How Diego Torres-Palma & Ventana Ventures is Reimagining Los Angeles Development
How do you address urban blight without gentrification when the two seem to go hand in hand in most large American cities? Like a horse and carriage, as Frank Sinatra once crooned, “You can’t have one without the other.” Or can you? How do you improve a neighborhood without the gentrification that alters history and changes the character of a community?
What if a forward-thinking angel investor appeared and revitalized bedraggled, forlorn structures not merely into something pretty to look at but a promise to transform and uplift it into a thriving space that is true to its history and character – all while creating community, jobs, and even a beer to go with it.
It’s not a ‘what if,’ a pipe dream, or a fairy tale. Diego Torres-Palma is not a sorcerer with a magic wand. The Peruvian-American, from humble beginnings, is the founder of Ventana Ventures and the host of the podcast Startup To Storefront. He is an entrepreneur whose fresh approach to Los Angeles real estate is finding a way to uplift communities through his projects. He’s decoded the LA real estate market and is focusing on investments that create opportunities for entrepreneurs and ensure that he has successful tenants in his projects. His projects support working families and motivate kids with dreams, people with ambition, and communities willing to take a chance and make changes to enhance their lives and improve their futures.
We sat down with Torres-Palma at his office and podcast studio in West Hollywood to discuss what motivates him, what it takes to move mountains and make things happen, and how Ventana Ventures has transformed the path of so many.
What was one of your first impressions of Los Angeles real estate when you moved here?
When I moved to Los Angeles, I was struck by how many ‘For Lease’ signs were hanging in the windows of buildings.
How did your Ventana Ventures mind interpret this phenomenon?
If I’m an owner of a property or an investor, that means I’m not making any money on that property. It’s just sitting there idle. It’s also an eyesore. It’s not serving any purpose. What I realized is that a lot of owners take a backseat. I think they get comfortable owning real estate, and if they’ve owned it for long enough, their pulse on the culture and the market has gone away.
What was your trajectory to do things differently?
They usually give that ability over to a broker, whose job is to find a tenant to take the space. Everyone makes money. And so people end up solving for money instead of for impact, which is what we’re focused on. So I thought it’d be interesting if, instead of starting with the acquisition of an asset, we begin with the acquisition of a tenant. Does this tenant bring something to the community or to the market that people can get behind? Because at the end of the day, successful businesses are successful because they’ve been accepted into the community. And that really became the genesis of Ventana Ventures.
Why did you decide against converting these ramshackle buildings into residential units?
People ask me a lot why I don’t do residential. And I give them an answer that’s a little bit different. But the simple answer is that if I build a 40 or 60-unit building, I might be impacting 60 families. Maybe that’s 400 people. Maybe it’s 1000 people a year. If I build a brewery or a coffee shop, we’re impacting tens of thousands of people every month. And I say we’re impacting millions of people over a year or two. The other result of opening a business over residential is that it creates jobs. And so, to me, these projects become about chasing impact and not about chasing money. I think the money follows afterward.
What is it about craft breweries that attract you so much?
When I think about the craft brewery movement, the most interesting thing to me is when it started, it was an individual just making beer at home and then sharing it with their two or three friends. And then they would throw parties on the weekends, growing to a couple of dozen people. I don’t think it was ever a craft brewer’s intention to start a brewery. I think they just intended to have some good beer with friends. At some point, the story changed when someone had the idea to open up a brewery and share it with friends and friend’s friends and all their friends. And so it was almost like this escalation of community. This hobby became a passion, so much more than a normal nine to five. This is why I love breweries because the neighborhood support is so there. It’s interesting because it’s mainly craft brewing that this has happened to. It’s not any other thing. I don’t even think coffee really has the community or hobbyist level of enthusiasm. It was clear that craft brewers were having a moment, and it was time to take them to the market and share their talent and art with more people.
Tell us the ascent of your first brewery, Border X
The first brewery we did was called Border X Brewing, which was in the city of Bell, which is roughly 98% Latino. The city-owned a bunch of properties and wanted to bring something that could speak to the community. As it turns out, there are not many Latino breweries, but we ended up finding one that was very successful in San Diego, so we met with them. Naturally, they were very nervous to move to LA, as they have a very comfortable business in San Diego. They were scared. So we did the business plan for them. We gave them a sense of a financial operator – giving them the little tools they needed to understand how much money their business could make and why this made sense, not only for them but for the community they were about to enter. And so, after about a year and a half, we finally got them open. And the coolest thing was they hired people from the community.
