Developers aim to transform LA County’s long-idled, but still iconic, General Hospital to house homeless
It’s not often when 55 top-shelf developers and investors literally get overshadowed by something more impressive.
But that’s what happened on Wednesday afternoon, as principals from private firms from across the nation listened to pitches from key Los Angeles County leaders on reimagining the iconic General Hospital building that towered over the day’s presentations.
The shuttered, 19-story, Art Deco structure, completed in December 1933, hasn’t seen a patient in about two decades. Most of the 1.2 million square feet of interior space lies vacant, but its presence from atop a hill in Boyle Heights is a monument to medicine firsts, to days gone by, and if the county gets its way, a glimpse into the next chapter of the near 90-year-old building’s story.
Supervisor Hilda Solis wants to see the hospital rooms turned into 500 to 600 permanent housing units, some for use by the county’s unhoused residents, others for low-income, working class folks who can’t afford the high rents and housing costs in nearby gentrifying neighborhoods.
The county’s vision for the concrete goliath, a building made famous in the opening credits of the daytime TV soap opera “General Hospital,” and the 12 surrounding acres also includes office space, research labs, retail uses such as a grocery store and a transit hub with a new Metrolink train station.
“We have a lot of dreaming but hopefully these dreams will come to realization,” said Solis in her address to the developers, who said the project would take at least four years to complete.
The county has produced a feasibility study and created a financing mechanism aimed a bringing in private, for-profit companies that will build according to a set of criteria laid out in a county proposal. The Request For Proposal (RFP) is expected to be issued by the end of January, said Hilda Delgado, vice president of the marketing firm, Actum, hired by the county.
The list of private investors and developers at the event included: Trammell Crow Co., a multi-national firm; Edgemoor Infrastructure and Real Estate, which built the new Long Beach City Hall; and Westbrook Investments, owned by NBA star Russell Westbrook.
Steve Soboroff, a commercial and residential developer who built Playa Vista, a planned community between Westchester and Marina del Ray, is now a consultant for Lincoln Property Company, a national equity firm. Soboroff is no stranger to Los Angeles politics, having served under Mayor Richard Riordan on the city’s Recreation and Parks Commission and currently sitting on the LAPD Police Commission.
“This is a public policy project,” he said after listening to the presentations. “This has to reflect Los Angeles and the surrounding areas.”
Soboroff said the housing must include a mixture of subsidized units and market-rate units and not 100% low-income or only housing for the homeless.
Mark Pestrella, director of the county’s Department of Public Works, enticed developers by saying the county has already begun upgrading underground infrastructure, such as utilities. Solis estimated about $120 million has been collected by the county for the project so far. It’s too soon to know how much the project will cost — or how much it will cost to operate such a complex. Such estimates must wait, officials say, until the concept inches closer to reality.
But an adaptive reuse of such a historic — and very old — building will be difficult and expensive.
The Depression-era structure, damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake and partially closed at the time, would have to be brought up to seismic standards. Also, it would need new windows, updated heating and air conditioning, and major interior work.
Although not registered as a national historic landmark, most likely any design plans would have to keep the front and exterior of the building intact.
“If you touch the facade, it is a deal breaker,” Delgado said. “They need a developer that will keep the historic aspect of the hospital building.”
The structure was designed by the Allied Architects’ Association of Los Angeles, with input from Karl Muck, the county architect, according to the LA Conservancy. The group also designed the 1925 beaux arts Hall of Justice that was also damaged in the Northridge quake and has been restored.
“It is one of the most iconic structures. You can see it when you are flying in to LAX,” said Solis.
Those entering for a brief tour on Wednesday passed under the Salvatore Cartaino Scarpitta statues above the entrance. In the central spot hovers an Angel of Mercy, who comforts an infirm couple. There’s also representations of the great minds of medicine, Pasteur, Harvey and Hippocrates.
Solis has led an effort to preserve a mural inside the foyer of the Greek god of medicine, Asclepius, done by artist Hugo Ballin, who also painted the interior of the Griffith Observatory.
The complex was the largest single hospital built west of Chicago. It became know for advancing emergency medicine. In 1985, it was estimated that 1 out of every 200 children in the United States were born at General Hospital, she said. Marilyn Monroe was born in the hospital’s charity ward that was not part of the iconic building.
On the darker side, it was the site of forced sterilization of Latino women between 1968 and 1974. Also, Chicano movement demonstrations took place on the campus in the 1970s. ACT-UP, a group protesting the government’s lack of attention to HIV/AIDS, demonstrated there in the 1980s and 1990s.
Jorge Orozco, CEO of LAC-USC Medical Center, which includes the new, modern hospital built in 2008 on the large campus, said he encouraged developers to be creative and think outside the box. He favors adding housing and respite care for those recovering from illness.
“A hospital alone can’t keep a community healthy,” he said.
Pestrella said even though the campus is in the city of Los Angeles, county departments have a working relationship with city of LA counterparts, assuring that bureaucracy, paperwork and permits will go smoothly, as red tape is often a reason developers cite for not building in LA.
“I would say together we are the builder of choice in Los Angeles County. We get things done on time and under budget,” he said.
“The private sector tells me they want to participate in public service. This is your opportunity,” he said. “We are not asking you to lose money on the deal. We are asking you to invest in the heart of Los Angeles County.”