In his recently released book, Humanise: A Maker’s Guide to Building Our World, Thomas Heatherwick, founder of London-based design and architecture firm Heatherwick Studio, asserts that we’re living through a “catastrophe of boring buildings.” Heatherwick contends that most new structures are devoid of visual complexity and, relying on new scientific evidence, maintains that their utter boringness causes stress and negatively impacts mental health. This same sentiment must have been shared by the designers and builders of (W)rapper, an office property that opened earlier in 2023 in the creative-centric Culver City submarket on Los Angeles’ west side.
It’s easy to imagine that the 16-story building is the result of a giant, eager toddler having haphazardly wrapped a shiny gift in steel ribbons. Standing 235 feet amid predominantly low-rise structures, the building is awash in floor-to-ceiling glass windows that are only intermittently obscured by the façade of seemingly randomly placed steel bands. (They’re not random at all, as they stem from a series of geometric center points). It is simultaneously industrial-like and futuristic. (W)rapper is nothing short of striking, and it has plenty of bells and whistles. And it’s vacant. (W)rapper’s story is a tale of a premier office property having made its debut amid a confluence of challenging post-pandemic market conditions and an unforeseeable event. Arguably one of the most unique new office buildings in all of Los Angeles, the Eric Owen Moss Architects-designed (W)rapper may not have the lease commitments right now, but it’s still causing a buzz. And buzz may be what it takes to help the property weather Los Angeles’ super-sluggish office market.
In its brochure for (W)rapper, developer Samitaur describes the 180,000-square-foot property as a tool of sorts for reenergizing the return to the office, noting the tower’s innovative workspaces that are conducive to post-pandemic workstyles and its unique amenities, including a two-level, multi-purpose rooftop deck that holds the distinction of being one of the few activated commercial rooftops in all of Los Angeles. In terms of sustainability, the building envelope is a high-performance barrier that would qualify for an elevated LEED Silver rating.
Another feature at (W)rapper that is growing in importance in the continued development and redevelopment of the built environment is its status as a transit-oriented property—there is an exterior stairway leading directly to a Metro Rail station. And while there’s little that is sustainable about highway driving unless you’re carpooling, the fact that the property stands just minutes from the commute-critical Santa Monica Freeway is a bonus in Los Angeles, where the car culture is still deeply ingrained. (W)rapper is designed for safety; it is five times more seismically resilient than the average U.S. high-rise and most other buildings in earthquake-prone California.
You would think that a brand new Class A office tower with a cutting-edge design, coveted amenities, and an easily accessible location is exactly the type of property that would appeal to the current hybrid work first office market. But (W)rapper has still yet to attract a tenant. Is (W)rapper ill-fated? Is the market just too hard for a new office building to be successful? No one professionally associated with (W)rapper is in denial. “Consistent with the overall market, we have seen considerable softening in office leasing activity in recent quarters,” said Gabe Brown, executive vice president with JLL, the brokerage firm spearheading leasing at (W)rapper. Like many major markets, Los Angeles has not seen its office sector rebound from the consequences of the pandemic. The return-to-office movement in the city has been slow to take hold, with many companies hesitant to enforce mandates and, therefore, reluctant to make decisions on space needs.
Additionally, Los Angeles had to contend with a market-specific challenge that no one saw coming: the writers’ strike. When the Writers Guild of America went on strike in early May 2023, the throng of Los Angeles-based entertainment companies, from film studios to streaming services, stopped in place, paralyzed by the sweeping disappearance of the creatives on whom they rely. Any plans for office expansions, right-sizings, or relocations took a back seat. “In addition to the lingering post-COVID return-to-office mindset, the additional headwinds that emerged from the entertainment industry and the related strikes caused additional delays in corporate decision-making and pull-back in demand,” Brown added.
Despite the challenging environment, the people that I talked to did not seem worried. In fact, change appears to be afoot, and (W)rapper is well-positioned to be in the right place at what may soon become the right time. The writers’ strike came to an end in late September. Also, in the West Los Angeles area, a magnet for the creative business community, many companies take their cues from the tech leaders. With Amazon and Google having toughened their in-office work policy with a mandatory three-day minimum earlier this year and Meta having done the same after Labor Day, other companies are revisiting their return-to-office policies. More area employers are moving forward with the business of office space decisions in today’s flight-to-quality environment.
Other indicators point to an impending rise in demand for creative office space in Los Angeles. Commercial real estate technology solutions provider VTS recently released its quarterly Office Demand Index, which tracks unique new tenant tour requirements in the country’s leading office markets and serves as an early indicator of upcoming leasing activity, and Los Angeles scored high. With a score of 74 for the third quarter of 2023, Los Angeles surpassed the national average index score of 51 by a notable margin. Los Angeles’ ranking marked a whopping 32.1 percent quarter-over-quarter increase from the city’s previous ranking of 56. “Of the office markets tracked by the VTS Office Demand Index, Los Angeles experienced the greatest growth despite the writers’ strike that has impacted long-term decision-making in the area,” according to the report. VTS also ranks the Boston, Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., office markets.
JLL is already seeing a shift in demand. “At (W)rapper we are actively touring prospective tenants in exciting industries such as content creation like streaming and mobile apps, gaming companies, creative ad agencies, digital media, and new technology,” said Brown. “We are in dialogue with tenants ranging from approximately 20,000 square feet to 100,000 square feet.”
While the forecast for some areas of Los Angeles is for an inching up in office demand, the city is not poised for a 180-degree turn anytime soon. Amid the slow crawl back to office market health, some buildings just won’t survive the down cycle. Many of the properties that are unable to provide the premier amenities tenants demand will shutter for good, get tapped for a multi-family conversion, or be slated for demolition. Buildings in submarkets with safety challenges, like much of the Downtown area, will continue to struggle with high vacancies. And there is also that segment of office buildings that will be compromised by loan defaults. For all those reasons, (W)rapper, is poised to capitalize on any improvements in office market fundamentals. If lease agreements start stacking up at this property, then we’ll have proof that a building that ticks all the right boxes for office users just has to play the waiting game to be successful. After all, timing is everything, right? We’ll also get confirmation that creative office buildings, like those with eclectic exoskeletons that can be seen from miles away, have a leg up on traditional office offerings in a submarket saturated with tech firms and entertainment companies. If (W)rapper fails to reach some level of stabilization in 2024, then we’ll know that the Los Angeles office market is further away from a rebound than anyone cares to admit.