There is a gravel-strewn lot on Sunset Boulevard where the Sassony Development Co. once hoped to erect a four-story shopping center and office complex. Instead of a bustling mall, there is only an artist's depiction, nailed to a small billboard at the front of the lot.
Sassony's grand plans were frozen in place in November, 1984, when West Hollywood's fledgling City Council ordered a moratorium on all construction and development. Unable to build and unable to sell the property because of uncertainty over West Hollywood's intentions, the firm has given up on its $6.5-million project.
'A Big, Ugly Tree'
"Our attitude right now," said Judy Lyon, Sassony's controller, "is to forget about it and plant a tree--a big, ugly tree."
But now, 14 months after the building freeze started, the moratorium and resulting uncertainty that killed the Sassony project is thawing. Last week, the City Council put the finishing touches on its Interim Zoning Ordinance, a 162-page set of guidelines designed to allow development to start up again in West Hollywood.
On the surface, the city's new ordinance (which still requires a final council vote) appears identical to zoning laws used by Los Angeles County, which governed West Hollywood until its incorporation just over a year ago.
But in key sections, the ordinance is more restrictive than the county's standards--encouraging street-level retail stores and other pedestrian uses, toughening parking requirements, halting the spread of mini-malls, outlawing hotels in residential neighborhoods, increasing the use of public hearings and forcing apartment developers to provide housing for poor families.
"You're going to see change in West Hollywood, but it's not going to happen as easily and as rapidly as it did in the past," said Mark Winogrond, the city's director of community development.
There is little agreement among West Hollywood's business leaders about the impact of the new ordinance. Some developers are convinced that it will drive away major development projects to neighboring Los Angeles, while others say the new law will encourage projects appropriate to the "urban village" concept of growth embraced by the City Council.
City officials insist that sections of the ordinance that prove too onerous can be readjusted when the City Council completes its major revision of the city's General Plan, which will replace the ordinance about 18 months from now.
But officials also admit that unless there are major difficulties, much of the tone set by ordinance can be expected to be carried over into the General Plan.
"We'll have more than another year or so to adjust the temperature of the water," said Elwood C. Tescher, the city's planning consultant during the shaping of the new ordinance. "But the council now has a pretty good idea what kind of development it would like to see in the future."
When the building freeze was passed, West Hollywood was an attractive place for development. The greatest pressure came from commercial and retail developers, lured by the financial health of stores that lined Sunset and Santa Monica boulevards.
"The push for commercial development has always been strong here," said Ronald S. Kates, the city's most influential commercial real estate broker. "Our location next to Beverly Hills and north of Melrose Avenue has always brought a lot of interest. And developers know that stores and restaurants do well in West Hollywood."
Pressure for major office construction was not as strong, largely because West Hollywood is not close to major highways and because the county government rarely allowed tall office buildings on Sunset, where film and music industry offices predominate.
And residential development, which swept the area in the 1960s and 1970s, transforming West Hollywood from an orderly community of single-family homes and small apartment houses into a warren of apartment complexes, had cooled by 1984.
The interim zoning ordinance will affect each of those types of development, but its greatest impact, city officials and developers say, will be on commercial and retail expansion.
The City Council hopes to encourage commercial development by creating "pedestrian overlay" zones along thoroughfares such as Sunset and Santa Monica, areas where developers will be expected to build with shoppers and consumers in mind.
In these pedestrian zones, developers will have to provide most of their street-level space for stores and restaurants. Display windows will be required along much of the street-level frontages and developers will be encouraged to set back upper floors so that the sidewalks and streets are flooded with sunlight.
"This community wants to see people on the streets, walking along and shopping," said Mayor John Heilman.