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Clash of rowdy, refined

West Hollywood officials fear that violence at the House of Blues will deter chic, wealthy customers from visiting the upscaled Sunset Strip.

October 11, 2008|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

Back in 1966, the Sunset Strip was at the heart of the counter-culture music scene when the problems started. The famed row of nightclubs and hotels was hit by what became known as the "Sunset Strip Riots," when hundreds of young people waving "We're Your Children! Don't Destroy Us" and "Ban the Billy Club" signs protested a police-imposed curfew and anti-loitering laws.

The disturbances angered residents at the time but ended up burnishing the Sunset Strip's colorful history, even inspiring Stephen Stills to write the song "For What It's Worth."

Forty years later, a different kind of unrest is the talk of the Strip. But this time, community leaders see little upside.

Earlier this week, West Hollywood officials met to discuss whether to suspend the business license of one of the Strip's most renowned clubs, after a brawl inside and outside of the House of Blues involving more than 100 people shut down the Strip for almost an entire evening last month.

It was the latest of several incidents at the venue that city officials said have resulted in more than 40 arrests over the last 12 months.

The situation at the House of Blues -- which civic leaders fear could keep people away from the area should it escalate -- is especially problematic because it comes as the Strip is seeing a luxury boom.

A series of buildings and hotels along the Sunset Strip recently have undergone drastic overhauls, bringing in more glitz, more glamour and more high-end destinations, in the hopes of luring chic, wealthy customers to the mile-and-a-half stretch.

The former Bel-Age Hotel, which was originally built as an apartment building, reopened earlier this year as the London West Hollywood. Hoping to attract an entertainment-industry clientele, the hotel features a rooftop pool lounge and suites with embossed leather upholstery, dual-head showers and hand-cut mosaic tiles.

The Mondrian Hotel -- with its famed Skybar -- has been "rejuvenated," according the hotel's website, with a white-curtained lobby and "Mondrian marigold." The Hyatt hotel also is being remodeled -- and rebranded as Andaz, one of the hotel chain's higher-end resorts.

Eateries are going upscale, too: The last two years have seen the arrival of BLT Steak, the "ultra-lounge" One Sunset, and Gordon Ramsay's new restaurant just off the marbled lobby of the London, among others.

Even the Strip itself is getting a face-lift; a beautification project that includes resurfacing pavement, replacing sidewalks, improving signage and planting trees along the street is in the design stage.

"It is becoming a bit more upscale," said Vincent Mercurio, general manager of the London West Hollywood. "But it's definitely sharpening its edge. And I think people are excited about it."

Those upgrades, combined with old stalwart attractions of the Strip -- including musical venues such as the Whisky a Go-Go and the Roxy and shopping destinations including Sunset Plaza -- are what some West Hollywood boosters say is necessary to attract the right clientele.

"People who like to go out, and used to come exclusively to us, have other options," said Mayor Jeffrey Prang. The new and improved hotels are "entertainment-driven." Their customers, he said, "are not going to stay at the Holiday Inn in the Central Valley; this is a hip, entertainment-industry set."

And those customers are the ones that civic and business leaders in West Hollywood -- which controls most of the Strip -- cannot afford to lose.

The review of the House of Blues' permit was proposed by West Hollywood Councilman John Heilman, who said he became concerned about a series of incidents at the venue.

Within the last year, events at the House of Blues have led to 44 arrests for incidents including fights, drunk and disorderly behavior, and grand theft, according to statistics in a report the councilman released. During the same time period, there have been more than 100 sheriff's radio dispatches to the venue.

The House of Blues is one of the Strip's biggest draws. But Heilman said it's important for the club's management to get a handle on the problems.

Officials have been working in the last few years to reduce crime and crackdown on clubs.

In 2004, the city revoked the conditional use permit of Dublin's Irish Whiskey Pub after repeated issues with violence, overcrowding and underage activity, among other things.

"They were a problem business," Prang said. "They seemed either unwilling or unable to manage their affairs."

Representatives at the House of Blues did not return calls for comment. But several people in the community said that they were confident the same fate would not befall the House of Blues and that the club would work with city officials to better handle future outbreaks.

"It's an unfortunate situation," said West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Sharon Sandow. "I feel strongly that it will all be remedied. They are very responsive," she said of the House of Blues.

Prang said he understands the stakes involved should something go seriously wrong.

He cited a case in Westwood Village, where a 27-year-old woman was killed in 1988, an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire of a gang rivalry. The shopping and entertainment district never fully recovered.

"Business dried up overnight," Prang said. "We are concerned about that."

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cara.dimassa@latimes.com

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