-back-pack can serve as a water reservoir that can be suspended from anywhere and will also have built-in filtration and purification elements.

Duet is a philanthropic initiative that pairs backers and resettled refugees through specific and meaningful item-based donations. Using matching algorithms, it pairs a purchase in the United States, for example, with a product that a refugee or displaced person needs and can’t afford, but yet is readily available in a host nation. Described by its team as the “Uber of micro-philanthropy,” Duet seeks to eliminate donation waste by connecting givers to individuals’ needs.

LA 500 Special Edition – The Most Influential People in L.A.

Kenton Hanson

Sonny Astani

Sonny Astani


Founder and Chairman

Astani Enterprises

Sonny Astani has acquired, developed, constructed and managed more than $2 billion in multifamily buildings and condominiums, including 7,500 apartment units in Southern California. The founder of Astani Enterprises, based in Beverly Hills, came to the United States 40 years ago from Iran and earned a masters degree in industrial and systems engineering from the University of Southern California. He is on the boards of the Pacific Council for International Policy, the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and the Leadership Council for USC’s Lusk Center for Real Estate Development. He has received the USC Engineering School’s 2007 Distinguished Alumni Award and the Industrial and Systems Engineering School’s 2006 Distinguished Alumni Award. He donated $17 million to his alma mater in 2007, a gift that created the USC Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He also supports Dorsey High, Compton Junior Posse, Skid Row Housing Trust and New Economics for Women.

What was your proudest moment?

Getting my U.S. passport 30 years ago, which has allowed me to travel to 90 countries from North Korea to South Sudan and Afghanistan.

What is your alma mater?

University of Southern California

What is your next project?

We're working on dormitory-style cohabitation living for people who can only afford $1,000 monthly rent.

Who is your hero?

My mother. My father had died, and she allowed me, her eldest child, to come to America from Iran and pursue my dream of obtaining a higher education. She gave me the strength to survive here when I was homeless, and after I became a success, I remembered what she taught me about nurturing and giving.

What do you like best about Los Angeles?

Everything, except our inability to solve the homelessness situation.

Source: LA Business Journal

Developer Sees Room to Move West on Wilshire

Kenton Hanson

$83 million multifamily sale highlights potential between, MacArthur Park.

Sonny Astani sees some potential for another project on the stretch of Wilshire Boulevard between downtown and McArthur Park after a recent $83 million sale of the 218-unit Wilshire Valencia apartments.

The next opportunity could be found on a patch of land owned by the Los AngelesUnified School District, according to the chairman of Astani Enterprises Inc., who tends to acquire a street-level understanding of the various neighborhoods that draw his attention and dollars as a developer.

"There are a couple of pieces I'm eyeing – a piece of vacant LAUSD land: it's not part of their school plans," Astani said. "And there are some older commercial buildings that I think sooner or later will sell. There is stuff out there."

Astani declined to get too far into specifics the multifamily property, but said he did very well on the project - it was built on a 1.5-acre site that he bought for $7.6 million five years ago and opened in January. The upscale rental units replaced three small office buildings and a 29-unit apartment at the corner of Wilshire and Valencia Street.

It was an especially tough project, Astani said, with everything from the demolitions; relocation payments for tenants of the old apartments; challenges in getting an architect who would configure the Wilshire Valencia's pool, gym, basketball court and 8,000-square foot garden to ensure plenty of sun; and the city's entitlement process testing his mettle.

"I've done 5,000 units, and this 200-unit project was probably the hardest," he said. There's plenty to like about the stretch of Wileshire, according to Astani, which heads west from downtown through an area some call Center City West and others call West Lake district. One particular string point is that lower land prices have allowed rental units in the area to come on line at about $300 a month cheaper than downtown.

Another is MacArthur Park at Wilshire and Alvarado Street.

"It's an unbelievable asset - a huge park with tennis courts and a lake," he said.

Other highlights are the Los Angeles Police Department Rampart Division station at Sixth Street and Valencia; recent developments such as Spa Palace, which offers some indicators that the vibrancy of adjacent Koreatown - just to the west of the park - spilling over to Westlake; and the general momentum of the new residential and commercial developments.

Some challenges remain - Astani noted the number of homeless in the area have grown in the past couple of years, and the area around MacArthur Park can sometimes be overly vibrant, with street peddlers clogging sidewalks - although  there are some bright sides to all the action (see related item in Page 3 column).

One other caution: Land has become more expensive everywhere in Los Angeles - and might be getting too pricey for entrepreneurial developers.

"Entrepreneurs make their money when they buy the land," Astani said. "If you don't buy land right, you'll be working for the bank. Demand is high and there's a lot of cash - but you have to buy the land right."

Los Angeles Business Journal
Editor Jerry Sullivan
323 549 5225 ext 200

Apartment complex near downtown L.A. sells for more than $80 million

Kenton Hanson

The Wilshire Valencia apartment complex at 1515 Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles has been sold by developer Sonny Astani for more than $80 million to a real estate trust. (Gary Leonard / Astani Enterprises)

The Wilshire Valencia apartment complex at 1515 Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles has been sold by developer Sonny Astani for more than $80 million to a real estate trust. (Gary Leonard / Astani Enterprises)

By Roger Vincent · Los Angeles Times

A recently built Wilshire Boulevard apartment complex has sold for more than $80 million as residential development spreads west from downtown Los Angeles into the city’s historic Westlake district.

Beverly Hills developer Sonny Astani said he sold the 218-unit Wilshire Valencia apartments at 1515 Wilshire to Anaheim mobile home community developer Kort & Scott Financial Group on Monday.

He paid $7.6 million in 2012 for the 1.5-acre site at the northwest corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Valencia Street and said at the time that he would spend $60 million to build apartments on top of shops on land then occupied by vacant commercial buildings and a parking lot.

The Wilshire Valencia was completed in January and is more than 90% occupied, Astani said.

The site is across the street from John Liechty Middle School, between Good Samaritan Medical Plaza and a Home Depot store. In 2006, Astani built a 200-unit condominium building called Vero one block east of the Wilshire Valencia.

Gentrification is edging into Westlake from downtown after decades in the doldrums when the neighborhood was considered blighted and little development took place.

“It’s a hot area with a lot of potential,” said historian and real estate consultant Greg Fischer, who was not involved in the sale. “You are close enough to downtown without being inside of it that you can participate without dealing with the traffic and vast number of people downtown.”

When the neighborhood around the Wilshire Valencia was created in the 1890s, it was called Orange Heights and was one of the choicest addresses in town, Fischer said. In the 1930s, Wilshire Boulevard was extended east through what is now MacArthur Park and connected to Orange Street, which was renamed Wilshire and flowed into downtown.

Today the 16-mile boulevard is one of the best known streets in the world.

