Thursday, March 29, 2012
Facelift Project for Hollywood Stirs Divisions
Hollywood, once a sketchy neighborhood in a spiral of petty crime and decay, has been well on its way over the past 10 years to becoming a bustling tourist destination and nightlife district. But now it is on the verge of another transformation: to a decidedly un-Californian urban enclave pierced by skyscrapers, clustered around public transportation and animated pedestrian street life.
A far-reaching rezoning plan that would turn parts of Hollywood into a mini-city — with residential and commercial towers rising on streets like Vine, Hollywood and Sunset — has won the support of key Los Angeles officials. And it has set off a storm of opposition from residents fearful that it would destroy the rakish small-town charm of their community with soaring anodyne buildings that block views of the Hollywood Hills (and its iconic sign) and overwhelm streets with traffic.
“More is not better, bigger is not better,” Sarajane Schwartz, the president of the Hollywoodland Homeowners Association, told City Council members and planners at a lively three-hour hearing on Tuesday. “Hollywood needs limits, protections and preservations, not structuring and high density. Please save Hollywood. Once it’s lost it will be gone forever."
For Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa and Eric M. Garcetti, a council member who represents much of Hollywood, the Hollywood Community Plan reflects the latest attempt to move Los Angeles away from its reliance on cars, creating a concentrated urban area along a thriving subway line where people would work, live and shop — by foot, no less. It is a school of urban planning that has been tried with considerable success in many cities over the past decade, though, of course, Los Angeles is not really like many other cities.
“You love to write about this being the city of sprawl and how we are not like New York and other cities that are more vertical,” Mr. Villaraigosa said in an interview. “This is L.A.’s opportunity to match the growth of our transit system with the jobs and housing that is critical to smart growth.”
“From the beginning, I said we are going to move away from our single-passenger automobile system,” he said. “We are going to remake what the city looks like.”
Mr. Garcetti said that building guidelines in this 25-square-mile zone had not been changed in 24 years. “If there was a moment in time to freeze Hollywood, it would not be 1988,” he said. “The average tourist stay in Hollywood then was 23 minutes. Crime was at its peak. And things like the subway just weren’t in the area.”
Yet while the plan has considerable institutional support — business groups turned out to testify for it at the Tuesday meeting — it has stirred anxiety among people who live in the neighborhood and have long been loyal to its unique charms and hidden treasures. To opponents, the plan is a sop to real estate developers who see an opportunity to make fast money.
“It’s gotten kind of nasty here in Hollywood in the last few days,” said Richard MacNaughton, a lawyer who has lived in the area for 40 years and is one of the opponents of the effort. He said the changes would result in a real estate free-for-all. “You’ll destroy the flatlands, you destroy the quality of life. Tourists come here to see the dream. They don’t come to see some high-rise.”
Richard Platkin, a planner who used to work for the city, argued that upper-middle-class residents who could afford the kind of apartments envisioned would not want to give up, say, living in the hills or near the ocean for a still gritty area notable for its lack of parks, wide sidewalks or other amenities.
“I’m not opposed to the philosophy here,” he said. “I’m only opposed when it’s imposed as a pretext for real estate speculation. The plan is designed to make it easier to build big buildings. It does nothing to improve amenities.”
The Planning and Land Use Management Committee of the Council, after hearing nearly three hours of conflicting testimony on Tuesday, put off its vote pending further study. Still, the plan is expected to come before the City Council in the next few months and both sides said that as of now, it seems likely to win approval.
The battle is the latest chapter in a 30-year effort by Los Angeles officials to develop a comprehensive urban plan in a city that seems, by design, to resist one, given its sprawl of self-contained, unique and often architecturally disparate neighborhoods. The idea of concentrating development near transit lines has been tried, with considerable success, in Arlington, Va., Dallas, Houston and Charleston, S.C.
“We’re seeing a significantly growing demand for this kind of development,” said Abigail Thorne-Lyman, director of the Center of Transit-Oriented Development with Reconnecting America, a nonprofit transportation advocacy group. “L.A. has been behind the curve in accommodating households near transit.”
She praised city officials for the project and for pushing to expand transit and the use of bicycles. “L.A. has the single largest transit investment coming in the country right now,” she said. “Plus, L.A. has an amazingly visionary bicycle plan.”
For all the improvement, including $120 million spent on sprucing up the neighborhood over the past 20 years, Hollywood has not lost its edge. On any given day, the streets are filled with homeless people, hustlers and teenagers wandering along with guitars over their shoulders. While there has been an influx of restaurants and nightclubs, there remain many open lots, run-down buildings or stores covered with sliding metal gates (albeit decorated with fading paintings of movie stars). Late-night crime associated with the clubs is not unusual.
The commercial anchor of the upsurge is the Hollywood Highland Center. That project, whatever its financial success, has been widely panned as an architectural car-crash — Steve Lopez, a columnist for The Los Angeles Times, described it as “a commercial abomination” — and that is one reason some people are nervous about this latest potential development. As it is, the city is already considering proposals by a New York developer to build two towers, one 48 stories high, around the Capitol Records Tower, a 13-story landmark just off Hollywood and Vine.
The overall plan seeks development that could accommodate 244,000 new residents by 2030; the current population is 198,228. Opponents note that the population in Hollywood has declined by 6 percent over the past 10 years, and that even if builders responded to the lure of easier zoning, the result would be a series of empty towers.
“This is a low-rise city,” said David Bell, the president of the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council. “Wherever you are in Hollywood you can look up and see the Hollywood Hills and the Hollywood sign. If they put 20-, 30- or 40-story skyscrapers on Sunset Boulevard, it is going to change the nature of Hollywood and not for the better.”
City officials describe the objections as exaggerated, saying the big buildings would be on the outskirts of Hollywood’s famous historic district.
“They are responding to facts not in evidence, as a lawyer would say, to fears not in evidence,” Mr. Villaraigosa said. “There’s a great deal of support for this.”
By ADAM NAGOURNEY - NY Times