Chris Ortman has a vision for downtown Los Angeles. For the past two decades, he has managed historic high-rise buildings called The Collection and The ARTrium, where he sought to create a unique community of creatives amidst a volatile office market.
Both buildings are located in what Ortman called “the hottest spot downtown,” with the collection in the Financial District at 527 W. Seventh St. and the Artrium in the Historic Center at 742 S. Hill St. High-rise buildings became homes for a variety of tenants.
“There’s a creative synergy in the buildings, and the tenants can feel it. You can see it,” he said. “Everyone seems to know each other, and everyone gets along.”
While Ortman has enjoyed fostering the artistic ecosystem within his downtown destinations, he has taken a winding path to success. His journey began when he met his wife, Carrie Ortman. He was working in marketing for the music company BMG at the time, until the events of September 11th threw his business into disarray. Ortman’s father-in-law, Gary Cobre, owned The Collection and The ARTrium and offered him a job in building management.
It was a complete dump. One was a sweatshop building. The other was a furrier, Ortmann recalled. “I’m a leasing agent, so I try to get a commission from leasing buildings. … Then came 2007 and Bottega Louie opened its front door, and it was an instant success that dramatically changed the building we live in, which is the neighborhood we live in. But it wasn’t We have income in the buildings, and when you don’t have income, you can’t borrow money to renovate the buildings. So, we just said, ‘If you have a pulse, you can get a lease here.’ The rent was like 99 cents.
Ortman felt he needed to make a change because the buildings have a long history downtown and their stories should be honored.
“The collection was constructed in 1913 and is designated as the first fire-resistant building in Los Angeles,” he said. “It sat vacant for its first two years. (The owner) had seen a mall in a high-rise in Boston, and because Seventh Street in 1915 was teeming with retail clothing stores, he chose to turn the block into Los Angeles’ first mall.”
“It eventually went from having a mall in the building to a showroom because more traditional-style malls started opening with parking and a larger footprint. … The building was bustling from 1915 to the 1960s, and then they opened a million-square-foot fashion mall.” Square and they stole everyone from the building because the fashion market had parking and restaurants and a lot of amenities. So the building became vacant and five floors have been vacant since 1960.
Ortman found a worker who accompanied him in cleaning the buildings and redesigning their interiors. He also enlisted the help of artist Carlos Galindo, whom he met when Galindo was repainting damaged portions of another historic roof downtown. Galindo agreed to help Ortmann and spent the next two years hand-painting the ceiling of the group.
During the renovation, Ortmann also updated the set’s elevator system. The redesign gave him an additional look into the building’s history.
“Elevators have been manually operated forever, and there was an elevator operator in the elevator. “His name was Gary Downs, which is a great last name for an elevator operator,” Ortman said. “He worked on this elevator for 49 years, retiring when we updated the elevators to make them automatic again in 2014.
“He told me about the days when he was a young man who would wear a uniform and there would be everyone in tuxedos on every floor. There would be parties and
The cocktails and the entire building was something very special. Then he saw how the exhibition hall building that had been constructed was evacuated. …He saw all the tenants leaving, and then the building was dilapidated.
Ortman inherited the buildings with the goal of combining nostalgia and renewal. He said he wants to “improve the way we provide space” to tenants, starting with customization.
Building for the future
Ortman explained that the main features that set his buildings apart from similar downtown locations are that both are family-owned and operated, which Ortman said provides a “personal touch” that large corporate realtors don’t offer. Each space at The Collection and The ARTrium is tailored to the tenant’s wants and needs; Tenants are not required to pay additional fees for amenities such as air conditioning, and tenants can use shared spaces such as cafes, lounges, conference rooms and co-working spaces.
“We also have a cold drink served for free,” he added. “By coincidence, the cold drink was[from]a security guard who applied for the job. I looked at his resume and said, ‘You’re overqualified for the minimum wage position.’ And he says, ‘Well, my wife is a producer and I have a 3-year-old.’ I have to take her to school and these are the hours I have, I saw your ad and it’s perfect for me.’
“He took over and told me about his passion for making cold brew. I was like, ‘Look, I’ll pay for the beans. Make me a cold brew and I’ll serve it on my coworking floor and serve it up for the entire building to enjoy.’ “He did that, and now he has his own café. It’s in bars and restaurants where they serve it straight or serve it mixed with alcohol. It’s on movie sets.”
The ARTrium currently has 40 tenants while the group has 43, including architects, interior designers, furniture showrooms, hair salons, a barbershop, a tattoo artist, a Botox nurse and an acupuncturist. Ortmann explained that the constant foot traffic through the buildings, which are largely made of glass and facilitate visibility, has helped the business succeed.
“When I moved into my first hair salon three months later, they were like, ‘Chris, I have to put a sign out the front.’” “Nobody knows we’re here,” he recalls. “I told her I couldn’t do that because all the tenants in Upstairs they want it, and the city won’t let me put up signs on the sidewalk. …Well, within six months they’re thriving, and they’ve been here for seven years now.
Attention to detail, the beauty of the spaces, and the personal touch have been a recipe for success, Ortman said, while concepts like a 6,000-square-foot art gallery are on the horizon. The exhibition, scheduled to open over the next 12 months, will be connected to the ARTrium lounge and café, and will feature artworks from around the world displayed on movable walls.
“We will appoint a curator to manage it, and we will…conduct high-level auctions here,” he explained. “All proceeds from the auctions will be given to a non-profit organization, most likely to a children’s hospital.”
Music has also become an important element in both buildings, creating an upbeat mood that resonates throughout the shared spaces via a Bluetooth speaker system, Ortmann said.
“(We’re) trying to hit your senses…so you walk in and you see the beauty and you hear the beauty,” he said.
A changing city centre
Once the pandemic hit and office vacancies began to rise throughout downtown, Ortman witnessed the fall and recovery of the city’s markets through the prism of his historic high-rise buildings.
He described the city center as a ghost town. “After our riots, everyone closed their windows too. It was really weird. I was here every day, except for the first two weeks when they originally closed it, and it was alone in these buildings with only a few people. But I would say The Collection is back to pre-pandemic occupancy level… almost completely full.
Ortman said his leasing began to pick up during the spring of 2022 and that his goal was to create workspaces that elevate the office experience for employees and employers.
“I need to create an environment where their employees don’t want to leave,” he explained. “I’m filling these buildings, and they’ll probably be full by the end of this year. Downtown is slowly coming back. Across the street, the Garfield Building just sold and will be a hotel. … There’s activity again, and I’m just hoping to attract more people to Downtown because these are our family assets and I intend to take care of them and take care of all the tenants in the building the best I can.
742 S Hill Street
527 W 7th Street