The controversial proposal by Warner Bros. Hollywood Studios to tear down the legendary Formosa Cafe is only one small part of a huge development plan that calls for the demolition of many landmark buildings at one of the world's oldest studios.
Although the project is still in the early planning stages, the entertainment company's intent to transform its aging West Hollywood lot into a state-of-the-art facility could exact a heavy price on many of the original structures built during the heyday of United Artists under its founders--Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith.
"It would be a great loss if they went ahead with their current plans," said Marc Wanamaker, a film studio historian who has served as a consultant on several studio renovation projects. "By demolishing a whole (studio) lot and then starting from scratch, it shows a total lack of sensitivity to the history of the film industry and the area where they are located."
Representatives for Warners recently announced that the studio had extended the Formosa Cafe's lease for 90 days. But critics said the move was aimed more at quashing negative publicity than at answering broader concerns about the overall development.
West Hollywood city officials have called Warners' long-range plan a "wish list" and said it is unlikely that the studio's five-phase project would be approved without major changes. But the studio has made it clear that it is prepared to move out if its plans are severely compromised, city planning officials say.
Warners has plenty of negotiating leverage. West Hollywood officials regard the studio as the key to revitalizing the city's run-down east end. And as one of the city's largest employers and revenue producers, the studio has long received special treatment.
Two years ago, for example, the city approved a cultural heritage preservation ordinance that included language written in large part by legal consultants hired by the studio to protect its development plans. The city, citing the "special needs" of the film studio, also approved zoning guidelines that will allow Warners to exceed building height and density requirements placed on other businesses.
"It definitely is a tightrope act," Councilman Paul Koretz said of the city's relationship with Warners. "But you have to allow a studio that is a living, breathing entity a certain amount of flexibility because its needs are different from other businesses'.
"They are an important element of our business community, and there is a real possibility of them closing shop and taking their business elsewhere. But we can't be straitjacketed either. I would certainly hope that they would preserve what buildings they can and work in a spirit of compromise."
Warners studio executives declined to comment on their development plan. Jack Foreman, general manager of the studio, referred calls to Munger Tolles & Olson, the legal firm that is working as a consultant on the project.
Attorney Dan Garcia said the studio's eleventh-hour decision to keep the Formosa Cafe open shows that Warners is willing to work with the city to come up with a more satisfactory plan. He added that the studio will hire a preservation specialist to survey the site and identify structures having the most cultural or historical significance.
"Frankly, we haven't figured out what we want to do yet, and what we have submitted is far from set in concrete," Garcia said. "I know there's been a feeling that the studio has been unresponsive, but the truth is, they are out of their league.
"If they were in the development business, they'd know better. But they are in the movie business, and I think all of this has caught them by surprise. I know that they do not want or expect that this will be a confrontational process."
Still, the development plan is sure to anger community activists who are still upset over the studio's handling of the venerable Formosa Cafe watering hole. The bar, which has served as an unofficial clubhouse for the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, sits on a Warners-owned site where the studio plans to build a parking lot.
Local activists have petitioned the city to declare the Formosa a cultural landmark and save it from the wrecking ball. On Feb. 19, a group called the Friends of the Formosa presented the West Hollywood City Council with a list of more than 2,000 signatures of people asking to save the Formosa.
It remains unclear whether the studio could demolish the Formosa Cafe without City Council approve for a final master plan, since the bar's removal is part of the second phase of the project. The city attorney's office has yet to rule on whether it would violate the California Environmental Quality Act if Warners were to attempt to move ahead with just one phase of the plan.