Babylon revisited

After false starts, H'w'd plans latest revitalization

The Hollywood Boulevard of dreams: a mecca for moviegoers, of renovated movie palaces and new state-of-the-art cinemas. Bistros and supper clubs would replace the clutter of T-shirt and souvenir shops.

And lining the great way would be video screens and tickers, on a street so pedestrian-friendly that it could be likened to Times Square on New Year’s Eve. With a bit of luck, the Oscars will return to the street, in a new customized venue built less than a block from where the famed ceremony debuted, at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

Haven’t we heard this all before?

But after years, even decades of false starts, Hollywood boosters finally see the stars aligned. With a combination of a healthy economy, city support and developer interest, they’re bullish on the prospects for ridding the area of its seediness.

Giving even more hope is the revived Times Square in New York — an example that it can be done. “They were in far worse shape than Hollywood got to be,” notes Phyllis Caskey, president of the Hollywood Entertainment Museum, open almost a year.

Perhaps most encouraging has been a drop in crime: Aggravated assaults dropped 17% from 1994 to 1996, compared with 14% citywide; property crimes fell 25%, compared with a 17% drop citywide. Hotel occupancy has been at 73% in the past two years, one of the highest in the county. And city and business officials say they get a steady stream of calls from investors interested in the street. Says Terry Jorgensen, president and CEO of the Bank of Hollywood: “This is our best chance, our only chance.”

City officials already see victory in those businesses that they have kept in the area, namely Capitol Records and Panavision. Other bright spots include the restoration of the Egyptian Theatre, virtually destroyed in the 1994 earthquake, now due to open in spring of 1998 and to house the American Cinematheque.

“It is not where it needs to be,” says Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, whose district covers the area. “But it is a hell of a way from where it was.”

More is on the drawing boards, projects badly needed to give the estimated 9 million annual tourists a reason to stay beyond a 15-minute visit to the famous footprints of the Chinese Theater.

Almost all of the plans are tied in some way to the street’s rich history, whether with grand walkways inspired by movie sets or with subway stops themed to the golden age of Tinseltown.

Among them Hollywood Spectacular, a large-format theater and entertainment complex, fronted by giant funky letters spelling “HOLLYWOOD,” is proposed on the west side of Mann’s Chinese Theater. A Wisconsin-based insurance company recently poured an estimated $9 million into the restoration of the El Capitan building, located next to the El Capitan Theatre.

Soon to open is the 9,000-square-foot Garden of Eden restaurant, a supper club at the corner of Hollywood and La Brea. Just a couple of blocks away, Pacific Theatres is exploring a new entertainment and movie complex around the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard.

Regent Properties is planning a new retail project near Hollywood and Vine Street to serve the surrounding neighborhood. The Nederlander Organization, owners of the Pantages Theatre, have been buying up nearby property, according to business leaders. And once again there are rumblings about bringing back the famed Brown Derby to the corner of Hollywood and Vine.

The most ambitious of projects is the so-called Hollywood and Highland project, a massive, $145 million entertainment and retail complex proposed by TrizecHahn Centers, one of the nation’s leading developers. The new complex would include a new 4,000-seat, 12-screen theater and a 1,000-seat venue to host film premieres. TrizecHahn is talking with major studios and entertainment brand names about locating retail or other venues in the glittering project.

At the helm of the development is David Malmuth, a former Disney executive who headed up efforts to revive the New Amsterdam Theater on New York’s 42nd Street. His latest endeavor, he says, “has the potential to be bigger and more dynamic.”

“There are not many urban experiences in L.A.,” Malmuth says. “What I want to create is a vital urban place, a place where tourists must visit when they come to L.A.”

The Hollywood Boulevard project would be built in conjunction with a new Red Line station, just across the street from Mann’s Chinese Theater. Mann’s — jointly owned by Paramount and Warner Bros. — would restore its classic theater and be a primary exhibitor in the new project. And discussions are now under way to even attract the Academy Awards with a new theater venue.

“You need to have a project big enough and strong enough that it starts to change people’s perceptions of the opportunities in the area,” Malmuth says.

If an agreement is reached between TrizecHahn, city officials and the Metropolitan Transit Authority to develop the site, the project could open in the year 2000. That would coincide roughly with the opening of a new Red Line station, itself themed to the entertainment business.

While Disney, Warner Bros. and Paramount have major investments on the street, city officials and business leaders acknowledge that studios as a whole are jittery about the boulevard, especially when measured up against Times Square.

“One of the biggest problems is there is not the right mix of stores,” says Leron Gubler, executive director of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. “You have 101 different T-shirt shops. The majors are sitting on the fence.”

Wariness among potential investors also comes from grand plans gone wrong in the past. “There is no project that can make or break the revitalization,” Goldberg cautions. “It is one step at a time.”

Through the years, grand new museums and shopping districts have been proposed for the boulevard, only to get little beyond the planning stages.

