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High-rise planners do the Hollywood ruffle

Residents are livid over L.A. commission's proposed zoning changes that could make it easier to erect skyscrapers in the heart of Tinseltown. Mayor Villaraigosa has called it 'elegant density'; one neighbor calls it 'the rape of Hollywood.'

December 25, 2011|Steve Lopez
  • Critics of the plan say the high-rises will block views, throw shadows and obscure the landmark Capitol Records building.
Critics of the plan say the high-rises will block views, throw shadows and… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

If this is the season to be merry, many residents of Hollywood did not get the memo. Instead, they got a community development plan they look upon as their very own nightmare before Christmas.

It happened earlier this month, when the Los Angeles City Planning Commission approved zoning changes that could make it easier to erect skyscrapers in the heart of Hollywood, forever changing the scale of a historic neighborhood with international cachet. They say the high-rises will block views, throw shadows and obscure the landmark Capitol Records building, and make already unbearable traffic even worse.

The Hollywood Community Plan, headed to the City Council in a month or two for review and consideration, fits with what L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has called "elegant density," accommodating expected population growth by building mixed-use projects around transit hubs. And there is definitely something to be said for so-called smart growth, offering residents the option of using transit instead of cars.

But some Hollywood residents are livid about this particular plan. I asked to meet with a few of them, and 16 people — all but a couple of them from the neighborhood — showed up for a Thursday morning coffee klatch at Solar de Cahuenga in Hollywood. They marched in like an infantry division, armed with stacks of planning documents, artists' renderings, written denunciations by neighborhood groups and records of developer contributions to city politicians.

Elegant density?

"What you're talking about is the rape of Hollywood," said a spitting mad Sarajane Schwartz.

Like others, she considers the plan a license for developers to virtually have their way, with more access to taxpayer handouts through the Community Redevelopment Agency.

"What we have is no plan at all," said George Abrahams. "Let us build a tower unto heaven. That's the CRA plan."

Crosby Doe scribbled a message on his business card and handed it to me. "This is not a planning document," he wrote, "but rather a development rights Ponzi scheme!!"

Hyperbolic?

Yeah, a bit. And to be honest, I wondered as I drove to Hollywood if I was in for a NIMBY powwow. Hollywood is an international destination, after all, and living nearby means putting up with some of the mania. Also, if L.A.'s population does grow, where better to put people than near transit and commercial zones?

But I heard a lot of legitimate objections at the meeting, from little things to broader philosophical questions.

Dick Platkin, a former Los Angeles city planner, challenged the logic of erecting mega-projects to propel growth. What if you build and nobody comes? He also warned that the Hollywood plan could become a template that leads to less vigorous review of projects across the city.

Hollywood residents wanted to know why City Hall is planning for a population explosion when, in fact, Hollywood's population has fallen by 6% in the last decade. And they'd like to know why City Hall is convinced that someone who shells out $500,000 or more for a high-rise condo is going to take the bus to work rather than drive.

What they want from City Hall, the residents say, is better basic services, less congestion and more open space. Not a blueprint for huge projects that could further deteriorate infrastructure and quality of life.

"The plan has some hollow words about protecting Hollywood's residential areas, but the facts do not support the words," says a letter "to whom it may concern" from the Hollywood United Neighborhood Council. "Residential areas cannot maintain their value in the face of horrible traffic congestion, excessive density, and increased crime, reduced fire protection, a deficient and underfunded police force, and a crumbling infrastructure."

Councilman Eric Garcetti, who represents the bulk of Hollywood (Councilman Tom LaBonge has the rest), argued that the city isn't trying to create growth but intelligently prepare for it as Los Angeles evolves in the decades to come. He thinks of Hollywood's recent changes as part of a success story, the seedy neighborhood of the 1980s and '90s coming alive with mixed-use projects and more attractions. The new Hollywood Community Plan can build on that success, and Garcetti said it has the support of many residents as well as the business community.

In some cases, he said, it may be better to put 200 residents into a high-rise that takes up a quarter of a block, reserving the rest of the block for a park or plaza, than to put 200 residents into a low-rise that squats across the entire block. But he doesn't see the Hollywood plan as a finished document. He said he's willing to negotiate with critics when the matter comes before the City Council, even if he can't answer all the demands.

The folks I met with are ready to do battle but fear they're up against powerful forces in a fight they can't win. And they don't consider recent changes in Hollywood to be for the good. They don't go to the velvet-rope nightclubs, and they certainly don't go to Hollywood & Highland, the commercial abomination that stands as a centerpiece of the new Hollywood.

People who come from across the country and around the world don't want to see a modern colossus like that, argues Doug Haines of the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council. Nor do they care to see a field of Manhattan-style skyscrapers that block views of the hills and the Hollywood sign. A better way to celebrate and improve the neighborhood, Haines said, is to restore and preserve the old Hollywood rather than erect a glitzy new one that serves neither its residents nor its history.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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