“The Wilshire corridor has international appeal,” Astani said, and new arrivals in the Westlake district come from South Korea, China and Russia as well as the U.S.

Because it is cheaper to develop there than downtown, the average apartment rents for as much as $400 less than comparable units in downtown’s booming South Park neighborhood, Astani said.

Apartments at the Wilshire Valencia run from $1,500 to $4,300 a month, he said.

Another major apartment-retail complex planned for downtown L.A.

Kenton Hanson

Developer Sonny Astani will build the project on a South Park parcel that he and a partner sold to Scottsdale, Ariz., investors.

Source :: Los Angeles Times
Date :: 10.02.2013
By :: Roger Vincent

Another major apartment and retail complex is slated for construction in downtown Los Angeles across the street from Mack Urban's proposed residential project in South Park.

Beverly Hills developer Sonny Astani is set to develop the $245-million project on behalf of a new owner, an Arizona investment firm. 

Astani, a prolific developer in Los Angeles, secured city approval to build 640 apartments over shops and restaurants on the site bounded by Olive Street, Grand Avenue, Pico Boulevard and 12th Street. 

Astani and parking lot giant L&R Group owned the 3-acre parcel now used to park cars and Astani planned to develop the project. But recently they sold the land for $45 million to an investment partnership controlled by Wolff Co., a Scottsdale real estate private equity firm. Astani and L&R bought the property for $29 million in 2012. 

As part of the deal, Astani agreed to develop the apartment complex on behalf of the Wolff partnership, which will own it. 

The seven-story edifice will be called G12, a reference to its location at Grand and 12th. It will have 1 acre of open space, two swimming pools and two fitness centers. There will be spaces to park 740 bicycles and 595 cars, Astani said. 

Work on G12 is set to begin in January and be completed within two years.

Astani is also developing projects elsewhere downtown, in Hollywood and on the Westside.

Pacific Council delegation talks democracy in Myanmar with Aung San Suu Kyi

Kenton Hanson

Los Angeles (January 14, 2013) – A delegation from the Pacific Council on International Policy traveled to Myan-mar last week for high level discussions with individuals central to the peace process in that country, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The group – led by former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Mickey Kantor, for-mer U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom Robert H. Tuttle, and Pacific Council President and CEO Dr. Jerrold D. Green – also met with leaders in government, business, and the nonprofit sector.

The delegation included Dr. Irwin Jacobs, co-founder of Qual-comm, Inc.; Mr. William H. Neukom, former CEO of the San Fran-cisco Giants and current President and CEO of the World Justice Project; and Mr. Scott Olivet, former Chairman of Oakley, Inc. During visits to Yangon and Naypyidaw, delegates sought to un-derstand the pace and extent of current reforms and the effect of existing international sanctions. "We are deeply interested in Myanmar's path as it transitions toward democracy," said Dr. Green. "The challenges ahead are enormous, and international partners can play an important role in supporting the delicate process." 

President Barack Obama visited Myanmar in late November, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to do so, and delegation leaders called his trip a "significant good faith gesture". Still, as violence continues in the north-ern state of Kachin, Suu Kyi cautioned delegates against overestimating the reforms initiated by Myanmar's gov-ernment thus far. The peace process will be gradual, she noted, and the country has a long way to go before the world should consider it a functioning democracy. 

During the week-long visit, delegates also met with U "Thura" Shwe Mann, the speaker of the lower house of Parliament, and with U Than Nyein, the Governor of Myanmar's Central Bank. Ambassador Derek Mitchell, the first U.S. ambassador to the country since 1990, hosted the group for a discussion of recent changes in the U.S. government's level of engagement with Myanmar. 

"The Pacific Council was pleased to be able to hear and share ideas with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Ambassador Mitchell, and others during our visit," said Dr. Green. "We look forward to continuing our exchange and to serv-ing as ongoing partners in this process." The Pacific Council on International Policy (, headquartered in Los Angeles, is the lead-ing international affairs organization on the west coast of the United States. The Council is governed by a Board of Directors chaired by the Honorable Mickey Kantor and Ambassador Robert H. Tuttle. Dr. Jerrold D. Green serves as President and CEO.

State Bar property sale opens door for downtown apartments

Kenton Hanson

Source :: Los Angeles Times
Date :: 11.11.2012
By :: Roger Vincent 


A decision by the State Bar of California to move its longtime headquarters in downtown Los Angeles has cleared the way for a $250-million apartment and retail complex on what is now the State Bar's parking lot near Staples Center.

Beverly Hills developer Sonny Astani and parking lot giant L&R Group of Cos. bought the 3-acre property from the lawyers' group for $29 million. It is surrounded by Olive Street, Grand Avenue, Pico Boulevard and 12th Street.

The parking lots purchased by developer Sonny Astani in downtown Los Angeles are outlined in red. (Astani Enterprises Inc.)

The parking lots purchased by developer Sonny Astani in downtown Los Angeles are outlined in red. (Astani Enterprises Inc.)

"This is probably the last large parking lot downtown that is unentitled and undeveloped," Astani said. 

His firm, Astani Enterprises Inc., plans to build 640 apartments in two seven-story buildings that would have shops and restaurants on the ground floors. He hopes to start work within a year.

The land sale helped fund the State Bar's recent $50-million purchase of a building at 845 S. Figueroa St. where it will move after nearly 20 years in an AT&T Center building on Hill Street. The seller was L&R, which is renovating the 1960s-era building to make it into modern offices.

Astani has 2,500 apartments in $1 billion worth of mixed-use buildings in the pipeline for development in Hollywood, Koreatown, downtown and the Westside, he said.

Apartment and shopping complex is slated for Hollywood Boulevard

Kenton Hanson

Developer Sonny Astani plans a $100-million project in Hollywood that includes a building where swordplay was taught to Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone and others.

Source :: Los Angeles Times
Date :: 10.29.2012
By ::Roger Vincent

A $100-million apartment and shopping complex is being planned for a formerly neglected stretch of Hollywood Boulevard that once held a legendary rehearsal studio where generations of actors learned to dance and wield swords.

Rendering shows the proposed 280-unit High Line West apartment and retail complex that would rise around a historic Falcon Studios building on Hollywood Boulevard near Western Avenue. (Astani Enterprises Inc. / October 25, 2012)

Rendering shows the proposed 280-unit High Line West apartment and retail complex that would rise around a historic Falcon Studios building on Hollywood Boulevard near Western Avenue. (Astani Enterprises Inc. / October 25, 2012)

Commercial real estate developer Sonny Astani said he bought a 1.9-acre site on Hollywood near Western Avenue for almost $11 million. Among the structures on the property is a building that was part of Falcon Studios, a performing arts school founded in 1929.

