What Led to the Death of the Figueroa Centre in DTLA?

What Led to the Death of the Figueroa Centre in DTLA?

Rendering of Figueroa Centre (right) with an aerial view of the vacant site at 911-927 South Figueroa Street (Google Maps, CallisonRTKL/Illustration by Kevin Rebong for The Real Deal)

At 975 feet, the Figueroa Centre in Downtown Los Angeles would be the city’s third-tallest tower and include a hotel, condos and retail space in a glimmering glass and steel complex. The development would also mark a turning point for a patch of property that has been owned for decades by a branch of a Malaysian casino dynasty.

Glendale-based Regalian LLC envisioned a 66-story complex boasting a 220-key hotel, 200 condominiums, and nearly 100,000 square feet of commercial space.

In July 2017, City Planning released a 98-page initial study on the Figueroa Centre, prepared by an external consulting firm. But more than three years after those plans were unveiled, the South Figueroa Street site remains untouched, and the massive project abandoned. Regalian’s decision to let the Figueroa Centre plans wither on the vine coincides with a struggling Downtown market. The pandemic has pushed up office vacancy rates, pushed down hotel occupancy, closed concert venues and cleared out the tourists from the once bustling district.

Last June, City Planning terminated Regalian’s tower application after hearing no response to a written letter of warning.

“At this time, nothing has been submitted to indicate continued processing of the application,” the city wrote in its August letter to the company.

A City Planning spokesperson confirmed the action, noting it was “not sure” why the developer hadn’t moved forward. Business advocacy groups Central City Association and Downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council, which had both supported the project, said they had no additional information.

While the termination does not necessarily mean the project is dead — a future application could possibly reuse some of the maps and prior case file information — the lengthy review process would make it difficult to restart.

Now an 85,000-square-foot parking lot, the property remains in the hands of the same family that acquired the land in 1982. At the time, that area of Downtown was widely considered to be an “asphalt wasteland,” in contrast to the residential, hotel and office towers that have sprouted in the intervening decades, as well as entertainment landmarks like Staples Center and L.A Live that define the district.

Several other major projects are underway in the South Park area, including Lightstone Group’s 1,162-room Fig + Pico hotel and Georgetown Company’s 100,000-square-foot redevelopment of the former Herald Examiner building at 1111 S. Broadway.

On the same block as the Figueroa Centre site, Neman Real Estate Development is also planning a mixed-use complex dubbed Olympic Tower, with 374 condos, 373 hotel rooms, and nearly 100,000 square feet of office and retail space.

Meanwhile, one of the neighborhood’s most high-profile project’s, the $1 billion mixed-use Oceanwide Plaza, remains mired in uncertainty. The China-based developer has struggled to navigate disputes with contractors and shifting geopolitics.

The pandemic has also posed new questions about the future of dense city living, though optimists say it still holds plenty of advantages. Jessica Lall, CEO of the Central City Association, called Downtown “the region’s mobility hub.”

Genting’s “poster boy”

Nick Griffin, who leads the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, said he “absolutely” expects a new project “will be proposed in this space due to its prime location near the Convention Center.” Regalian could still file for a change of use, he added, or could search for new partners, or just decide to sell the site to another developer.

Regalian CEO Justin Leong Ming Loong

Regalian CEO Justin Leong Ming Loong

Regalian — whose CEO is Justin Leong Ming Loong — acquired the land in 2005 from Kian Huat Investment. That company was run by his mother, Lim Siew Lian. Regalian paid $1.2 million for the properties at 911-927 South Figueroa Street, far less than the $2.2 million that Kian Huat spent in 1982.

Lim Siew Lian’s father, the late Lim Goh Tong, was once Malaysia’s richest man and was the founder of Genting Group. The global conglomerate’s holdings include casinos in the U.S. and oil palm plantations in Indonesia.

Kian Huat was an earlier name of Lim Goh Tong’s business before he built a resort in Malaysia’s Genting Highlands, which the company is now named after.

Grandson Justin Leong, an Oxford-educated Goldman Sachs alum, was described in a 2008 Forbes article as Genting’s “poster boy.” Then 30 years old, he was the company’s head of strategic investments and corporate affairs at a time when the firm was aggressively expanding into new markets.

“Maybe I’ve been acting somewhat as a catalyst with new ideas,” he told the magazine.

But by the time he filed plans for the Figueroa Centre project in 2017, it appears Leong had broken off from the family business. According to a Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange filing, he left Genting in 2016 and joined the board of media company Rev Asia. He is also identified as the managing partner and chief investment officer of Alpha Goal International Limited.

It is unclear if the development of Figueroa Centre would have been backed by Genting, Rev Asia, Alpha Goal, or some other group.

Representatives for Regalian did not respond to inquiries. Architecture firm CallisonRTKL — which designed the project — and land use consultant Armbruster Goldsmith & Delvac also did not respond.

In recent years, the Genting family has made headlines for a complex legal dispute between the founder’s children, although it appears that Leong’s branch of the family was not involved. Still, it has continued its expansion since Leong’s departure, fully acquiring New York casino owner Empire Resorts in 2019. The pandemic took a toll on the casino business, and Genting took a hit. 

A mortgage on the South Park development site was first provided by Singapore’s Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation in 1992. Now with a principal balance of $15 million, the loan was modified and extended last summer “to cope with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic,” according to property records. The bank declined to comment.

Apart from the development site, Regalian owns one other piece of real estate nearby. In 2013, the LLC acquired condo unit 32H at the Ritz-Carlton Residences at L.A. Live, just south of the site, for $1.48 million. According to Zillow, the unit was put on the market for $1.95 million in 2016, but the listing was removed six months later.

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