Can David Malmuth’s “urban destination entertainment center” save the Boulevard?

Wednesday, Dec 16 1998
It’s baaack.

After years of retrenchment and recriminations, and over $400 million in misspent and misdirected money, redevelopment is coming back to Hollywood Boulevard. A slew of new projects — totaling more than 3 million square feet of restaurants and stores, 4,000 movie-theater seats, half a dozen parking lots, and several hotels — have been approved or are on the drawing boards. In October, ground was broken on the centerpiece of the Community Redevelopment Agency’s ambitious plans: a $388 million "urban destination entertainment center" that will surround Mann’s Chinese Theater and sprawl over eight and a half acres at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue.

Bigger than the Getty Center, bigger than downtown’s new Staples Arena, bigger than the proposed (and much-reviled) Village Center in Westwood — the biggest development, in fact, to be built in Los Angeles for the last 15 years — it is the brainchild of David Malmuth, the young and polished developer credited, while working for Disney, with pulling New York’s Times Square out of the gutter and into the glitter. The CRA is betting $90 million in public funds that Malmuth’s newest creation, called "Hollywood and Highland," will spark a similar revival of the long-faded boulevard.

Malmuth plans to wrap what is essentially a mall in "the magic name and magic image of Hollywood." Hollywood and Highland’s first tenant is Oscar, who will be presented at the mall’s Premiere Theater in the March 2001 broadcast of the Academy Awards. From the mall’s central plaza, a reproduction of the Babylonian Court set from D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic Intolerance, to the stores, each themed in homage to moviedom, Hollywood and Highland will be a monument to the Hollywood that exists foremost in the expectations of the tourists who wander the boulevard in search of it. "We have before us a historic opportunity," Malmuth told the audience at a zoning hearing, "to create that place that begins to fulfill the expectations of what Hollywood can be."

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"Hollywood and Highland will serve as our Empire State Building and Eiffel Tower," adds musician-entrepreneur Quincy Jones, who recently signed a deal to open music-showcase venue Q’s Jook Joint at the site.

Hollywood and Highland is the first and most important of three "mega-blocks" of development that, in the CRA’s thinking, will eventually make the entire milelong stretch of glass-flecked asphalt running from La Brea Boulevard east to Vine Street (and down to Sunset) swarm with commerce. "Hollywood Boulevard will be filled with traffic," enthuses City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, the doyenne of all this growth and the political muscle behind Hollywood and Highland’s massive public subsidy. "Nothing would please me more than a traffic jam on Hollywood Boulevard."

If all this sounds familiar, it should. In the 1980s, developers unveiled one big project after another — the Hollywood Promenade, the Hollywood Urban Village, the Hollywood Galaxy — each based on the retail-entertainment center concept, each promising to "put the sparkle back in Tinseltown," as the headlines of the day read. But that formula — what former CRA architect John Kaliski disparagingly calls "single-entity redevelopment designed to make all boats rise" — met with disastrous results the first time around. The Promenade and the Urban Village fell to the recession, while the slick, space-age-design Galaxy — the only one of the much-ballyhooed projects to materialize — today sits half-empty, a monument to redevelopment gone awry.

By the early 1990s, Kaliski and others were promoting a different kind of neighborhood revival, what Kaliski calls "ground-up incrementalism." What Hollywood needed, according to this line of thinking, was not big blockbusters, but a more intensive, block-by-block, storefront-by-storefront restoration, coupled with better basic public services such as police patrols, street cleaning and parking. The restored El Capitan Theater, the new Panavision headquarters on Selma, and the American Cinematheque’s new home at the refurbished Egyptian Theater — and the restaurants clustering around it, including the outré Les Deux Cafés and hep impresario Sean MacPherson’s latest — are all examples of this sort of "ground-up" revival. The CRA’s return to the blockbuster arena comes, ironically, just as this piecemeal revival is taking hold.

The clash of philosophies raises some important questions: Can the two modes of redevelopment exist side by side, in harmony? Will they, in fact, complement one another, as Goldberg believes, the big splash of Hollywood and Highland rippling down the boulevard in miniwaves of development? Or, as critics fear, will the development have the opposite effect? Even if Malmuth’s mall does achieve Universal CityWalk–like success, separating tourists and locals from their money by the truckload, will its sheer size and elaborately themed concourses and arcades drain from the rest of the boulevard what little economic life has taken root there? Laid end to end, after all, Hollywood and Highland’s 1.2 million square feet of shops, food courts, cinemas and hotel suites would stretch for ä over a mile of storefronts — the equivalent, in other words, of the distance from La Brea to Vine.

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