Falcon Studios was run by former Olympic fencer Ralph B. Faulkner, who taught swordplay while his wife, Edith, ran dancing and acting classes. Faulkner, who died in 1987, crossed swords with some of Hollywood's biggest action stars and frequently appeared in swashbuckling movie fight scenes.

Among his students were Errol Flynn, Ronald Colman, Basil Rathbone and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Astani plans to incorporate a Falcon Studios building facade in his 280-unit apartment complex and build around a city landmark structure at 5540 Hollywood Blvd. That two-story brick building was erected in 1921 and now houses a music recording studio.

Astani's complex, called High Line West, will include a 5,000-square-foot elevated park above street-level shops that is meant to evoke New York's popular High Line park. The park will be open to the public. Residents will have a private park and swimming pool, Astani said, and 25 units will be set aside for very-low-income residents.

Beverly Hills-based Astani Enterprises Inc. bought the Hollywood property from lender Capmark Financial Group Inc. A previous owner got approval to build condominiums on the site, but the project collapsed during the economic downturn.

Astani hopes to start work on High Line West in about a year. It would take 18 months to build. The project would help bring activity to a part of Hollywood Boulevard that is recovering from decades of neglect, when the neighborhood had a reputation for drugs and crime.

In 1988, the former owner of Falcon Studios was ready to give up on what she called the "dumpy old building," which was riddled with bullet holes

"It's an ugly building in an ugly neighborhood." Polly August told The Times. "People would not want to go there to practice, let alone bring their children."

In more recent years, shopping and residential developments have transformed the intersection of Hollywood and Western. It has a subway stop, and more change is on the way. Hollywood landlord CIM Group has renovated the 1920s Gershwin Hotel and turned it into apartments that will be part of a residential and retail complex planned at the northwest corner of the intersection.

"I've long wanted to build in this neighborhood," Astani said. "It's home to a rich cultural mix of single people and families, and is situated between the upscale retail developments of Hollywood to the west and Los Feliz to the east."

Land in Malibu on the market

One of the largest parcels of raw land suitable for commercial development in Malibu has hit the market, drawing interest from investors around the world. The asking price is $14 million.

The 9.2-acre site known as the Wave Property is on La Paz Lane off Civic Center Way, adjacent to the Los Angeles County courthouse and the county library.

The seller is a partnership that is dissolving by court order, and the land is an asset that must be sold, according to real estate brokerage Colliers International. Members of the partnership include Pepperdine University, Paul Shoop Family Trust and First American Title Co.

"We are receiving interest from investors in China and India as well as sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar," Colliers broker Chris Maling said.

Potential uses allowed on the property include offices, stores, restaurants, senior housing and storage.

Dorsey Football Team Honors Sonny Astani

Kenton Hanson

Real Estate Developer and USC Alumnus Astani Recognized for Gift to Athletic Program

(Los Angeles, CA; October 22, 2012) –The Dorsey High School football team, coaches and administrators honored Los Angeles real estate developer Sonny Astani in a dedication ceremony at Dorsey High School on Friday, October 19, 2012. The event was held on the Dorsey campus in the school's weight room. 

Dorsey High School student‐athletes in their refurbished weight room on October 19, 2012.

Dorsey High School student‐athletes in their refurbished weight room on October 19, 2012.

Astani was honored for his donation to the Dorsey Football Boosters, a non‐profit organization that has enabled the boosters to completely renovate the school's weight room. Now, student‐athletes for the Dorsey Dons can work out with new free weights and gym equipment in a freshly‐painted facility adorned with state‐of‐the‐art flat screen televisions and audio systems. High school game films can now be assembled and viewed on a digital editing system. What was recently an antiquated room with rusting equipment will now be a welcoming training spot for the young men and women of Dorsey High School.

"For years, Dorsey High student‐athletes have worked out in an inferior facility," said Dorsey Football Booster founder Martin Ludlow. "With the monetary donation from Sonny Astani and the support of members of the Dorsey High community, this renovated weight room is a symbol of progress, and it's a show of support for the outstanding legacy of Dorsey High athletics." 

Astani added: "One of the joys of being able to help others is to witness the work of organizations like the Dorsey Football Boosters. I am proud to be associated with a group that's dedicated to helping young men and women achieve success in life ‐‐ now and in the future." The ceremony on Friday in the weight room included members of the Dorsey High football team and its coaching staff, led by head coach Paul Knox, and Dr. Reginald Sample, Dorsey principal. 

bio of Sonny Astani from USC Viterbi School of Engineering

For press queries and information about the Oct. 19 weight room dedication event: 

Ross Johnson, Johnson Public Relations; · 310 854 4780

Developer buys L.A. site for mixed-use project

Kenton Hanson

Source :: Los Angeles Times
Date :: 09.16.2012
By :: Roger Vincent

Developer Sonny Astani has bought property on Wilshire Boulevard west of downtown Los Angeles where he plans to build a $60-million apartment and retail complex. 

The six-story, 220-unit development called the Valencia will rise at the northwest corner of Wilshire and Valencia Street, Astani said. He paid Horacio Carlos Vignali $7.6 million for the 1.5-acre site now occupied by vacant commercial buildings and a parking lot. 

Work on the Valencia is set to begin in April and be finished by the end of 2014. The building will have shops and restaurants on the ground floor and a swimming pool and deck on the roof, Astani said. 

The site is across the street from John H. Liechty Middle School and between Good Samaritan Medical Plaza and a Home Depot store.

In 2006, Astani built a 200-unit condominium building called Vero a block east of the Valencia site. The Valencia will be similar to the Vero, he said. 

Astani is chairman of Astani Enterprises Inc. in Beverly Hills, which has1,800 units under development in downtown, Koreatown and Hollywood.

Sales of Downtown L.A. Lofts a One-Day Affair

Kenton Hanson

Source :: Los Angeles Business Journal
Date :: 09.07.2009
By :: Daniel Miller

Aquisitions: Concerto developer to use proceeds on site's tower phase.

REAL estate developer Sonny Astani sold all 77 lofts at His downtown project, Concerto--all in one day. The sales were significant because they give him a desperately needed cash infusion that will help him proceed with the rest of the $300 million project. 

He acknowledged that the buyers got deals. "Any time you sell 77 units in one day you are leaving something on the table," Astani said. "It's a small sacrifice I made." 

Concerto: Lofts in foreground

Concerto: Lofts in foreground

Astani found buyers for the lofts in the first building of the Concerto project at a sales event Aug. 29. The $31 million cash infusion will allow him to complete Concerto's second building, a 30-story upscale condominium tower, without depending on money from his construction lender. 

The project has been complicated by questions over Corus Bank of Chicago and its ability to provide the final 5 percent to 10 percent of a $200 million construction loan. 

