A few weeks ago, on a chilly Thursday evening, Chris Shabel, a gray-haired woman with a quick smile, slowly shuffled into Studio 3 at the old CBS TV-and-radio complex at 6121 Sunset Boulevard, with the help of a high-end stroller that doubled as a portable chair. Over the years, the longtime Hollywood community activist has survived five heart attacks, two strokes and countless numbers of boring cocktail parties thrown by real estate developers who hoped free gin-and-tonics would win her allegiance.
Illustration by Jack Balingit
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Loose-tongued: Though often ill, persistent activist Chris Shabel is seen as dangerous at City Hall
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Council President Garcetti: "I haven't, in public or private, supported the project."
Tonight’s invite-only affair was no different, although the money men and their assistants kept a tense distance from her — even at 74, Shabel has the reputation of a troublemaker who defends against the push and roll of big developers by leaking embarrassing stories to the press.
Shabel, dressed in a black jacket and red blouse, stopped shuffling and took a seat on her stroller in the middle of the studio, which had recently served as the living room for the starry-eyed cast of MTV’s Real World Hollywood. All of the sleek furniture and doodads were gone. Instead, several easels propped up poster-size drawings of a reportedly $850 million project at the site where Shabel now enjoyed a cocktail — the abandoned West Coast home of CBS, also known as Columbia Square. In the corner stood a balsam-wood model of the future, but no one was allowed to take pictures of it.
Shabel was soon joined by other neighborhood people, dressed up in jackets and ties and evening dresses. Some of them greeted her, shared a few stories and ate fancy concoctions wrapped in bacon as they stared at the modernist artist’s renderings of a 40-story skyscraper and 14-story office tower with spotlights piercing the Hollywood sky.
“I’ve always found,” Shabel said at one point, with her slight British accent, “that if you have a cocktail party before the project is completed, it usually spells trouble. Almost none of them end up going through.”
Shabel giggled at her own time-tested wisdom and looked around the room, as if hoping the developers and their small army of consultants had heard her soft-spoken warning.
Apparently, they didn’t. Mark Cassidy, president of Molasky Pacific, one of the Las Vegas–based developers of the proposed megatower at Columbia Square, continued schmoozing with various important-looking men, and his hired guns kept shaking hands. It was a night of reintroduction, after all, to remind a few dozen selected guests that the deep-pocketed folks behind the quiet plan for Hollywood’s first true skyscraper, and by far the area’s tallest structure ever, had not gone away.
If everything went according to plan, Columbia Square would be the largest and most expensive mixed-use project ever in the area. And much of the groundwork and lobbying would be over long before the general public heard a thing about it.
In keeping with the underground nature of the towering project, which would forever alter the skyline and obscure the Hollywood sign for thousands of people, the official Web site for Columbia Square — 6121sunset.com — says almost nothing, other than hailing the plan as “a classic Hollywood landmark updated for the 21st century.” A few futuristic drawings are posted, and there’s a standard mission statement of sorts, but the “project facts” section is gibberish, an alien code not intended to encourage civic debate.
Molasky Pacific and its partner, Apollo Real Estate Advisors, obviously want it this way. In Los Angeles, where developers have long held sway over a 15-member City Council that rarely says no to massive new projects, it is key to keep the public out of it as long as is legally possible. And it’s why loose-tongued people like Chris Shabel can be dangerous — secret, ugly truths may rile the public and stir up political problems for the council members, each of whom oversees one of 15 separate, incredibly influential fiefdoms and who all but control the lay of the land.
The skyscraper’s developer, Mark Cassidy, suddenly withdrew from a scheduled interview with the L.A. Weekly, thought better of that, and set it up again — then called it off for a second
time. No reason was offered, but the timing of the events coincided with his discovery that Shabel was talking to the Weekly. (Cassidy, however, chatted with me for a few moments at the cocktail party, with both his lawyer and his flack close by.)