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Developers Wanted on Sunset Strip : Economy: Fearful of losing the entertainment industry, planners consider easing restrictions for some builders at selected locations.

April 25, 1993|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WEST HOLLYWOOD — What a difference a recession makes.

Just three years ago, Sunset Strip faced a stampede of new building, with several large office and retail projects approved or on the table. Fearing an all-out run on West Hollywood's most famous 10 blocks, city planners sat down to sketch a more measured path to long-term development.

Now opposite worries are altering that sketch. Some of the proposed projects were abandoned. Others await financing or met legal challenges. And a shortage of fancy office space has fed a recent exodus of some of the strip's biggest tenants, including Playboy Enterprises Inc. and Petersen Publishing Co., prompting fears that the city also may lose coveted show-business companies to aggressive neighbors such as Beverly Hills.

"It think it has reached panic levels," said developer Charlie Mercer, who heads the Sunset Strip Assn. and served on the advisory committee working on the development plan for the strip. He said brokers trying to fill shiny luxury buildings in places like Santa Monica, Burbank and the Miracle Mile "are on this street every single day--pirating."

City officials are less apocalyptic, but they too are calling for stepped-up efforts to encourage big corporate-office development at certain sites on the 1.7-mile strip--a telling shift away from the strict regulation that some say chased away needed building following cityhood in 1984.

"The issues are very different up there," said Debbie Potter, the city's housing and economic development manager. "Over the next few years, while the economy is rebounding, the city will have a window of opportunity. It's important to get that flagship building."

City officials are taking a long-range view, aware that banks are reluctant to finance new commercial space because of a glut of inexpensive cheap new offices that resulted from the '80s building boom and recent foreclosures.

The attempt to lure new corporate headquarters tops the development plan--still being drafted by city planners--that will be a lot-by-lot blueprint for everything from landmark billboards to parking on the crazy-quilt commercial strip. The City Council added its endorsement recently by directing authors of the so-called Sunset Specific Plan to designate 12 sites where developers would be allowed to escape normal building size restrictions in exchange for a fee or some other public benefit.

The 20-year plan, which should be finished late this year, already envisions dramatic new gateway buildings (the six-story Marlboro Man billboard on the strip's east end is the closest thing to an entrance marker now) and imagines wider sidewalks and shade trees to encourage more foot traffic in the central shopping district. It suggests the possibility of a convention center handy to the strip's seven hotels.

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The plan will reflect the strip's three distinct faces: the high-rise offices and world-famous rock clubs near Beverly Hills, stores and restaurants in the central section around the swank Sunset Plaza shopping area, and hotels and entertainment companies closest to Hollywood. In order to encourage pedestrian-friendly office construction on both ends of the strip, it will ease regulations that require new developments to have first-floor stores. It offers no new restrictions on future nightclubs.

To streamline its approval process further, the city is preparing an environmental-impact report covering the entire strip, relieving developers of the long and costly job of writing one for each individual proposal.

The plan is not meant to cure short-term ailments. But it reflects concern the strip might lose its 70-year link to show business that goes back to the days of the Garden of Allah Hotel, home to Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Humphrey Bogart and Marlene Dietrich.

Over the years, the strip was also the home address for John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. It was where F. Scott Fitzgerald dropped dead after eating a candy bar and John Belushi died from a drug overdose. Nightclubs such as The Whisky A Go Go, Gazzarri's and The Galaxy launched a generation of rock bands, including the Doors.

Since then, dozens of film and music production companies and talent agencies have settled there, sending a daily corps of power-lunchers down the street to Spago and Le Dome.

The stretch is still a prime site for new clubs and restaurants. A 28,000-square-foot blues club won city approval this spring. A new restaurant is planned nearby and a Kenneth Cole shoe boutique will open in June, Potter said.

The strip is also an economic power plant. Sunset Strip businesses generate nearly a fifth of the city's sales taxes and two-thirds of its hotel tax income. Businesses there employ more than 7,000 workers, about a quarter of the city's work force.

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