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Small City, Big Plans 

West Hollywood struggles through the chaos of reconstruction

Wednesday, Apr 5 2000
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Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

West Hollywood has long been a microcosmic theater of cultural, social and spiritual evolution, where the dynamic play of past, present and future blend into a city-community with an inscrutable flair for reinvention. Travel the sinuous western span of Sunset Boulevard and you’ll see some of Southern California’s most renowned, trendiest restaurants, clubs and hotels, while the Formosa Café — watering hole of choice for the rich, famous and infamous — Barney’s Beanery and the Troubadour are time-honored establishments on and around Santa Monica Boulevard, a portion of which was the terminal leg of the 2,400-mile "Mother Road"— Route 66.

A progressive social and political agenda, savvy, activist leadership, and a diverse, slowly expanding demographic base has transformed what was some 40 years ago a diminutive trolley-stop town in the shadow of snooty Beverly Hills, into a vital, nationally recognized urban enclave with a thriving community, where the average annual household income is just shy of $40,000. Tolerance has always been an integral part of the spiritual fabric of West Hollywood, from its earliest days as a friendly hangout for hippies and a haven for homosexuals, who were systematically harassed in other parts of L.A. by the upright, heavy-handed goons of law-enforcement vice squads. Its substantial gay and lesbian population is a formidable political constituency, and it was the first city in the country to declare Yom Kippur a legal holiday. The "Gay Camelot," as it was touted long ago, has come a long way since incorporating in 1984, and at the onset of a new millennium, is embarking on yet another exercise in transformation.

Last August, West Hollywood began the most ambitious public-works project in its 15-year history. Under a glaring summer sun on San Vicente Boulevard, the groundbreaking ceremony for the Santa Monica Boulevard Reconstruction Project took place, punctuated by the requisite fanfare, photo ops and speeches. Present were city and project staffers, residents, council members and County Supe Zev Yaroslavsky. The 18-to-24-month undertaking will cost the city $32 million, and will convert the heavily traveled 3-mile stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard from La Brea Avenue to Doheny Drive into a world-class urban Main Street that’s attractive, pedestrian-friendly, safe and a representative image of the city.

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One of those in attendance on that summer afternoon was longtime resident and 10-year City Councilman Sal Guarriello, who was mayor of West Hollywood at the time when the project was in the nascent stages of planning three years ago. Guarriello was instrumental in negotiating the complex thicket of bureaucratic workings that resulted in the transfer of ownership of Santa Monica Boulevard from the state of California Department of Transportation to the city of West Hollywood in early 1999, a change of title that allowed reconstruction of the boulevard by West Hollywood itself. The state also kicked in nearly $9 million for the project. Guarriello has lived in West Hollywood for 36 years and says the makeover was long overdue.

"The street was terrible," Guarriello states in a tone tinged with disgust. "There were potholes and cracks all over the place, and in all the time I’ve lived here, the boulevard had never been resurfaced."

After reviewing the submitted bids, the contract was awarded to La Habra Heights–based Shawnan, a company with an impressive résumé of public-works projects in Southern California, including the Port of Los Angeles and John Wayne Airport. Shawnan was also the city’s contractor for the Fountain Avenue Roadway and Traffic Signal Reconstruction Project. Improvements planned include: re-paving the boulevard, expanding the sidewalk, adding new crosswalks and a bike lane, such pedestrian convenience enhancements as curb and gutter access ramps for wheelchairs, narrowing of the central median, planting more than 1,000 new jacarandas and evergreens, and landscaping areas for buses. A public-arts program is also in the works, and the city plans to erect a Veterans Memorial on the triangular plot of land at the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Olive and Holloway drives. But the bright sun that shone that summer day when the project was started soon began to go into eclipse — symbolically, that is.

For last year’s Halloween parade celebrants, the realities of massive change and upheaval were already noticeable. The parade, one of several held yearly, is a no-holds-barred WeHo tradition and always draws thousands of people, while raising big revenues for the city. This time around, the grassy center median, customarily an inviting place for people to hang out during the festivities, had been transformed into a forbidding dirt trench that bisected the boulevard, causing a crowd crunch in some of the adjacent areas, where pedestrian traffic became increasingly gridlocked. "I’ve been coming to these things ever since they started," said one attendee, "but this year it seems far more crowded. It’s a lot like the stand-still strangulation at Mardi Gras in New Orleans."

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