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Taking a burger stand

Preservationists say L.A. officials are sacrificing a potential cultural landmark by selling Molly's Burgers to a developer.

June 29, 2010|By Bob Pool, Los Angeles Times

As a developer prepares to gobble up Molly's Burgers, preservationists in Hollywood are taking a stand.

They charge that Los Angeles officials are sacrificing a potential cultural landmark by selling the walk-up burger joint at 1605 N. Vine St. at a discount price to a company they claim is luring jobs out of Hollywood.

Land around the 20-stool eatery is to be sold to Pacifica Ventures, a Santa Monica-based development company that builds and operates out-of-state movie soundstages.

The city's Community Redevelopment Agency, which spent $5,463,000 to acquire the Vine Street site, is selling it to Pacifica Ventures for $825,000.

Agency officials say the firm's proposed $57-million, eight-story, glass-sided office building will eliminate an eyesore along a revitalized, trendy stretch between Hollywood and Sunset boulevards.

Kiok Yi, the operator of Molly's Burgers, has hired a lawyer in hopes of blocking the sale.

Attorney Robert P. Silverstein said the redevelopment agency itself has issued a report concluding that Molly's is eligible for designation as a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Landmark. He contends the agency's bargain-basement resell price "constitutes an unconstitutional gift of public funds."

The redevelopment agency — which said it also has set aside $120,000 to relocate Molly's — disagrees.

"People have to understand the numbers," said Neelura Bell, the agency's Hollywood project manager. "We didn't just back into this. We looked at the reasonable return to the developer" to calculate the "fair reuse value" of the property.

In exchange for the low price, Pacifica Ventures will be required to rent office space only to entertainment-oriented businesses for five years, Bell said.

"We're trying to revitalize Hollywood," she explained.

Critics of the deal say redevelopment officials are in fact rewarding a company that has contributed to the so-called runaway production that is damaging Hollywood.

Pacifica Ventures' primary business is the development and operation of soundstages and back lots. It runs a large production facility in Albuquerque and has negotiated to build others in Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

The firm seeks tax incentives and other financial assistance from local officials as a prerequisite to development.

"To get any kind of project going today, it has to be a public-private partnership," said Hal Katersky, Pacifica's chairman. "Every project we do has government involvement or it doesn't take place."

Katersky said he envisions one to three entertainment industry tenants in the Vine Street building. Pacifica has described it as having "every amenity and technological feature a cutting-edge digital production studio could ever need."

He does not see his company's out-of-state soundstages as contributing to Hollywood's job-export problem. He said his firm merely goes where filmmakers want to work.

"We are opportunistic developers," Katersky said. "We don't determine where they go."

Katersky said he would welcome Molly's as a tenant in planned first-floor retail space: "We're more than happy to have them."

Preservationists want the stand to remain as is.

At a City Council session earlier this month, supporters joined Molly's owner Yi and her son, James, in pleading that the stand be saved.

Councilman Eric Garcetti, who represents the Hollywood area, said the city has attempted to find a nearby alternative location for it.

He asked that approval of the office project be delayed until the historic nature of Molly's is examined further. The council is expected to take up the stand's "disposition and development agreement" on Tuesday.

According to some, Molly's has history on its side. Originally opened in 1929 as part of a Richfield gas station, the stand was initially called Mom's Place. In the 1950s, its name was changed to the Curb Charbroiler. The Molly's name dates from the 1960s.

Historian Charles Fisher, who has worked with the Los Angeles Conservancy and the Heritage Coalition of Southern California, said the burger stand is "a rare fairly intact example of a post- World War II roadside diner" and is "emblematic of its time and place in mid-20th-century Hollywood."

Still, Molly's lunchtime crowd is braced for the worst.

"No matter how tall they make a new building here, this will never be New York, and it shouldn't be. This is California," said musician Lanny Morgan as he nibbled at a cheeseburger and fries.

"I've been coming here 30 years," he said. "I knew this place wasn't going to last — I could see this coming. Look around you at all of the new development. This place is a greasy spoon."

"Why do they have to put a new building here? A place like this brings character and makes an area like this a neighborhood," said Mike Lloyd, who works at a nearby music company.

A couple of stools away, Dutch tourists Norman Verhagen and Nanda Christis were in agreement.

"I think Hollywood has changed for the better from the first time I was here," Verhagen acknowledged.

"But get rid of this? It's a pity."

bob.pool@latimes.com

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