"What lets me breathe easier is that I am independent of this situation, where I have to follow up with this bank: if they fund, if they don't fund or what happens if the FDIC steps in," said Astani, who heads Astani Enterprises Inc. in Beverly Hills . "I have more than enough to finish the project without private equity, community or government funding." 

The lofts range from about 750 to 1,700 square feet. Astani said they sold for an average of $375 per square foot. That's lower than he had planned when the project was first envisioned. The blended construction cost for both the loft units and the 271 upscale condo units in the tower is about $500 per square foot. 

Astani put $55 million of his own money into the project at Figueroa and Ninth streets. 

With the $31 million in his pocket, Astani expects to complete the tower by the end of the year. He could begin selling units there as early as next month. 

Corus' ability to pay out the loan was in question because of bad bets the bank had made during the real estate boom.

Profile: Sonny Astani - Development

Kenton Hanson

Special Report: Who's Who in Real Estate

Source :: Los Angeles Business Journal
Date :: 08.21.2009
By :: By LABJ Staff Rreporter

President Astani Enterprises Inc., 
Beverly Hills 

The longtime apartment developer swung for the fences with his most ambitious project – Concerto, a planned 629-unit condominium complex in two downtown high-rises and one loft building. He has struggled to keep the project afloat, but unlike other developers has not abandoned his effort; construction is wrapping up on one tower and the lofts. 

Sonny Astani

Sonny Astani

Biggest Challenge: Trying to finish and sell a $300 million multiphase, high-rise mixed-use project in downtown L.A. all while expecting that my construction lender may be taken over by the FDIC any Friday at 6 p.m. 

Notable Deals: I was very fortunate to have refinanced a half-dozen of our larger apartment buildings with Freddie Mac before the meltdown occurred. 

Secret of Success: We are a small, flexible and lean operator. We are one of a few groups in L.A. that is an owner, developer, builder and manager of multifamily properties and condominiums. 

Sage Advice: I usually talk to my wife, she knows everything.

Stress Release: I have practiced martial arts, tai chi and yoga for the past 20 years. But I have recently taken up wrestling and ocean swimming, which is an indication of my state of mind: “survival.” 

Recession’s Silver Lining: People in general are more reasonable and easier to work with, the exception being my kids and my bank. 

End of Downturn: Sadly it will come to an end when we have become so accustomed to it that we stop asking the question. 

Recent Splurge: (On) trainers and shrinks. I have given up spontaneous and impulsive shopping.

Downtown builder brings high-rise condo project to market at a tough time

Kenton Hanson

Source :: LA Times dot com
Date :: 04.23.2009
By :: Roger Vincent

Christina House / For The Times  Hassan “Sonny” Astani overcame an exasperating sequence of setbacks and hurdles to build a 30-story condo tower and a six-story loft building on Figueroa Street. “I’m really betting the ranch,” he said.

Christina House / For The Times

Hassan “Sonny” Astani overcame an exasperating sequence of setbacks and hurdles to build a 30-story condo tower and a six-story loft building on Figueroa Street. “I’m really betting the ranch,” he said.

The developer of the $300-million Concerto complex thinks he can beat the odds and find buyers.

When the Concerto high-rise condominium project opens this year in downtown Los Angeles, developer Hassan "Sonny" Astani will be lucky not to lose his shirt. 

With the market for condos in woeful decline, he already knows he won't make much money -- if any. 

Progress, at this point, would be to complete the $300-million project while staying out of bankruptcy. Astani's struggles to keep the project going, his flirtations with disaster and his near-heroic efforts to save a project that is woefully out of time with the market are a painful illustration of the difficulties that face developers when boom goes bust.

Theirs is a business with a long timeline -- it takes years to bring a large project to fruition. But a lively market can go bust in a matter of months. And then what do you do?

Detail of project.

Detail of project.

"There is a huge inventory of unsold condos in downtown L.A.," said Delores Conway of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate. "The supply is exceeding demand." 

This month, the owners of the nearby Roosevelt Lofts filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after failing to sell enough condos to open the elaborately renovated office building to residents. Owners of the Brockman Building, another downtown condo project, also recently filed for bankruptcy protection. 

Astani, an Iranian immigrant who adopted the nickname Sonny as a boy because he liked the singing duo Sonny and Cher, had a successful track record as an apartment and condo developer before tackling Concerto. It would be the 55-year-old's biggest project, filling a city block in the financial district with three buildings and a park. 

But in 2007, after he had invested three years and $10 million, things started to go south. His bank had pulled out, his financial partners in Singapore wanted to walk away, and the once-hot condo market was losing steam. All he had to show for his time and money was a four-story hole in the ground across Figueroa Street from the Original Pantry restaurant. 

Astani, who had been broke earlier in his career, was tempted to cut his losses. "People told me to stop," he said.

If the site, once a parking lot bringing in $1.2 million a year, went back to a block of smooth asphalt with painted white stripes, he could at least recoup a little money. 

Instead, he pushed on through an exasperating sequence of setbacks and hurdles to build a 30-story condo tower and a six-story loft building, buying out his overseas partners and personally guaranteeing his loan, a risky move developers almost always avoid. He credits his practice of tai chi with teaching him to focus, stay calm and persist. 

The condos are coming to market in the midst of one of the country's worst housing crashes. The sales office opened last week, but no deals have been closed so far. The condos may or may not sell soon enough to make the developer any money. But the project's back story is also Astani's, and it proves his motto: "You have to have a Plan B and a Plan C." 

The whole Concerto saga started with a fairly big risk when Astani paid $30 million for the 100,000-square-foot parcel in 2004, one of the highest prices per square foot ever paid for downtown land. 

"It was a leap of faith that this would be the next big place," he said, because other developments, including a Ralphs supermarket and the $2.5-billion L.A. Live project, were planned for surrounding blocks. Both have come to pass, but the residential market is still soft. 

Astani started digging a hole for the four-story underground garage in early 2007, but his construction lender, Fremont Investment & Loan, bailed out of commercial real estate lending under pressure from federal regulators. Astani had to stop work. He lined up another loan from Corus Bank, but his main financial partners in Singapore decided to get out. 

"They wanted to stop wrestling with two banks," he said. Astani and a handful of remaining partners bought out the Singapore partners for $30 million and carried on, he said. 

Meanwhile, even though credit markets were seizing up, construction costs were still rising in response to a long-running global real estate boom that had driven up demand for labor and materials such as steel and lumber. Astani calculated that he could save $15 million by taking over the role of general contractor. His lenders went along, but that put his financial neck on the line.

"I had to guarantee that I would finish the building, sell the units and pay them. If I fail, they can come in and take my house" and other assets, said Astani, who lives in Pacific Palisades. "I'm really betting the ranch." 

