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Property Owner Ready for Fire Fight

A City Council vote today could set up an eminent domain battle over a plan to build a fire station on the Florentine Gardens site.

October 11, 2005|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

A nearly five-year search for a site to build a new fire station in Hollywood could come to an end today, when the Los Angeles City Council is expected to vote to acquire the Florentine Gardens nightclub.

The historic 1938 Hollywood Boulevard club sits on one of four adjacent parcels the city has decided would make the best new home for Fire Station 82, which is housed in an outdated 54-year-old building on nearby Bronson Avenue.

But the council vote may not be the end.

After considering about 15 nearby sites -- and even buying one for $2.3 million -- the city has chosen property largely owned by an unwilling seller.

Kenneth MacKenzie, the owner, runs Florentine Gardens as a dance club patronized mostly by young Latinos, and he doesn't want to part with it. His opposition could force the city to turn to eminent domain proceedings to acquire the land.

Like many L.A. land-use disputes, this one involves the recurring themes of historic preservation, bureaucracy, public safety and money.

At the center of the brouhaha is the nightclub, which enjoyed its heyday in the 1940s and '50s as an upscale place where celebrities could be seen quaffing and canoodling.

In what was perhaps its most celebrated moment, Marilyn Monroe had her wedding reception there in 1942. She married Jim Dougherty when her name was still Norma Jean Baker.

MacKenzie, 63, was born in Lima, Peru, and came to Los Angeles in 1961 for an operation after a motorcycle accident.

He said he bought Florentine Gardens in 1979 for about $680,000 and opened it as a club the next year. These days it is one of a few that allow 18 year olds to enter, although they are banned from the bar.

"I always admired Hollywood since I was 14 or 15 years old -- in South America, Hollywood is bigger than it is here," MacKenzie said. "I never thought I would go to the States.... To me, it's the American dream. I never thought I would own a landmark."

In 2000, voters in Los Angeles passed Proposition F, a $532.6-million bond to rebuild fire stations and animal shelters. The city began looking for spots in Hollywood near the existing Station 82, which was built in 1951 and is too small for modern equipment.

Various properties along Hollywood Boulevard east of central Hollywood fell in and out of favor. Some were too close to housing. One lot was purchased but the city decided not to pursue building because of community protests that nearby housing would be removed and that it was too close to a battered-women's shelter.

The Toyota dealership across the street from Florentine Gardens was considered, but that site was dropped because car sales generate tax revenues for the city, said Councilman Eric Garcetti, who represents the district.

The city finally got its break this summer when preservationists said they would support the Florentine Gardens location if the building were incorporated into the station.

Under the current proposal, the structure would become a training facility, and the exterior, basically a white facade with fake colonnades painted gold, would be preserved.

Inside, the building has been heavily altered and there are few traces of the original nightclub, which closed in the mid-1950s.

"It's one of the few remaining tangible ties to when Hollywood was the capital of the nightlife world," said Jay Platt of the Los Angeles Conservancy. "If a building cannot be used in its original use, finding a new use for a historic structure is one of our highest goals."

MacKenzie is fighting the city on several fronts. He argues that the city bungled in finding a location, which left it no choice but to acquire his land.

He also argues that the fire station is poorly located to serve eastern Hollywood and that he's a victim of wealthy Hollywood Hills neighbors who, his latest news release says, are trying to "root out minorities from the area."

He planned to bring three busloads of supporters to City Hall today and was even touting the support of one of the co-founders of the United Farm Workers union, although there is no farm within miles of the club.

In recent discussions with the city, MacKenzie has suggested that his property is worth $400 a square foot, which would put the value of the three lots he owns at about $29 million. But their current assessed value, according to the county assessor, is closer to $5.4 million.

"Mr. MacKenzie will make millions of dollars off his transaction from the lowest to highest estimate," Garcetti said, adding that the new fire station would save firefighters time getting to many emergencies. "He will more than double his money."

MacKenzie says it's about more than money -- that he's going to lose his piece of the American dream.

"I'm 63 years old, and I don't think I can start again," he said.

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