It was a lawless strip of town where movie stars and mobsters gulped drinks during Prohibition. Years later, flower children flocked to its electric nightclubs for a glimpse of Jimi Hendrix and other counterculture icons.
Now, the Sunset Strip is about to undergo its latest incarnation. This version calls for a chic and funky boulevard where pin-striped executives do power lunches in bistros and moneyed visitors fill the boutiques and hotels.
West Hollywood leaders hope an ambitious new development plan for the Sunset Strip will transform their signature street into an economic engine.
Architects of the blueprint, called the Sunset Specific Plan, envision posh new office complexes rising along the 1.2-mile boulevard, the result of zoning changes that will allow developers to build higher and denser than the city normally allows. In exchange, developers will set aside land for plazas and terraces where visitors can enjoy views of the Los Angeles Basin.
The city plans to woo movie companies, talent agents and other entertainment businesses to the proposed new buildings, creating a hub of activity on a thoroughfare that only a few years ago experienced an exodus of high-profile tenants, including Playboy Enterprises Inc.
"Nobody has ever accused West Hollywood of thinking small," Councilman Steve Martin said. "We hope this will be the impetus to a renaissance."
City officials are betting that their 20-year plan will help attract ever larger crowds to the historic roadway, a proposition that worries neighbors in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills who anticipate increased traffic and parking problems.
But those concerns have done little to dampen excitement in West Hollywood, where the City Council expects to adopt the blueprint by the end of the year, ending nearly five years of community planning.
The Strip already plays a significant role in the economy of West Hollywood, a square-mile city with a population of 36,000. Businesses on the boulevard employ more than 7,000 workers and generate three-fourths of the city's hotel tax income and one-quarter of its sales tax revenue.
City leaders foresee an even greater tax windfall from the Strip in years to come. The additional money, they say, will help fund municipal services, particularly the vast net of social programs for which the city has become famous.
Last year, West Hollywood spent nearly a fifth of its budget--$6.4 million--on social services for residents, sponsoring programs such as housing for AIDS patients, job counseling for the unemployed and a community center for its large Russian immigrant community.
But there is another motive at work. The city hopes to guard against unwanted development such as strip malls that went up in years past, what one council member likened to the "Mutt-and-Jeff look."
City leaders hope to create a more inviting atmosphere for pedestrians. Their plan envisions a relaxed shopping district where visitors stroll along widened sidewalks, rest in tree-lined courtyards and escape the sun in cool shelters along the roadway.
The new design, officials say, will complement a boulevard already known for an eclectic atmosphere that includes oversized billboards, outdoor cafes and Art Deco storefronts.
West Hollywood business leaders applaud the city for recognizing the Strip's economic potential and say the plan may have surfaced at just the right time.
The Strip has been showing signs of a modest boom over the last 18 months. Several office buildings and hotels have undertaken major renovations, and the highly successful House of Blues nightclub has opened along with a few upscale restaurants.
"Sunset Boulevard is a sleeping giant," said Charlie Mercer, president of the Sunset Strip Assn. and a Strip developer who is planning a chateau-style complex with stylish offices and penthouse apartments. "It's worth every bit of effort the city has put forward."
News of the city's efforts also is beginning to spread through the local real estate market. Brokers who once bemoaned West Hollywood for its lack of modern office space say a revitalized Strip could help the city capture entertainment tenants that might otherwise choose Los Angeles or Beverly Hills.
"Any time I talk to clients about West Hollywood, the [Sunset Specific] Plan comes up," said Chris Bonbright, a commercial broker whose clients include record companies and other entertainment businesses. "It is brilliant urban planning."
The outlook on the Strip was not always so optimistic.
When the city incorporated in 1984, its founders pushed for slow growth, a reaction to years of lax county regulation that led to large office complexes rising nearly 200 feet, or 15 to 20 stories.
The city enacted a tough zoning code that limited the height of buildings to 35 feet, about three stories. The cap made it virtually impossible for large companies to accommodate their growing work forces.