He and his wife decided to press ahead, he said, after attending an ice-skating performance at Staples and seeing people out on the streets. "It's clear to me that people want to live here," he said. 

Astani started as an industrial and systems engineer, with a degree from USC. But after six months in the field, he decided that he wasn't making enough money. He became a real estate agent and went to work selling condos on the burgeoning Wilshire Boulevard corridor near Westwood. 

For a few years, commissions rolled in and Astani felt like a big shot. "I dressed like 'American Gigolo,' " he said, recalling the 1980 movie in which Richard Gere put Armani on the fashion map. 

But the Wilshire condo market stalled, and Astani quickly ran out of money as he tried to keep up appearances. His black, two-seat Mercedes-Benz 450SL was repossessed, and he couldn't pay his rent. 

With help from his family, Astani got back on his feet. He and his brother, Marco, went back to school at Cal State Los Angeles and got contractors licenses. From the mid- to late 1980s they built apartment buildings on the Westside that they sold to investors, including Lakers owner Jerry Buss and his real estate partner Frank Mariani.

Residential development worked for Astani until the early 1990s, when the Southern California real estate market crashed again. This time he got by through marketing himself to banks that owned repossessed commercial buildings they didn't want as someone who could manage properties while improving them for resale. He eventually started investing in some with Asian partners, which led him back to development in the 2000s as real estate again improved. 

During his ups and downs, Astani learned to expect and prepare for bad times. He said the cycles have made him resilient -- and willing to make changes in order to survive. 

"Sonny has always figured out how to work out whatever is thrown in his path," said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents much of downtown. "He is very linear in his focus and plans everything he does very well," . 

Plans for a profit from the first stage of Concerto appear to be out the window, though. 

Astani has cut prices substantially from what he set two years ago, with smaller units dropped to $400,000 from $575,000 and larger ones down to $590,000 from $800,000. He hopes the lower prices will make it easier for customers to finance the units with conforming loans backed by the federal mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He declined to say whether the prices had dropped below the break-even point. 

"My priority is to sell these and pay off the bank," Astani said. He'll hang on to the penthouses in hope of getting as much as $3.5 million for them someday.

If the project stays afloat, Astani plans to build a second, complementary tower. "The tops of the buildings twist and turn -- one tower moves in, the other tower moves out," said architect Douglas Hanson. "The project will be stronger when the second tower is there." 

Hanson, of DeStefano + Partners, was project architect for Frank Gehry's Bilbao museum design and has collaborated with the architect Renzo Piano. Hanson's goal at Concerto was to make the project connect with the streets around it. "The whole block should be livable and urban, and not a big building sitting on a parking garage." 

The environmentally friendly development will have shops and restaurants at ground level, public green space and a park for the practice of tai chi. 

Astani believes that someday his buildings will be full of residents, even if he has to help some come up with down payments. "In a hot market, people line up," he said. "In a cold market, they still want to buy."

A Developer’s Unusual Plan for Bright Lights, Inspired by a Dark Film

Kenton Hanson

Source :: New York Times dot com
Date :: 05.21.2008
By :: Rebecca Cathcart

Sonny Astani holding a diode strip. He hopes to attach rows of them to the facades of two buildings, creating animated billboards.

Sonny Astani holding a diode strip. He hopes to attach rows of them to the facades of two buildings, creating animated billboards.

LOS ANGELES — The year is 2019. The illuminated windows of the city’s densely packed towers sparkle like stars in the night, and their facades are covered with bright, animated billboards. A flying car glides past the enormous eye of a smiling geisha hundreds of stories above the wet urban streets.

Warner Home Video A scene from “Blade Runner."

Warner Home Video
A scene from “Blade Runner."

That is the world of “Blade Runner,” Ridley Scott’s 1982 film set in a futuristic dystopia. It is also an obsession of a real estate developer, Sonny Astani, who hopes to evoke those atmospherics by affixing rows of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, to the facades of his two newest condominium towers in downtown Los Angeles.

“That movie really hit a chord with me,” Mr. Astani, 55, said with a broad smile. “It was beautiful.”

On a recent afternoon in his Beverly Hills office, he held up digital renderings of the two buildings, the geisha’s face from “Blade Runner” superimposed on their facades.

The Blade Runner Partnership A scene from “Blade Runner.”

The Blade Runner Partnership
A scene from “Blade Runner.”

“I saw ‘Blade Runner’ at a time when L.A. was feeling like that,” he said. “I was feeling like that.”

In 1982 Mr. Astani was a struggling real estate broker here. He had come to Los Angeles from Tehran six years earlier to study engineering at the University of Southern California, with plans to return home after graduation. The Iranian revolution changed that. He never went back.

The dark mood of “Blade Runner” matched his own melancholy at the time, Mr. Astani said, and he was gripped by the notion of looming skyscrapers covered with moving images and graphics, and the layering of old and new structures. Today Mr. Astani is a successful businessman, with two million square feet of downtown real estate built or in development, including six tall residential buildings. His projects are part of a wave of development in the area that began around 2001 and gained momentum in 2003, when Los Angeles expanded adaptive reuse policies similar to those of New York.

“Everyone wants downtown to happen,” he said. “This could create some excitement and conversation,” he said of his “Blade Runner”-inspired facades.

His 30-story residential towers, scheduled to be completed in 2009, sit at the north end of an evolving entertainment district anchored by the Stapes Center and L.A. Live, a sports and entertainment complex sometimes described as Times Square West.

The area already has plenty of loud billboards and klieg lights that have drawn complaints from some neighborhood groups, so the city is concerned about anything billboardesque. Mr. Astani’s application to build the LED panels is undergoing an environmental review by city planning officials.

A computer rendering of Mr. Astani’s buildings, complete with the proposed billboards.

A computer rendering of Mr. Astani’s buildings, complete with the proposed billboards.

He has taken pains to distinguish his project from typical LED billboards with bright, fast-paced graphics. His panels would shine with one-sixth the intensity of ordinary models; adjust their brightness at different times of the day; and project slower-moving images, according to the ordinance application. They would cover about 10 stories on just one side of each building.

The panels would appear solid from a distance, although they consist of horizontal blades spaced six inches apart, like large blinds. Only a half-inch thick and three inches wide, each one carries a single row of diodes.

The blades were designed by Frederic Opsomer, who is also known for creating spectacular video, light and stage designs for pop-music acts. The only other building clad in similar LED blades is the T-Mobile headquarters in Bonn, Mr. Astani said. The screens would feature mostly paid advertisements but would include work by local artists and ads for nonprofit groups 20 percent of the time. The technology and content have sowed some confusion among the city officials weighing Mr. Astani’s application.

“The issue of it potentially being viewed as art has complicated it,” said Patricia Diefenderfer, of the Los Angeles Planning Department.