Can you give an example of how this changed someone’s life and career path?
Most Latino people don’t grow up thinking they’re going to be a master brewer or ever work in a brewery, so it’s groundbreaking for a Latino to become a master brewer. A young Latino served as a junior apprentice at Border X, and then the team sent him to conferences and workshops to fine-tune his craft. And now he’s a craft brewer working for George Lopez’s breweries. It’s a career path he would have never had. We, as a collective and an entire team, are taking that risk to open this business and create jobs and a sense of community. And in this case, the city was receptive because we brought five Mexican-American brewers to the city, and they all made beer that spoke to their people.
How would you describe the team effort between various factions needed to get a project off the ground?
It’s really eye-opening. When you do development, you don’t think of these tangential benefits, but that’s one of the stories. Brewers are really good at making beer. I am not good at it, but it doesn’t make me dumb. And the fact that they might not know financing, construction, or design doesn’t make them dumb, either. But together as a group, we can leverage our strengths to pull off acquiring an asset, doing the design and permits, and then all the way to the grand opening when they have to come in and make beer at scale. And so to me, I look at it like an orchestra. It’s like art. These things really require different skill sets to be successful. And we’ve been fortunate to find people with the skill sets we don’t have.
Have you made a concerted effort to mentor and be a role model for young Latinos?
I think at a high level, we’re just trying to show people what’s possible. And so, by virtue of being a developer and looking the way I do and speaking Spanish, my goal isn’t necessarily to make more Latino developers, but it’s undoubtedly to give people another color in the Crayola box. A lens they may not have known existed.
So it’s more about opening the Crayola box, dumping the contents, and mixing them together for the best possible outcome.
That’s kind of how I view it. The property I’m sitting at now is in West Hollywood. The owners of the coffee truck parked in front of our building are two gay men, one Latino and one Asian. Everything they sell in the front of their coffee shop is from other LGBTQ+ founders. And so this isn’t something we’re vocal about or necessarily need to pepper in all the information, but there are layers to the story, and it’s not necessarily Latino. We aim to really just create more opportunities for entrepreneurs. And what they look like or who they represent, I don’t think matters as much as the energy and the product they’re bringing to the community. So it’s very much a collaborative effort.
How do you choose which neighborhood to target for your projects?
Benny Boy Brewery really wanted to be in Chinatown because they had a pilot location in Chinatown when they first started. The problem was there was nothing for sale in Chinatown at the time. So we ended up acquiring a building in Lincoln Heights, which is next door to Chinatown. We had to deviate a little because they wanted an outdoor patio with fire pits. Fire pits are tough to get approved by the city if you have a neighbor because it creates a fire hazard. So we had to find a parcel of land with no neighbor, which is very difficult to find in LA, especially one for sale. We ended up finding this little sliver next to the 5 Freeway in Lincoln Heights — that’s what I mean by it being a collaborative effort all around. Now there are about six or seven breweries in the Lincoln Heights /Chinatown area. And so, to some extent, the story kind of writes itself. It’s interesting to see the layers of history and how they all interact with each other as we do these developments.
You’ve mentioned that there is some opposition. Why do you think that is?
The Border X building was vacant for twelve years. It was a real eye sore. It was weird to me that someone had any opposition to what we were trying to do. So I decided to just engage with the community. ‘Just level with me, let me know what your issue is because it’s not like we’re bringing a Kentucky Fried Chicken or a Jiffy Lube. You’re helping an entrepreneur that looks just like you. What’s the situation?’ At the end of the discussion, I learned that there’s a real fear of change. And the fear in their minds starts with a little face-lift of a building, and then it ends with rents going up, and then their cousins, aunts, and uncles can’t afford to live there anymore. And that’s the fear they have.
Is there validity to that fear?
