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Neighborhood face-lift gives Hollywood pause

Some worry that a proliferation of high-end building projects will bury the charm of the area's golden past

May 06, 2008|Roger Vincent | Times Staff Writer

In the years after World War II, Hollywood was "a glamorous little town," said writer Milt Larsen, with chic nightclubs, elite restaurants including the Brown Derby and live theater. He enjoyed going from studio to studio to sit in the audiences of radio broadcasts by the likes of Jack Benny, Fanny Brice and Groucho Marx.

Magicians still perform to crowds in the legendary Magic Castle that Larsen founded in Hollywood in 1963. But by then, he said, Hollywood Boulevard was "starting to get a little tawdry."

Now it's on the upswing again. In five years, the boulevard "will be a cross between Melrose Avenue and the Third Street Promenade" in Santa Monica, predicted developer Richard Heyman. He is working on a $12.5-million refurbishment of the Art Deco-style former Kress dime store that later became the flagship of racy lingerie seller Frederick's of Hollywood.

When the Kress opens in a few weeks, it will house a nightclub, restaurant, sushi bar, banquet room and rooftop bar. Owner Michael Viscuso also has acquired other property nearby, with plans to add more stores and to build a 15-story hotel-condominium.

Viscuso said he had watched Hollywood for almost a decade but "the streets looked pretty rough." Around 2005 he could see change coming and wanted to get in on it. "It's amazing now."

The heady pace of that change -- more than $2 billion worth of development since 2003 with an additional almost $1 billion approved and ready to start -- is unnerving people like Hollywood Hills resident Savage, who is also president of the Hollywood Knolls Community Club homeowners group.

"It's all going way too fast for me," said Savage, who fears that growth will overwhelm roads, mass transit and other public services. "I'm not a Luddite," he said. "I generally believe in the free market, but I think someone needs to call a timeout and let the infrastructure catch up."

Pendulum swings

Hollywood has long been known for low rents and as a destination for starving artist types such as actors and musicians as well as home to a large number of immigrants. Losing such residents would reduce some of the "economic diversity" special to Hollywood, says City Planning Commissioner Michael Woo, a former City Council member. "I anticipate more concern about gentrification and people being pushed out."

But there is probably no stopping it. Hollywood is going through a type of dramatic change that is sweeping many of the country's city centers, said analyst Christopher Leinberger of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. "What we are dealing with here is the pent-up demand in this country for walkable urban places."

By Leinberger's reckoning, there are two models for real estate development: "walkable urban" and "drivable suburban." After more than 60 years of focusing almost exclusively on the latter, the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living in the United States, and the Los Angeles region is woefully short of neighborhoods where residents can work, shop and entertain themselves on foot, he said.

"Great urbanism attracts people," Leinberger said. "Places that do have it are going to have overwhelming demand."


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