“We’re treating it like a sign,” she said. “Signs are a stimulus. They clutter our environment and can assault us, in a sense. This is something very large. What is the impact? What does that mean?”

Yet Eric Lynxwiler, a downtown resident and author who leads nighttime tours of the city’s neon signs for the Museum of Neon Art, favors the project.

“I think he scared far too many people when he compared it to ‘Blade Runner,’ ” Mr. Lynxwiler said of Mr. Astani. “But I remember L.A. as it was — dark, more like ‘Blade Runner’ before the development,” he said, describing streets that were mostly empty after 6 p.m. “I think downtown definitely has the vibe to support something that large, that new and that bold and daring.”

Syd Mead, a visual-effects artist who worked on “Blade Runner,” said that the city’s once-haunted look is what inspired Mr. Scott to film there. The director was also taken with the eclectic downtown mix of newer structures and historic buildings, he said.

That the movie could inspire innovation is not a surprise, Mr. Mead said, adding, “I’ve called science fiction ‘reality ahead of schedule.’ ”

L.A. vision: a towering sign

Kenton Hanson

Inspired by 'Blade Runner', a developer wants 14-foot-high animation on condos.

Source :: LA Times dot com
Date :: 01 27 2008
By :: David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Sonny Astani walked into a Westwood movie theater in 1985 and saw the film that changed his life: "Blade Runner," the science-fiction tale that imagined a dystopian Los Angeles where jet-powered cars zoom past skyscrapers covered with enormous, cinematic advertisements.

EYE-CATCHING :    An artist's rendering shows an LED-generated image rising above the city.

EYE-CATCHING: An artist's rendering shows an LED-generated image rising above the city.

Decades later, the Iranian-born businessman is determined to bring some of those futuristic images to life. His plan? Attach an animated sign 14-stories tall on the 33-story condominium project he is building in downtown L.A.

The proposed sign would loom 12 stories above the sidewalk at 9th and Figueroa streets, facing the 110 Freeway. And city planners say it would represent a first in the city's residential architecture -- a sheet of light-emitting screens spaced close enough to form a vast electronic image, yet far enough apart to allow occupants to look outside.

"My intent is to do something so unique that people will drive downtown to see it," said Astani, who moved to the United States in 1976. "It will make the building famous for the people who live there."

Astani's proposal is only the latest controversial effort to bring massive advertising and colorful light shows to the neighborhood anchored by Staples Center and L.A. Live, the hotel and entertainment complex that includes the recently opened Nokia Theatre.

Civic boosters promised two years ago that L.A. Live would transform Figueroa's entertainment district into Times Square West -- a California counterpart to the bright lights and in-your-face advertising seen at Broadway and 42nd Street in Manhattan.

Although much of L.A. Live is under construction, the district around Staples already has some of those colorful lights, including the red squares that percolate like soda bubbles on the exterior of the Met Lofts and the spotlights at Nokia that strafe the sky, giving concerts and games the look of a Hollywood premiere.

Warner Bros Pictures   PROTOTYPE: This image of an animated advertisment in the film "Blade Runner" inspired Sonny Astani in the design of his condominium project near the 110 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles. Critiques say it could dominate the night sky.

Warner Bros Pictures

PROTOTYPE: This image of an animated advertisment in the film "Blade Runner" inspired Sonny Astani in the design of his condominium project near the 110 Freeway in downtown Los Angeles. Critiques say it could dominate the night sky.

Astani's plan seeks the creation of a special district where at least two high-rises could be partly covered with rows of tiny panels embedded with LEDs, or light-emitting diodes -- a concept viewed by some at City Hall as the next frontier in outdoor advertising.

Although office towers in Los Angeles already have "supergraphics" -- enormous vinyl sheets stretched across one side of a building -- those images are static. Should Astani succeed, sign companies looking to show animated advertising could view the city's high-rises as enormous blank canvases.

So far, the concept has been greeted skeptically by neighborhood activists west of downtown, who said the light shows on the Nokia already have had a profound effect on their night sky.

"I'm not some shrinking violet afraid of the urban environment," said Mitzi March Mogul, who lives three miles east of downtown. "We used to see the klieg lights for the Carthay Circle Theater or Grauman's Chinese. But it wasn't all the time. Most nights you could look up and actually see stars, and now you can't. There's nothing left."

The Pico Union Neighborhood Council has taken up the issue of the L.A. Live spotlights, with some members calling for their removal. Anschutz Entertainment Group, the developer of L.A. Live, said it has begun talks with city officials to address some of the complaints.

"We're still developing the entertainment district and fine-tuning all of the elements of it," said AEG spokesman Michael Roth. "And we feel all of the audio and visual elements are appropriate for the location."

Meanwhile, more signs are on the way. In November, the City Council approved Fig Central, a hotel and condominium complex across from Staples Center that will have at least one 330-foot-long band of animated advertising. And at least seven more electronic signs are planned for the rest of L.A. Live, according to city officials.

The courtyard outside Nokia Theatre has 12 LED signs -- enormous screens that intersperse concert footage with advertisements for mobile phones and Coca-Cola. The theater is adorned with more screens and billboards, a fact that disappoints some neighbors.

"When I drive back here at night, I'm astounded that that kind of illumination is permissible," said Victor Citrin, a teacher who lives three blocks from the theater. "What Nokia has turned into is just a giant billboard of massive ads."

Councilwoman Jan Perry, who represents the Figueroa Corridor, said the neighborhood could eventually "hit a breaking point" in terms of brightness. But she sounded intrigued by Astani's plan, which would put a sign on the project known as Concerto, and a second on a high-rise planned next door.

"It might actually be beautiful," she said. "It might actually be art, as opposed to just ads."

Los Angeles has long had a love-hate relationship with outdoor advertising. The City Council first attempted to regulate billboards in 1899, when many signs were simply plastered on fences for the benefit of those who traveled by horse or trolley.

That first law, which sought to limit billboards to 6 feet high, drew a furious legal challenge from H. Gaylord Wilshire, the billboard magnate whose name appears on one of the city's most famous streets, Wilshire Boulevard. The council softened the law a year later, inaugurating a debate over billboards that has raged from generation to generation.

The billboard question seemed finally to have been answered in 2002, when then-Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, after 14 years of trying, won passage of a ban on outdoor advertising. But that law also contained a provision allowing the creation of "supplemental use districts," places like Hollywood, where billboards would be permitted in large numbers. 

Astani, 54, has submitted a proposal for a sign district on the block bounded by 9th Street, Olympic Boulevard, Figueroa and Flower streets. But he argues that his LED displays should not be considered billboards. 

To make the images less blinding, the signs would have a brightness of only 1,200 candelas at night -- roughly one-sixth the intensity of the signs found at L.A. Live, Astani said. And because the movements of his LED sign would be slower than the images on a television screen, Astani contends, his 14-story sign would be graceful, not gaudy. 

