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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 (pacificcouncil.org), 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; 
ross.johnson@johnsonpublic.com · 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

SONNY ASTANI, 55
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.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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.

jason.song@latimes.com

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 :: GlobeSt.com
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.

Maverick Developer Building Reputation

Kenton Hanson

Real estate: Astani’s candor breaks new ground.

Source :: Los Angeles Business Journal, By Daniel Miller
Date :: December 04, 2006 

When Sonny Astani said two weeks ago he was holding off on building a high-rise condo in downtown Los Angeles, it raised eyebrows in the real estate community.

In an industry not known for its openness – in which anything less than boosterism normally demands the veil of anonymity – the developer’s remarks stood out. But for Astani, a relative newcomer to the high stakes game of downtown development, that candor is nothing new.

“When Sonny says how it is, it’s how it is,” said Astani’s wife, Jo. “He really has nothing to hide.”

His openness has served the 52-year-old Astani well as he has grown his Beverly Hills company, Astani Enterprises Inc., and raised its profile in Los Angeles’ real estate game. And perhaps given where he came from, it all makes sense.

In the early 1980s, he was trying to get into real estate as a broker. Astani, an Iranian immigrant who came to the United States in 1976, was evicted from his apartment in Brentwood because it was converted to a condominium. He couldn’t even live in his car; it was repossessed.

“It was a tough time,” said Astani, a stylish, balding man whose trials are evident on his face. “It was an important part of my life. At a very young age I was basically homeless for a little while. It was a good lesson.”

After starting his development career by building smaller apartment buildings across the city, Astani’s name can now be seen plastered on signs at high-rise construction sites across downtown Los Angeles.

And though he has announced plans to at least temporarily shelve one of his two 30-story towers at his Concerto project at Ninth and Figueroa streets, he is proceeding with the rest, maintaining that downtown is a great, long-run development opportunity.

Indeed, in a demonstration of his commitment – and perhaps his own memories – Astani recently donated $1.5 million to the Skid Row Housing Trust, completing the funding it needs to build a San Pedro Street apartment building for mentally ill homeless.

“He sought us out,” said Mike Alvidrez, executive director of the trust. “I think this sets an incredible example for the rest of the business community.”

But, for now, industry insiders are noting Astani’s admission that there appears to be a slowdown of the downtown condominium development.

Some see his decision to pull back from the project as a sign of a miscalculation, or at the very least an unexpected setback because of rising construction costs. Others say it just might be the sort of pronouncement that makes the local development community talk a little more frankly about the reality of a slowing residential real estate market.

Either way, though, no one wants to be quoted.

A niche

Astani began his real estate career as a broker, but that didn’t work out well. He then started buying apartment buildings, then building them. Through those ventures, he said he learned the business of building from clients, by traveling to City Hall and copying city plans, and by driving the neighborhoods.

Since 1985, when Astani became a builder, his company has developed 2,000 units and currently manages 5,000, taking on other companies’ buildings. Between 1985 and 1990, alone, Astani boasts of putting 40 buildings on the map in Los Angeles. Now, the company has about 2 million square feet of downtown real estate in varying stages of development.

Astani Enterprises is unique in that Astani has positioned his firm as a multifaceted company: a builder, owner and operator of apartments and condominiums. Astani has modeled his business that way for about 20 years and said he knows of no other developer in Los Angeles that does this.

“I developed that niche, and that’s been unique,” said Astani, who has long relied on his master’s degree in engineering from USC in his development and construction career.

However, many bypass the developer-builder-operator kind of business structure in favor of specializing.

Tom Cody, a principal at the South Group, a condo developer that is active downtown, said that the multifaceted business structure “is not that unusual in a suburban context. In this market, it is atypical to be doing urban high-rises. I think it definitely gives you more control but it gives you more risk. From where I stand, it is potentially riskier.”

Astani said his company’s multiple strengths in development and construction give him some advantages. He gains some efficiencies by eliminating middle men, and it allows him to pursue things that others might avoid.

An example is Astani’s 30-story Concerto tower at Ninth and Figueroa streets, where construction has begun. Unlike many other condo towers, the project’s parking garage will be built below ground. The standard design for condo or apartment high rises calls for six to eight stories of parking that begin at ground level with residences built on top.

“He’s designed it so parking is completely underground, with a retail band at the street,” said Mark Tarczynski, a senior vice president at CB Richard Ellis Group Inc., who specializes in downtown residential properties. “Aesthetically it is more pleasing to see residences one story above the street rather than eight levels of parking. He is certainly a visionary when it comes to developing towers.”

Of course, building underground is far more expensive than building above it. But the high-end condo units will sell for a premium, which helps offset the greater cost.

Downtown design

In addition to his Concerto project, Astani has two other key developments downtown – Vero, which is slated to open at the end of the month, and Opus.

Vero is a 200-unit condo building at 1234 Wilshire Blvd. Opus, located at Eighth Street and Grand Avenue, will include 875 units, built in three phases of development. That project is about a year away from breaking ground. At Opus, Astani has said that he may scale back a 15-story building to eight stories if rising construction costs do not slow down.

Despite the cancellation of one of the Concerto towers, Astani is bullish on the downtown real estate market, calling it a “candy store.” Astani said that downtown offers a variety of available products – from lofts in adaptive reuse projects to new condo units in high-rise developments – that will make it appealing and unique for years, even if there is a temporary slowdown.

