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Faded Hollywood Blvd. Faces a Tough Comeback

May 13, 1990|DEAN MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The grand vision for a rejuvenated Hollywood first emerged seven years ago during a luncheon for wealthy businessmen at the Brown Derby.

By the end of dessert and coffee, broadcaster Bill Welsh had collected thousands of dollars in pledges for the feasibility study that later would qualify the tattered movie capital for an enormous, government-subsidized make-over. The new Hollywood that Welsh and others envisioned was one of gleaming office towers, posh hotels, high-rise condominiums, trendy restaurants, first-run theaters and vibrant shopping areas.

"I told them that we are building the Hollywood of the 21st Century," recalled Welsh, who headed the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce at the time. "I meant that it would be in place by the 21st Century.

"Now, I am afraid that we won't even be building a lot of it until the 21st Century."

The heart and soul of Hollywood's dream for revival, the renaissance of once-glorious Hollywood Boulevard, has fallen on hard times. Four years after the city of Los Angeles officially launched its $922-million Hollywood redevelopment effort, no major development has risen on Los Angeles' most famous--and, some say, disappointing--thoroughfare.

"There is a psychology of pessimism that we have to break," said Christine Essel, vice president of Paramount Pictures Corp. and a member of an advisory panel on Hollywood renewal. "There is this sense that this whole thing has stagnated."

Signs of renewal are few and far between. The elegantly restored Roosevelt Hotel, once regarded as a symbol of the boulevard's resurgence, is in bankruptcy. The recently relocated Brown Derby, for decades a famous gathering place for Hollywood's upper crust, has gone out of business. The historic Ontra Cafeteria, a fixture at the legendary intersection of Hollywood and Vine, had deteriorated into a refuge for transients before being gutted by fire in March.

"Hollywood is a world treasure, and what has happened here should never have been allowed to happen by any management of any city," said Bob Goldfarb, whose distinctive McDonald's restaurant is one of the boulevard's few new success stories. "There is a great deal of indifference."

Once a popular entertainment district with movie palaces, live theaters, nightclubs, restaurants and clothing stores, the boulevard deteriorated over the last few decades into what one planning consultant described as an "unimaginative . . . quick-stop tourist destination."

T-shirt shops, fast-food restaurants, Hollywood memorabilia shops and inexpensive clothing stores dominate the tree-lined roadway, which also features boarded-up storefronts, graffiti-strewn facades and several businesses offering X-rated magazines and movies.

"When you drive down the boulevard you see a derelict eating out of the trash can and a lot of vacant stores," said Michael Kellerman, owner of Hollywood Fantasy Tours, a local sightseeing business. "You don't want to stop. You'd rather see Disneyland."

Several proposed large-scale developments intended to turn around the thoroughfare have fallen victim to financing difficulties, bureaucratic obstacles and a prevailing uneasiness about whether Hollywood truly is ripe for recovery.

"There was an amazing amount of speculation at the beginning, where people bought land thinking it would go up in value and all kinds of things would be happening," said Jim Wood, chairman of the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, which runs the revitalization effort for the 1.7-square-mile area. "They have now become very frustrated."

Most notably, construction of the much ballyhooed Hollywood Promenade, proposed to wrap around Mann's Chinese Theater, has yet to begin despite three groundbreaking ceremonies--the most recent more than a year ago. Rumors that the project may never get built recently swept Hollywood when a construction trailer and chain-link fence were removed from the project site.

The $300-million complex of museums, offices, movie theaters, shops and a hotel has long been looked to as the physical and psychological cornerstone of the boulevard's road to recovery. Developers Melvin Simon & Associates, one of the nation's largest shopping center developers, said the 5-year-old project "is going to happen," but described it as "very, very financially difficult."

Simon Vice President Michael Marr said it will be at least three years before the Promenade opens.

"You can't build money losers," he said. "It has been a major issue for us to find ways to make this into something that we can put on the boulevard. We are going to do it, but, boy, it has not been easy."

Hollywood real estate broker Bruce Canfield, who helped assemble the eight-acre Promenade site, said property values continue to climb, but he said big investors are waiting for "something to happen" before building. No one, he said, wants to be first to take the plunge and potentially wind up with a costly white elephant.

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