A ‘Czar’ is Born


Downtown’s Adaptive Reuse Boss Reigns Over Revitalization
by Jason Mandell

A year ago, Mayor James Hahn assigned Hamid Behdad the grandiose task of bringing the city’s oldest buildings back online. Since that time, Behdad, project manager for adaptive reuse in the mayor’s business team, has worked steadily to transform Downtown’s turn-of-the-20th-century structures into modern, livable and safe residences, all while maintaining the buildings’ historic character.

Known among local developers as the “adaptive reuse czar,” Behdad has presided over a dramatic rise in building renovation that will bring thousands of new residents Downtown over the next several years.

“Unlike any other major downtown in the world, the problem with Downtown Los Angeles was that people were not living there,” said the 46-year-old Behdad, who began studying adaptive reuse in 1997.

In 1999, while working for Mayor Richard Riordan, Behdad helped push the first version of the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance through City Council. The ordinance, said Behdad, helped streamline city planning guidelines for buildings constructed prior to 1974, laying the groundwork for a large-scale refurbishment of Downtown’s worn structures. It was a crucial time in Downtown, as Tom Gilmore had begun work on his residential project in the Old Bank District, and other would-be developers were waiting to see how he navigated through the municipal red tape.

After submitting a report on the process to Hahn shortly after his inauguration in June 2001, Behdad was asked to lead the effort to implement an extensive adaptive reuse program Downtown. Behdad said Hahn, who had promised a $100 million trust fund to create new housing, was quick to recognize the link between adaptive reuse and residential development.

With the help of a small team of safety and planning experts, Behdad, who moved to L.A. in 1989 from South Dakota, where he received a masters degree in structural engineering, continued revising the regulations for renovation of old commercial buildings. Behdad said one of his primary tasks has been to design guidelines that address the vast number of challenges faced by developers.

“When you open up a 100-year old building,” Behdad noted, “you never know what you’re gonna get.”

In reexamining the city’s building codes for historic structures, Behdad found that many of the fire and general safety requirements were outdated or only applicable to office spaces, rendering their conversion into residential units all but impossible. So Behdad and his team amended some of the safety rules.

Maintaining stringent safety standards is Behdad’s primary concern. Deputy Mayor of Economic Development Jonathan Kevles, who oversees Behdad’s work with adaptive reuse, said Behdad “never compromises fire-life-safety issues.” Kevles explained that Behdad is able to conceive creative solutions to construction challenges, while ensuring the safety of the buildings’ 24-hour residents.

One of Behdad’s resourceful resolutions involved fire escapes, which were placed on most of the city’s older buildings as an alternate, emergency exit to the stairwell in each structure. These days, buildings are erected with at least two stairways but no fire escapes. Developers seeking to update these edifices would be faced with installing a new staircase, which, Behdad said, would require “tearing apart” the building. In addition to being quite costly, such a project would in many cases violate historic codes, which prohibit extensive construction on many older structures.

So Behdad and his crew devised a solution. Developers would be required to upgrade the main stairway by “pressurizing” it, so that in the event of a fire, heightened air pressure in the stair shaft would prevent smoke from getting in. Behdad and his team were then able to deem fire escapes an acceptable alternate exit route.

Kevles said Behdad relishes the challenge of finding a fix for the myriad problems that arise in renovation. “He loves these buildings,” said Kevles. “It’s exciting to find a passionate civil servant.”

Behdad’s dedication to problem solving has earned him the respect of local developers, a group not known for appreciating those who draw and enforce building codes. Together with his colleagues at the Fire, Planning, and Building and Safety departments, Behdad maintains a thorough system of in-house consulting, plan check facilitation, predevelopment meetings and overall troubleshooting as an incentive for developers to tackle adaptive reuse.

“(Behdad) embraces the issues of the developers,” said Mark Weinstein, who is developing Santee Court, a residential and retail project in the Fashion District. “He is especially good for the little guy who might get lost in the system.”

Chief Al Hernandez, L.A.’s assistant fire marshal, called Behdad a “mediator” who coordinates the needs of city departments with developers’ interests. Behdad’s collaborative approach has helped spawn a surge of building renovation in the city that Hernandez said has doubled his department’s workload over the past year. There are currently almost 5,000 adaptive reuse units either in the works or completed, Behdad said.

Behdad attributed the success of the program to the continuous cooperation between the various government agencies involved, but observed that without support from the mayor’s office, far less would have been achieved.

“Thank God that the new administration realizes the significance of these projects,” Behdad said.

Originally Posted in LA Downtown News

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