“Downtown is an empty canvas with diamonds in the rough,” said Astani. He plans to focus his developments efforts there for the next 10 years. “We as developers, civic leaders, and architects pick them up and polish them. We are beginning to see a new generation of buyers move downtown.”

With all of his projects, Astani said that he is always interested in doing something interesting architecturally, whether it’s the winter gardens, or indoor-outdoor gardens, he has planned for larger units at Concerto, to the curved, undulating exteriors he envisions for parts of the Opus project.

Shane Astani, the developer’s brother and head of Astani Enterprises’ retail arm, said his brother puts “his heart and soul into the architectural aspects of everything he does.”

Astani said he is inspired by buildings he sees while traveling, and counts Renzo Piano and Richard Neutra among his favorite architects. The Neutra connection makes sense; Astani lives in a Neutra-designed home in the Pacific Palisades with his wife and three young children, Sinjun, Tamzin and Tegan.

The architecture of downtown also resonates with Astani. He has been a part of the scene there for 20 years, starting in the 1980s when he frequented edgy artists’ lofts and cavernous nightclubs.

At his Beverly Hills office, Astani displays a large piece of artwork he bought from a downtown artist in 1980 as a reminder of that era.

“I paid $2,000, which I didn’t even have at the time,” he said.

Alumnus' donation gives L.A.'s homeless housing

Kenton Hanson

The funding allows project to provide medical services to homeless beginning 2008.

Source :: USC Daily Trojan, By Laura Ybarra
Date :: Nov 9, 2006 

USC alumnus Sonny Astani 's $1.5 million donation to the Skid Row Housing Trust will enable the completion of a downtown apartment complex that will house 115 of Los Angeles' mentally ill homeless.

The donation will allow Abbey Apartments, located at 625 S. San Pedro St. , to open in 2008. The apartments will provide on-site social, medical and mental services, said Mike Alvidrez, executive director of the Skid Row Housing Trust.

"We provide supportive housing services integrated with property management that is geared to the needs of the residents," Alvidrez said.

The trust was founded in 1989 by community business leaders and activists who were committed to preserving affordable single-occupancy housing in downtown.

Since 1990, the organization has developed or restored 19 hotel properties that have provided affordable housing for about 1,200 people.

"Sonny wanted to provide something to the city that would have a lasting benefit. It is good for all of downtown," Alvidrez said.

Astani, who is a Los Angeles downtown developer, said it felt natural to help the homeless with housing development.

"I believe when you provide housing, you provide it for everyone … the homeless … or the affluent," he said. "Downtown is for everyone. Everyone has to have housing."

Ever since Astani was a graduate student at USC during the 1970s, he said he has been aware of the city's homeless population.

"We live in a country where federal and state funding for public housing is dried up for various reasons," Astani said. " L.A. has become the de facto capital of the homeless. It's a shame."

Today, Los Angeles County has a homeless population estimated at 88,000.

When Astani learned the $26 million apartment complex was over budget, he offered to donate the $1.5 million needed for completion, he said.

"My goal was to identify an organization that was providing a long-term solution," Astani said. "After talking to them for about 10 minutes, it was clear they knew what they were doing. They are helping the ones who really need help."

Astani earned a master's degree in industrial and systems engineering in 1978. He has worked in Southern California real estate for more than 25 years.

He is the chairman of Astani Enterprises Inc., which is headquartered in Beverly Hills . 

With three major projects underway, his company is developing some 2,000 condominiums valued at $1 billion throughout downtown, Hollywood and Koreatown.

Astani serves on the boards of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and USC's Lusk Center for Real Estate Development.

Last year, Astani was awarded the inaugural Distinguished Alumnus Award by the Viterbi School 's Daniel J. Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.

Astani said he would like to see the Los Angeles business community help Skid Row's homeless population.

"(Homelessness) is a problem, and we should all help," he said. "People have to instigate something."

Councilwoman Jan Perry said in a statement, "This is the kind of public-private partnership we need if we are going to solve the problem of homelessness."

© Copyright 2006 Daily Trojan

L.A. developer donates $1.5 million for homeless housing

Kenton Hanson

The gift will enable the completion of 115 downtown apartments for the mentally ill. 

Source :: LA Times, By J. Michael Kennedy
Date :: October 24, 2006 

Los Angeles' largest downtown residential developer Monday donated $1.5 million that will allow the Skid Row Housing Trust to complete 115 efficiency apartments for the homeless mentally ill.

The donation by Sonny Astani will enable the completion of the Abbey Apartments on San Pedro Street.

"Sonny's gift means we will be able to finish a critical project that provides the opportunity for 115 extremely vulnerable people who have been living on the street to move into well constructed efficiency apartments," said Mike Alvidrez, executive director of the Skid Row Housing Trust, created in 1989 by a group of community leaders and activists concerned about the disappearance of single-room-occupancy hotels.

The trust has developed and restored 19 hotel properties, which include almost 1,200 units of affordable housing. The latest apartments will have on-site access to social, medical and mental health services.

"We live in a time when federal and state funding often is used ineffectively and leaves little for public housing," Astani said, adding that Los Angeles has the largest homeless population in the nation. "This is a human tragedy, which not only destroys people but the social and economic vibrancy of the city as well. We all share responsibility in working to eliminate it."

Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district includes the project, lauded the privatepublic partnership that is allowing the project to move forward.

"This should give confidence to the business community that, if they make a financial commitment, it will have a significant impact," she said. "Everyone needs to be a partner in this effort,"

Astani's company is in varying stages of building about 2,000 condominiums, valued at about $1 billion, in downtown, Hollywood and Koreatown.