LA Times, March 3, 2006
Bit of Old Hollywood Imperiled
L.A. agency votes to oust about 30 small firms to make way for a $400-million retail-residential project. Merchants protest.
By Bob Pool, Times Staff Writer
With a loud thud, new Hollywood collided Thursday with old Hollywood at Tinseltown's most famous intersection: Hollywood and Vine. Los Angeles officials cleared the way for a luxury hotel developer to seize buildings housing about 30 small businesses through eminent domain so a $400-million project with a W Hotel, condominium and apartment units, and glitzy shops and restaurants can be built on the southeast corner.
The condemnation proceedings, authorized by the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, set the stage for one of the most ambitious revitalization efforts in Hollywood. But the action was loudly protested as heavy-handed and unfriendly by homeowners and merchants who said it was wrong to use public money and power to benefit a private developer.
The debate comes as Hollywood is in the midst of a major revival that has brought dozens of trendy nightclubs, restaurants and massive new shopping complexes such as the Hollywood & Highland Center, where the Academy Awards ceremony will take place Sunday. Just a decade ago, the district was struggling with shuttered movie theaters, rising crime and a subway construction project that crumbled parts of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
The development at Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street would replace several buildings from the district's golden era that are home to a roster of only-in-Hollywood tenants — including billboard figure and sometime actress Angelyne.
As the agency's board of commissioners was voting 5 to 0 to adopt a "resolution of necessity" that will allow eminent domain proceedings to begin, one soon-to-be-ousted property owner erected a huge sign above his Vine Street shop denouncing the action. Luggage store owner Robert Blue said his historic, 78-year-old building was designed by an architect who helped set the tone of Hollywood in its golden age — and who went on to win an Academy Award for his art design work on the classic Errol Flynn-Olivia de Havilland film "The Adventures of Robin Hood." Architect Carl Jules Weyl won the 1938 Oscar for best art direction.
Before his studio career, however, he designed the Hollywood Brown Derby restaurant and the next-door Herman Building, which is the site of Blue's six-decade-old, family-owned Bernard Luggage store. Blue's sign — visible Thursday afternoon to passersby on both Hollywood and Vine — resembles a movie poster. "Reverse Robin Hood Pictures presents, 'Murder on Vine Street: Eminent Domain Kills Small Businesses,' " it reads. "This story tells it all: Greed, Corruption and Gridlock." It lists as its "stars" the U.S. Supreme Court, Hollywood-area City Councilman Eric Garcetti, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, "the Community Redevelopment Agency as 'The Godfather' " and "the Little Rascals as 'the developers' ."
Blue, 46, who said he grew up working in his parents' luggage shop, complained that "those with the most political and economic clout" are coming out the winners in the Hollywood redevelopment derby. "It's such a shock what the CRA did," he said after the vote. "After 60 years in business in Hollywood, you get three minutes to speak. For me, there's a lot of family feeling in here."
Blue's shop manager, Ziggy Kruse, told commissioners that this would be the second time she has been forced out of a job by a Hollywood eminent domain proceeding. In 2002 she was working at the Hollywood Star Lanes bowling alley when it was seized by the Los Angeles Unified School District as a campus site. "I never dreamed lightning would strike me twice," Kruse said.
Other businesses that will be displaced include a nail-and-hair salon, a cocktail lounge, insurance office and a state Department of Motor Vehicles facility, along with Angelyne's business office. The landmark Taft Building on the northwest edge of the site will remain.
"We'd support this project if it did not grind the little guy down and did not subsidize a private developer with public funds," said Robert P. Silverstein, a lawyer representing Blue and other business owners.
Longtime Hollywood community leader Chris Shabel said the old Herman Building, in particular, deserved to be saved. "We have very few historic buildings left in Hollywood," she told commissioners. "It would be nice to have one on Vine Street."
Resident Carol Knapp complained that the city was "killing the little guy and offering up his corpse" for development. "It's corporate communism," she said.
David Scholnick, president of the city's Hollywood-Studio District Neighborhood Council, decried the loss of "our mom and pop businesses" while Hollywood Heritage leader Aaron Epstein asserted that merchants had survived riots, recession and Red Line subway construction only to have their property "snatched" by big builders.
But others supported eminent domain, which despite the flurry of new development in Hollywood has been used there only twice before by the redevelopment agency: at the Egyptian Theatre and for a housing project at Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue that replaced an earthquake-damaged structure. Alison Becker, planning deputy for Garcetti, called the planned project "a terrific addition to Hollywood" that has been embraced by other city agencies such as the Planning Commission.
"Property owners weren't investing; the community was spiraling down," said Leron Gubler, president of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. He called the redevelopment agency's involvement "crucial and appropriate."
Statistics compiled by the Chamber of Commerce paint a vivid picture of Hollywood's resurgence as new nightclubs, retail centers, residential developments and office rehab projects have been launched. The Cinerama Dome Entertainment Center with its upscale ArcLight Theaters is a $90-million venture. The Hollywood & Highland complex with its Academy Awards' Kodak Theatre was a $615-million development. The Sunset and Vine residential-retail project was valued at $120 million, according to Gubler's group.
The proposed Hollywood and Vine project — which will be partially built on Metropolitan Transportation Authority land above a Red Line subway station — will include 375 apartment units, the 300-room, four-star W Hotel, 150 luxury apartments and 61,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space.
J.J. Abraham, vice president of Legacy Partners, one of the principals in the development, pledged that the project would be a good one. "We're not the big, bad developer coming in to squeeze out the little guy," the Irvine-based builder said.
Redevelopment agency commission Chairman William Jackson asked that the developers work with the soon-to-be-displaced stores to help keep them in business. "We have to make an extra effort not to destroy something as we attempt to create something," Jackson said.