"We don't want to create a monster," Astani said. "If this is bright or intrusive, we cannot sell the condominiums. It will have to be so unique and unobtrusive that people will be proud to live behind it."

Astani's inspiration can be found in the first 10 minutes of "Blade Runner," the 1982 film which showed a skyscraper-sized advertisement portraying a Japanese woman smiling before popping a snack into her mouth. Astani says an image, such as that of a flying sea gull, could now even travel from one building to the next.

Such untried concepts have left city officials struggling to find ways of regulating brightness, the amount of text and the content.

If approved, the signs would contain artistic content during 10% of their operation, with another 10% devoted to community announcements, according to Astani's proposal. The sign rules also would dictate the speed with which the animated images change.

Those proposals do not reassure neighborhood activists, who say any sign facing a freeway is a billboard, regardless of the brightness or the tastefulness of the content.

Most of the companies installing the new lights have ties to City Hall. L.A. Live builder Anschutz Entertainment Group has given $485,000 to causes backed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The developer of Fig Central has given $100,000; Astani has given $150,000.

Astani said the Planning Department has been cautious in its review of the proposed sign district. But he argued that the time will have been well spent if he can succeed in giving his building cutting-edge technology -- the kind found in "Blade Runner."

"There's not one day that I don't think of that movie," he said.

Alumnus donates $17 million so USC can study 'megacities'

Kenton Hanson

The gift to the engineering school will allow the university to take an organized, academic approach to examining the world's largest urban areas.


Source :: LA Times dot com
Date :: 11 29 2007
By :: Jason Song, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Real estate developer Sonny Astani frequently used his USC engineering degree during his career. He would examine zoning regulations at potential projects, find solutions for parking problems, study elevator shafts. "Engineers were surprised that a broker knew more than they did," he said.

That background, plus his work on a $400-million mixed-use project in downtown Los Angeles, are the driving forces behind his $17-million donation to USC to advance the study of "megacities."

For Astani, the need for such study became apparent when he started developing the Concerto complex on Figueroa Street. Building the 619-unit project in the middle of downtown was such a daunting task that Astani began consulting with engineers, reading books and even taking a few classes at his alma mater.

"There really are no guidelines, so I had to learn a lot of new things," said Astani, who earned his master's degree from USC in 1978.

The process convinced Astani, the president of Astani Enterprises, that a new generation of engineers was needed to tackle future projects in Los Angeles and other big cities. His gift is prompting USC's engineering school to name an engineering department after him and dedicate it to the study of urban areas that have 10 million or more residents.

There are 15 megacities worldwide, including Los Angeles and New York.

It's unclear how many universities have engineering departments focusing on large cities, but Los Angeles could benefit from an organized, academic approach to the subject, said Joel Kotkin, a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University in Orange.

The gift is scheduled to be announced today.

USC had already been focusing more academic energy on studying megacities in recent years, but Astani's gift will provide a significant boost, said Jean-Pierre Bardet, the chair of USC's civil engineering program.

"We can say that Los Angeles is our laboratory," he said.

Astani, 52, said he hoped his gift would encourage more students to think about engineering creatively and that it could help develop guidelines for the future, either in city halls or the private sector, in Los Angeles or other megacities across the globe.

"If they say, 'This is the way to do it,' developers will listen," Astani said.

Alum Gives $17M to USC Viterbi Dept.

Kenton Hanson

The gift from downtown developer Sonny Astani will nurture a vision of sustainable ‘megacities.’


Source :: USC News
Date :: 11 29 2007
By :: By Eric Mankin


Sonny Astani, whose soaring high-rises and philanthropy are remaking downtown Los Angeles, has given $17 million to name the USC department of civil and environmental engineering. 

This is the fourth department naming gift for the school since it began its $300-million fund-raising initiative in 2001. 

“This is a gift to both USC and Los Angeles," said Astani, who earned his master's at the university in 1978. Photo/Gary Leonard

“This is a gift to both USC and Los Angeles," said Astani, who earned his master's at the university in 1978. Photo/Gary Leonard

USC President Steven B. Sample hailed the gift by Astani, who earned a master’s degree in industrial and systems engineering from USC in 1978, two years after arriving in the United States from his native Iran. 

“Sonny Astani is a remarkable Trojan who is transforming Los Angeles,” Sample said. “He understands the crucial role civil and environmental engineers must play as more and more people live in cities. We are deeply grateful at USC not only for his exceptional gift but for his majestic vision of urban life.” 

Yannis C. Yortsos, dean of the USC Viterbi School, expressed his gratitude for the gift and said the department would be known as the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. 

“Thirty years ago, by mere good fortune, I ended up in the best university, in the best city, in the best country in the world,” Astani said. “This is a gift to both USC and Los Angeles. It is my hope that it will allow a new generation of civil and environmental engineers to rise to the increasingly complex challenges created by the urbanization of Los Angeles and the changes to the global environment we are now facing.” 

Yortsos noted that civil engineering, the oldest engineering discipline, remains the branch of engineering that is closest to the lives of people, particularly in cities. 

“Civil engineers provide homes, water, sanitation, bridges, tunnels, roads and civil infrastructure and environmental engineering expertise is critical to solving problems of pollution and micro-climate,” he said. 

“By 2030 almost five billion people, or 60 percent of the entire world, will live in cities. This raises huge challenges for civil and environmental engineers, challenges now known in the profession as those of ‘megacities,’ he explained. “Internationally we see an emerging vision for civil and environmental engineering as a major force for improvement and enhancement of cities, not only for Los Angeles, but for major urban centers around the world.” 

And, Yortsos continued, “Astani shares our belief that civil engineering is vital to achieve a critical need for the 21st century: cities designed to be highly functional, healthful and inspiring; environments that celebrate humanity.” 

Astani is the chairman of Astani Enterprises, a Beverly Hills-based development concern. His firm owns or operates approximately 4,000 apartment units throughout Southern California and is currently developing approximately 2,000 units of condominiums and lofts in downtown Los Angeles with a total value in excess of $1 billion. 

Among the developments are five iconic residential towers and two loft buildings. 

Last year, Astani Enterprises made a $1.5 million donation to the Skid Row Housing Trust, completing funding for the Abbey Apartments, a downtown complex that will house 115 of Los Angeles’ mentally ill homeless when it opens next year. 

Astani, an Iranian immigrant who received a Distinguished Alumnus Award from the USC Viterbi School, serves on the executive committee of the Central City Association, the board of councilors of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and on the Leadership Council for USC’s Lusk Center for Real Estate Development. He is also a board member of the Pacific Council for International Affairs. 

