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Should Hollywood Be Skyscrapers? 

L.A. developers seek yet another Century City

Thursday, Jan 12 2012
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Los Angeles city councilman and mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti's dream to re-create Hollywood as a density-lifestyle "regional center" featuring skyscrapers cleared a big hurdle last month when the city Planning Commission unanimously approved its concept to dramatically remake Hollywood's skyline.

The vote should have been an upbeat event for Garcetti. He has long promoted his belief in heavy population density for L.A. neighborhoods, embracing a botched attempt by city planners to permit granny flats in backyards, backing a "density-bonus" reward that lets developers erect outsized luxury complexes banned by zoning as long as the developer includes a handful of cheap rental units.

But instead of earning accolades, the Hollywood Community Plan has faced a slowly stewing backlash.

click to enlarge Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti
  • Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti

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First, several hundred Hollywood residents attended two big November meetings at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, where a majority was shocked to hear the broad strokes of the Planning Department's proposed Hollywood Community Plan for the first time. Then, at the December Planning Commission meeting, Hollywood residents were forced to wait hours to speak, and their views were finally summed up by Fran Reichenbach, president of the Beachwood Canyon Neighborhood Association: "Whenever you hear someone say 'upzoning,' you should beware because it means 'Up yours!' "

After that, a flurry of news reports and opinion pieces questioned the logic of the plan, which some critics have dubbed the "rape of Hollywood." But for more than three weeks, Garcetti, who represents most of Hollywood and will play the single biggest role in whether the plan is adopted, was unavailable to comment to L.A. Weekly.

Now that the commission — all political appointees of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — has given its blessing to the densification of much of Hollywood, the plan goes to the City Council's Planning and Land-Use Management Committee, or PLUM, and then on to the City Council later this year.

Voting in lockstep in recent years, the council is expected to do as Garcetti wants.

The plan would give private developers, underwritten by public subsidies from the Community Redevelopment Agency, tremendous new latitude over the future of Hollywood and many of its distinct residential communities. (The fate of the CRA is uncertain, with a court ruling that such agencies must disband in California by Feb. 1.)

Garcetti‚ tracked down by the Weekly on an early January morning at his downtown office, insisted he was too busy to discuss the remaking of Hollywood, then agreed to give the Weekly a walking interview as he strode down a City Hall corridor.

"There's no set plan," Garcetti said. "No rush. Nothing's being jammed down people's throats."

Running for mayor and clearly stung by growing questions about whether skyscrapers are smart for Hollywood, Garcetti said, "Let me be clear, I have never [called it] 'elegant density.' The mayor said that."

His message isn't flying with some.

"I don't mean to denigrate Eric Garcetti," says East Hollywood Neighborhood Council member Doug Haines, "but to quote [another activist], 'Eric Garcetti has a planning background — he took one planning course, but it was the wrong one.' "

For decades, zoning that governs height and size has preserved thousands of affordable, low-slung, older apartments, bungalows and commercial buildings in Hollywood. Those zoning laws also have prevented a version of Westwood's Condo Canyon along Sunset Boulevard and halted massive overdevelopment in the city of West Hollywood from bleeding into Hollywood itself.

No real skyscrapers exist in Hollywood, with the two most prominent high-rises — the vintage Sunset-Vine Tower and Sunset Media — only standing about 20 stories tall. The iconic Capitol Records Tower is too short for skyscraper status, but New York developers want to erect two adjacent skyscrapers with luxury residences and hotel rooms comprising 1 million square feet, dubbed Millennium Hollywood, dwarfing Capitol Records.

The Hollywood Community Plan would pave the way for that, and more. In a radical departure from Los Angeles law, it would hand developers broad "by right" powers to build far higher and bigger than local zoning allows. And public hearings where people fight to keep their communities at a livable scale would be dispensed with in many instances.

Garcetti says taller is better because high-rise towers could free up land on the ground to create small green spaces, and the plan "down-zones certain parts and protects areas. Right now if you go to Hollywood, there are homes right next to apartment buildings. This plan stops that from happening in many neighborhoods."

But residents — many of whom have studied the Environmental Impact Report — say that's not true. Haines, for example, can think of only a couple of pockets singled out for the new protections in the "many neighborhoods" Garcetti cites.

"Height districts" in Hollywood have long limited commercial, retail or mixed-use buildings according to a specified floor-to-lot-area ratio, or FAR.

The floor-to-lot-area ratios on some sec- tions of Sunset and Hollywood boulevards would be doubled, from 1.5-to-1 to 3-to-1, or expanded even further, to 4.5-to-1. There would be no public hearings, preventing opponents from disputing these projects.

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