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Why Isn't Hollywood Giving to L.A.'s Cause?

May 04, 1997|William Fulton | William Fulton, editor of California Planning & Development Report and a senior research fellow at Claremont Graduate School Research Institute, is the author of "The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles" (Solano Press Books)

VENTURA — Now that Ralphs/Food 4 Less has chipped in $15 million, the Walt Disney Concert Hall may be built after all. Under its tough-love financial deal with Los Angeles County, the Disney Hall committee has to raise enough money to finish the project. If the money isn't there by 1998, the Los Angeles Music Center will lose its long-cherished right to build a new concert hall on a prime parcel of land atop Bunker Hill.

L.A.'s elite may well scrape together another $100 million and see construction of the hall begin. But no matter how spectacular Frank Gehry's "rose for the city" will look on Grand Avenue, it will never represent Los Angeles as a unified center of culture. Instead, Disney Hall will stand as a mausoleum for L.A.'s decaying downtown elite. Because if the hall gets built, it will only be because the city's elite are able to rally the troops one last time to "save face," while corporate Hollywood turns its back. That's not a good sign.

A Hollywood-Los Angeles partnership was what the Music Center crowd had in mind a decade ago, when longtime supporter Lillian Disney gave $50 million toward building a monument to her husband's memory. The goal was to duplicate Dorothy Chandler's success in getting the Music Center built in the 1960s. In the most remarkable feat of cultural chutzpah in the city's history, Chandler pulled together a coalition of corporate executives, downtown politicians, real estate barons and Hollywood moguls, including Walt Disney, to pay for the music hall. But Disney's widow is the only Hollywood benefactor of the new concert hall across the street. When the cost of the Disney Hall project ballooned to more than $250 million, Hollywood didn't come to the rescue.

Under the financial gun from the county government, the Disney Hall Committee agreed to raise at least $50 million by this spring--a goal now realized with the Ralph's contribution--and another $100 million by next year. Hollywood could easily pick up the shortfall, the equivalent of a couple of Michael Eisner stock-option packages or Michael Ovitz payoffs. But no Eisner or Ovitz--or Steven Spielberg or David Geffen--has stepped forward with a bag of cash, as the Disney Hall Committee originally hoped. Instead, the entire $50 million has come from corporate Los Angeles--Arco, Times Mirror, Ralphs--in response to the aggressive arm-twisting of real-estate magnate Eli Broad, who has taken on the task of raising the money.

Why is Hollywood holding out? The cultural chasm with L.A.'s more traditional corporate types may be too great for anybody to bridge. Downtown's button-down executives are accustomed to conducting business quietly, behind the closed doors of the Jonathan Club or Bunker Hill boardrooms. By contrast, Hollywood execs think nothing of thrashing out their power struggles, Eisner-Ovitz style, in the high-profile pages of Daily Variety and other newspapers.

This cultural clash is one of the main reasons why one of the city's highest-profile development projects, the DreamWorks SKG studio at Playa Vista, is going nowhere. The lead developer is Robert F. Maguire, a behind-the-scenes type known for his ability to play ball with corporate America. But Maguire was squeezed out after DreamWorks partner Jeffrey Katzenberg hammered him with a typically Hollywood blast in the press, although other factors may have contributed to his exit. Now Maguire's former partner, James A. Thomas, has returned from Sacramento to pick up the pieces.

All this would probably be just amusing grist for the gossip columns, except for the fact that Los Angeles, as a business center, clearly suffers as a result. Newly reelected Richard J. Riordan tirelessly portrays himself as a pro-business mayor, and he has pointed to the Playa Vista/DreamWorks deal, in particular, as proof of his determination to get things done. But Riordan himself is a classic button-down, behind-closed-doors fixer. Unfortunately, Riordan's corporate L.A. is rapidly disappearing, while Hollywood is quickly eclipsing downtown as the place where investors worldwide want to put their money.

The corporate downtown that Riordan's predecessor, Tom Bradley, worked so hard to nurture is coming undone more quickly than anyone could have imagined. Downsizing has emptied out the skyscrapers that Maguire and others raised in the 1980s with the help of Bradley and his Community Redevelopment Agency. With Wells Fargo's purchase of First Interstate, the locus of financial power in California has shifted back to San Francisco. The only major corporation left downtown is Arco--a loyal player always good for a $5-million pledge for a worthy downtown cause like Disney Hall.

Meanwhile, corporate Hollywood is rapidly expanding, as Disney and other companies suck up Wall Street capital to build new studios, amusement parks and multimedia ventures. The real estate developers and architects who used to cater to downtown law firms now covet the studios as clients.

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