Six decades ago, it was a two-lane dream with promise, a scenic ribbon of mountaintop roadway sprawled between stars and city lights for 55 miles from Griffith Park to the sea.
It did not take long for Mulholland Drive to become a larger-than-life symbol of Los Angeles.
Perhaps nowhere else can one find as spectacular a combination of rural and urban vistas. From Mulholland, smog permitting, one can survey virtually the entire Los Angeles dreamscape--from the Hollywood sign and downtown skyscrapers to Santa Monica Bay and the waffle-like grid of San Fernando Valley streets.
What William Mulholland could not have foreseen in 1913 when he first laid plans for the scenic roadway was that the same views that would make the road famous would also help make it controversial.
Effort to Curb Development
Environmentalists, property owners and developers have bickered over the road's future for a quarter-century. Now, with the dispute raging anew, they all say that the argument has never been louder, or the stakes higher.
At issue is a proposed ordinance that would restrict development along 22 miles of the mountainous road from Hollywood west to the county line at Topanga.
Under the proposal, known as the Mulholland Scenic Parkway Specific Plan, commercial development would be prohibited and Mulholland would retain its legendary curves and rustic character.
It would remain a two-lane road except for a 100-yard stretch from Benedict Canyon Drive to Beverly Glen Boulevard in Sherman Oaks.
The proposal has stirred bitter debate among an estimated 19,000 homeowners who live within a mile-wide corridor of the affected area, often pitting neighbors against each other.
Keeping It Natural
That is because the ordinance would also require new buildings and homes, including those rebuilt after damage from fires or other disasters, to be painted in earth or rock tones and constructed in a manner that would least obstruct views from the road.
Landscaping visible from Mulholland would have to come from a list of approved plantings natural to the area, outlawing the likes of palm trees and cypresses.
"It's an outright disaster what they want to do," said George Caloyannidis, a real estate broker who lives in the Hollywood Hills. "It's crazy, insane."
He is president of Hands Off Mulholland, one of several groups whose members are convinced that the proposed controls would hurt homeowners who want to remodel or re-landscape their mountain residences.
Well-organized and aided by a number of celebrities, including musician Doc Severinsen and actors Richard Dreyfuss and Ernest Borgnine, opponents have far outnumbered supporters at hearings of the Los Angeles Planning Department.
At the final such hearing earlier this month, Dreyfuss drew loud applause saying he found "only about 50 words" of the 24-page proposal to be valuable, and labeled the rest "an annoyance to my rights as a property owner."
And his was among the milder criticisms.
"The whole thing is an incredible abuse of power," said Tarzana resident Sheldon R. Kaplow. "They're trying to invoke terrible property restrictions on people's ownership of land and their ability to enjoy their homes. It's a disgrace."
Kaplow said he has owned a 17-acre Mulholland Drive parcel for 30 years. "If this thing ever passes, you're talking about a $7-million piece of property that would be worthless," he asserted.
Owing in part to such opposition, the ordinance has undergone two revisions since it was first unveiled in 1985. Barring further hitches, it is expected to go before the City Council in six to eight months, said city planner King Woods.
'Send Wrong Signal'
"I think it can safely be said that the ordinance represents a watershed for Mulholland Drive," said Emily Gabel, a senior city planner instrumental in devising the proposal. "If it isn't adopted, it will send the wrong kind of signal to developers and others--that almost anything goes."
Barbara Blinderman, president of Mulholland Tomorrow, a group that is generally supportive of the plan, agrees.
"Not only would the plan's being denied signal the developers, it would also be the best message in the world to the Department of Engineering that they can go ahead and turn Mulholland into a freeway," she said.
In the late 1960s, legislation was introduced in the state Assembly to appropriate money to build a freeway along Mulholland. The bill never passed, but the issue helped galvanize those interested in preserving Mulholland's rustic character.
As a result, the City Council in 1971 designated Mulholland a scenic city parkway and created a citizens' advisory committee to keep an eye on development proposals affecting it. Two years later, in something of a milestone, the council affirmed the advisory committee's decision--the body of which became known as the Green Book, after the color of its binding--to maintain Mulholland as a meandering, two-lane road with spots for picnicking, trash cans and scenic turnouts.