The TrizecHahn project would be built on some of the land that was to have been the site of the Hollywood Promenade, an even bigger development proposed in the late 1980s by Melvin Simon & Associates. But its size and scope galvanized neighborhood opposition which, along with a controversial city incentive package, delayed the proposal for years before it was eventually doomed by the recession.

Just a block from the Chinese Theater is one of the best examples of redevelopment failure: The Hollywood Galaxy, a theater and retail complex built in the early 1990s that still is virtually vacant, save for General Cinemas and the new Hollywood Entertainment Museum. “It’s very exciting, but also very lonely,” Caskey says. Like others, she sees a problem in perception. People often asked her why they were opening a museum in Hollywood and not the Westside.

“They were willing to write off Hollywood,” Caskey says.

The decline of the street goes as far back as the 1950s. The Walk of Fame, in part an attempt to keep the street vibrant when it debuted, nevertheless wasn’t enough to stop the decay. By the 1970s, it was clear that the street was only a shell of its former self, as department stores like the Broadway moved out and movie theaters went dark. Restaurants like the Hungry Tiger and Don the Beachcomber closed.

Business owners, it seemed, could do little to turn the street around. “We had a lousy mayor, a terrible councilman and absentee landlords who didn’t give a damn whether their tenants were porno shops or Bible bookstores,” says Jorgensen of the Bank of Hollywood.

“Unfortunately, what happens when the area declines and you have these false starts, you see this semi-competitive indoor sport of ‘Who is to blame?’ ” Goldberg says. “We thought that the first task was to remind people it doesn’t matter why it got that way.”

But for the controversy over the MTA, the political fray over Hollywood has died down for the time being. Mayor Richard Riordan has put the district at the top of his priority list, with members of his business team assigned the task of attracting and keeping merchants on the street. “We’ve had to start thinking of this as a citywide project rather than a council district 13 project,” says Deputy Mayor Rocky Delgadillo.

Some of the initial tasks Goldberg took when she came in in 1993 were to launch a program with the LAPD to clean up the nearby “Yucca corridor” residential neighborhood ridden with drug trafficking and slum apartment buildings. And she also sought to make it easier for businesses to get permits to upgrade their buildings. “They own property in one of the best known, best loved properties in the world,” Goldberg says. “I thought, ‘God, you have got to be able to make money off of this.”

It was late last year that business owners formally launched a so-called “business improvement district” on the street, with merchants along several blocks collectively paying $600,000 annually to pay for upkeep of the street and for a private security force.

The “Hollywood Entertainment District,” as it is called, is relying on a potpourri of city ordinances to clean the area up, ridding the boulevard of street vendors and illegal tour operators. (One ordinance, a ban of newsboxes that dates to the mid-1970s, hasn’t been enforced in so many years that city officials cannot even find the law in their books).

On a recent Friday, the district’s executive director, Kerry Harrington Morrison, surveys the progress of her latest mission: to convince the hodge-podge of tourist shops to take down their banners and A-frame signs, all in the name of cleansing the zone of some of its tackiness. They risk fines from the city if nothing is done.Just west of Mann’s Chinese Theater, she points out an old Great Western Savings sign: “That whole sign should be covered,” she says. As she goes down the street, she notices storefront windows with more than 10% of their space covered by a banner, also a violation. “It is not sexy and glamorous to deal with signs,” Morrison says. “But it will have one of the greatest impacts on the clutter of the boulevard.”

Such a “zero tolerance” approach is what renovators are aiming for in security as well.

Based in a backroom of vacant Hollywood Galaxy store space, green-shirted officers patrol the streets through the day and evening, making citizen’s arrests for everything from loitering to major drug crimes.

On this Friday, they apprehended one suspect for loitering on Highland Avenue near Hollywood High School. Officers believe the man was there to sell rock cocaine.

“We can’t get him on the big charge, so we got him on the smaller one,” says Rob Brockway, 30, a former Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy who grew up in the area. Initial reports in July showed that crime in the six-block stretch was cut by 50% over a period of three months. With that optimistic news, plans are now under way to expand the district even farther to the east, stretching from McCadden Place to Gower Street.

Safety first

Such safety issues will be essential in convincing potential investors in the coming months — not just the deep pockets but the smaller investors and existing landlords.

Early this month, the finishing touches were being put on Fine Threads Cafe, a small coffeehouse a half block south of the boulevard on Highland. The owners, Irma Vega and Regina Cotroneo, are investing $60,000 in the shop, which, amazingly enough, would be one of the few coffee houses in the area.

All dressed up

Their theme, like many others, draws on the past: The cafe is housed in the former tailor shop of Controneo’s father-in-law, a well known Hollywood costumer. Mannequins and design drawings will decorate the shop.

“It’s just getting started,” Vega says optimistically. “It’s just going to keep on coming.”

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