The Astani donation is the seventh multimillion-dollar donation from a USC engineering alumnus in the last six years, following earlier gifts by Andrew J. Viterbi (naming the school); Daniel J. Epstein, Ming Hsieh and John Mork (naming the departments of industrial and systems engineering, electrical engineering, and chemical engineering and materials science); Mark Stevens (creating the USC Stevens Institute) and Kenneth Klein (creating the USC Viterbi Center for Undergraduate Engineering Life).

Honoring Excellence

Kenton Hanson

Dean Yortsos Recognizes Individuals For Exceptional Service at The 29th Annual Engineering Awards Luncheon

Source :: USC Viterbi Engineer
Date :: Fall, 2007

The USC Viterbi School of Engineering presented its engineering awards to four engineers and scientists at the 29th annual Engineering Awards Luncheon, held April 24, 2007, in USC’s Town & Gown conference center. 

Those receiving Viterbi alumni awards this year included, left to right, Sonny H. Astani, Steven DenBaars, Carol Bartz and Karl Weiss. Dean Yannis C. Yortsos is on right.

Those receiving Viterbi alumni awards this year included, left to right, Sonny H. Astani, Steven DenBaars, Carol Bartz and Karl Weiss. Dean Yannis C. Yortsos is on right.

Viterbi School Dean Yannis C. Yortsos presided over the ceremonies, which included a keynote address by Carol Bartz, executive chair of the board of Autodesk, Inc. Bartz received the Daniel J. Epstein Engineering Management Award for leading a company that grew in revenues during her 14-year tenure from $285 million in 1992 to $1.52 billion in 2006.

Recently named one of the 50 most powerful women in business by Fortune magazine, Bartz serves on President George W. Bush’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, as well as on the board of directors of Cisco Systems, Network Appliance, and the Foundation for the National Medals of Science and Technology. She holds an honors degree in computer science from the University of Wisconsin, an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, an honorary Doctor of Science degree from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from William Woods University. 

Karl Weiss, chairman of the board of USC’s Integrated Media Systems Center, received the Distinguished Service Award for his role in helping guide the center through 11 years of spectacular success. Weiss is a founding director of the Massachusetts Technology Park Corp. and served as chair of the board from 1992 to 1995. A professor emeritus at Northeastern University, Weiss has also been associated with that university for nearly 40 years. Prior to his academic career, he had industrial experience with Color Research Corp. in New York City. 

Steven DenBaars, holder of the Mitsubishi Chemical Professor in Solid State Lighting and Displays and co-director of that center at UC Santa Barbara, received the Distinguished Alumni Award in Academia. DenBaars is an IEEE Fellow and has 18 patents in the field of optoelectronic materials and devices. He earned his advanced degrees in electrical engineering at USC, receiving a M.S. degree in 1986 and a Ph.D. in 1988. 

Sonny H. Astani, chair and founder of Astani Enterprises, received the Mark A. Stevens Distinguished Alumni Award. With more than 25 years of industry experience, Astani’s real estate assets span more than $500 million in properties, including nearly 5,000 apartment units, with an additional 1,800 apartments and condominiums in development in downtown Los Angeles. A native of Iran, Astani immigrated to the United States nearly 30 years ago, where he began his studies at USC, leading up to his M.S. degree in industrial and systems engineering in 1978.

Astani Plans 50,000-SF Retail Center

Kenton Hanson

Source ::
Date :: October 11, 2007

By Bob Howard

INGLEWOOD, CA-Astani Enterprises of Beverly Hills has signed a disposition and development agreement with the City of Inglewood for a 50,000-sf retail center called Market Plaza Shopping Center. The Beverly Hills-based development and investment firm plans to create the new center on a 3.1-acre site at the southeast corner of La Brea Boulevard and Florence Avenue.

Astani's Market Plaza

Astani's Market Plaza

Inglewood awarded the disposition and development agreement to Astani almost four years after the city first issued its request for proposals for the site. Developer Shane Astani comments that the company's vision for the Art Deco shopping and entertainment center "has always been to serve as a catalyst to spur future redevelopment activity along the historic Market Street commercial corridor."

Astani points out that the parcel is strategically located in the city commercial core, adjacent to City Hall, the Los Angeles County courthouse, Kaiser Permanente hospital and a supportive professional and business community. He calls it "a unique destination center for an underserved community where everyone comes together for a good meal, a cup of coffee with a friend and general services."

  Astani anticipates that Market Plaza will significantly increase day and evening pedestrian traffic throughout the Market Street corridor, thereby serving as an economic basis for additional private and public investment. He notes that roadway congestion in the Greater Los Angeles area "has served as a disincentive for residents to patronize business establishments outside of their community," which in turn has created a mandate for cities such as Inglewood to revitalize their urban core to recapture local tax dollars.

Mayor Signs Downtown Housing Ordinance

Kenton Hanson

Source :: CCA | Delivers
Date :: August 17, 2007

On August 13th, Mayor Villaraigosa signed the Downtown Housing Ordinance, streamlining Downtown's residential development process and contributing to Downtown's continued revitalization. CCA's President & CEO, Carol Schatz, participated in a press conference preceding the signing ceremony along with Mayor Villaraigosa; Councilwoman Jan Perry; CCA member Sonny Astani, Astani Enterprises; Jane Blumenfeld, City Planning; and a representative from Beyond Shelter. The press conference was held at Astani Enterprises' Concerto project, which is under construction at 9th and Flower.

CCA's President & CEO, Carol Schatz; Jane Blumenfeld, City Planning; Councilwoman Jan Perry, and members of the construction team on Astani Enterprises' Concerto site watch as Mayor Villaraigosa signs the Downtown Housing Ordinance.

CCA's President & CEO, Carol Schatz; Jane Blumenfeld, City Planning; Councilwoman Jan Perry, and members of the construction team on Astani Enterprises' Concerto site watch as Mayor Villaraigosa signs the Downtown Housing Ordinance.

Coupled with TFAR, the Downtown Housing Ordinance enables developers to build more density Downtown, including affordable housing, by updating outdated zoning provisions that generate large units and suburban-model lots, incentivizing affordable housing opportunities in Downtown's high-rises, and establishing design guidelines that will build a cohesive urban fabric Downtown. CCA has been leading the effort in support of the Downtown Housing Ordinance for over two years, and is very appreciative of the Mayor for his support. We also thank Councilwoman Jan Perry for her leadership in Council on behalf of the Downtown community.

CCA thanks everyone who participated in this effort, including John Whitaker, DLA Piper; O'Malley Miller and Paul Rohrer, Munger Tolles & Olson; Craig Lawson and Jim Ries, Craig Lawson & Co.; Monica Garcia, Meruelo Maddux; Jim Weiss, Society of St. Vincent de Paul; and Sonny Astani, Astani Enterprises.