Once we opened the building on that street, all of a sudden, people were painting their homes. They were cutting their lawns a little more. All of a sudden, people were caring. Somebody even sold their home and made money because they recognized at the end of the street was a brewery that looked beautiful. The city repaved the street. All these things that don’t get written about. And so, yes, maybe they could be right property values may rise. People in the community may decide to sell their homes, but we must recognize that they now have the opportunity to make real money. Life-changing money. You can’t make everyone happy. We spend a lot of time investing energy, talking to the neighbors, and knocking on doors before we start a development. And we do that because if they don’t want us there, we don’t want to be there either.
So you get feedback from the community before proceeding with a new project?
There’s no sense holding or pushing up a boulder every day. It shouldn’t be hard if you’re doing right by the community. And so we look first to make sure they like us, make sure they like the concept or have enough information before we spend all this time, energy, and money building this thing out.
Another story I’ll share: Right behind the brewery is one of the best views of downtown LA. When we acquired the property, this was being used as a dumping site – people were literally just dumping couches or glass. It was crazy. So I posted a video on my Instagram that said: ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we made this an art walk? ‘Who’s going to say no to this idea, right? All of a sudden, all these people are mad at me. ‘Who does this rich kid from San Francisco think he is?’ And I respond, ‘I’m not from San Francisco. Not a rich kid.’ I grew up like most of the people commenting. I don’t make any money off an art walk. The good news is that the video created a dialogue between the community members, and they fought each other in the comments section. Fast forward to today, our project was selected to start renderings and programming that will seek community input and ultimately create something that the community will be really proud of.
Can you give an example of how you’ve given opportunities to young people in the neighborhoods?
One individual in particular always comes to mind. He still calls me every two weeks. He was a 16-year-old kid who came over to Border X and said, ‘Hey man, my girlfriend is pregnant. I’m going to be a dad. I need to work. I’ll do anything.’ And I gave him some boots and said, ‘Okay, this is Gilberto. He’s our foreman. Whatever he tells you to do, you do, and we’re going to pay you at the end of the day. The job is yours.’ And that happens all the time.
If you’re a chef in culinary school, you can ask to test your product at Benny Boy Brewery. I put them in touch with the owner, and they can coordinate that with her. It’s that easy. All you need to do is show up on the day you’re told and cook! That’s it.
What kind of role models did you have growing up?
I grew up in a single-parent home. My father passed when I was very young, so my mom signed me up for Big Brothers Big Sisters. My big brother and I are still in touch. This individual gave me a window into a world I had never seen. We would play baseball together. I would have dinner at his house with his parents. They were Polish, so I had pirogis for the first time. I just remember this world I’d never known. He worked at a grocery store, and his parents had their own little business. I think people need a window that looks nothing like the one they have every day. And we’re trying to provide that.
Can you tell me a little about your podcast?
Startup To Storefront brings the stories of successful companies and individuals building the future with innovative and forward-thinking ideas. We talk to leaders and innovators who work harder AND smarter, and we get the inside track into what it takes to be an entrepreneur. Interviewing entrepreneurs and other success stories who have built a business or a brand give our audience insight and a roadmap that will generate and motivate more entrepreneurs by simply listening to the podcast.
How do you incorporate truth, passion, and authenticity into your daily life?
Truth, passion, and authenticity to me, are simple things. When I tell people what they should do in life, or if they come to me asking me what advice I would give them, I always say you have to pursue your passion. You have to do the thing that really makes you wake up every morning and gets you excited to go do the thing you’re going to do. And I think that’s living your truth. I think you’re living your authentic self, and I think you’re not going to work a day in your life if you do those things. And so, from my perspective, growing up in a single-parent home, there wasn’t really that many role models that I could point to that were successful in business. So ultimately, my passion became my hobby: how do I solve that problem so that my kids, my nephews, or my family members have a window providing exposure to somebody who made it happen? So I took that as a personal challenge for myself. That means that every day I don’t really work, I don’t really do anything I don’t want to do. And that leads me to live a pretty passion-filled, focused, authentic life. And I think when people meet me, they know I’m not messing around. I’m not an actor. This isn’t a charade. It’s as truthful as it gets. And we have a podcast that speaks to that. We have a business that speaks to that, and all of our projects also speak to that.
For more information visit https://ventanaventures.io/