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Sunset Strip 'MegaGym Videotron' Monstrosity Goes to WeHo City Council for Final Approval

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Fri, Aug 5, 2011 at 1:00 PM

click to enlarge The Sunset Strip apocalypse, on steroids. - GENSLER
  • Gensler
  • The Sunset Strip apocalypse, on steroids.
How to describe Centrum Sunset, the 51,000-square-foot project proposed for the mostly vacant, borderline-blighted lot at 8801 Sunset Boulevard, former site of the historic Tower Records building?

West Hollywood planning commissioners gave it their best shot at public hearings on July 7 and August 4:

"Iconic." "Videotron." "Curvilinear... is a term I think was used." "Shaped like an homage to old records." (Really?)

A row of city staff, sent to pitch the project to commissioners by the build-build-build WeHo City Council, were more generous:

"The architectural language employed in the facades is contemporary modern." "Bands that undulate and curve." "Cool silver-gray palette" where the only "warm tone is the use of wood veneer finish, visible from below."

And the architects who birthed this Frankenstein, traveling east from Santa Monica firm Gensler (same 2,800-employee giant recently offered $1 million by the L.A. mayor to design the NFL stadium proposed for downtown) took the circle jerk a giant leap further:

"Compelling, dynamic, exciting curvilinear form." "This is a perfect example of how signage can be perfectly integrated into the architecture." "The design commission said it was whimsical, and we support that articulation."

Hoorah! Opponents of the project, in various states of hyperventilation, had a somewhat harsher take:

"I do not want to be living in the next to Hollywood and Highland." "Big does not mean beautiful." "A threatening cloud over our beloved Sunset Boulevard." "Not timeless -- merely a facade for video advertising." "Offensive." "Massive, cheesy, Ginza-like structure."

David Barton, who owns the gym chain slated for the second story of the three-story beast, paraded around the July 7 meeting in a floor-length fur and some offshoot of a mohawk -- appealing to residents and commissioners with his raspy brand of cool. ("If he isn't Sunset Boulevard, I don't know what is," commissioner Lauren Meister admitted last night, though she still has many reservations about the project.)

Barton even screened the following video on an overhead projector, polarizing those in lust with the Vegas-meets-Boystown aesthetic with those still trying, in vain, to make a quiet home on the skinny steets that shoot off the busy intersection:

Yeah. You get the picture. ("That film promoting the gym made it look like a brothel, and I dont want to live next to a brothel," said WeHo resident Sally Carrocino last night. "You can spin this any way you want, but in my book it spells W-H-O-R-E.")

Barton's exercise empire, currently $65 million in debt, charges in the thousands for yearly membership fees, and has a somewhat naughty reputation of throwing vodka parties and, uh, letting the locker room get sticky.

But luckily for Barton, he's dear friends with project developer Sol Barket of Centrum Properties, who promised last night to skeptical onlookers that Barton's bankruptcy filing was only for "organizational" purposes, and that "we will finance him" if the need be. A sharply dressed rep for a $20 billion finance company then stepped to the mic for extra support, saying he was "strongly and firmly behind Sol" and squeaking in a complement to the architects, to boot: "I'm hoping that in the future, people will point to [this] as an example of how to tastefully incorporate signage into a project." (Please, god, no.)

Why such confidence, one might wonder, in a multi-million dollar, four-year construction deal, smack dab in the middle of the Great Recession?

The answer is in those 2,000-square-foot ribbons of video billboard -- undulating goddesses or '90s interpretation of what the future might look like, depending on which side you're on. They're expected to generate $4.5 million, or half the revenue of the entire building, which -- in addition to the Barton doozy -- will house business offices on the third floor and retailers on the first.

City code prohibits this many new billboards on the Strip, and doesn't allow for them to contain moving video images. The way Barket has dodged this roadblock to his big expensive dreams, so far, is to count all four signs as one, and design them so that the image is still, just moving horizontally along the ribbons.

See what he did there?

click to enlarge Tower Records, blinged in billboards. - WEHO NEWS
  • WeHo News
  • Tower Records, blinged in billboards.
And all along, his loudest point of argument has been: It's not as bad as the rogue, 5,000-square-foot Tower Records billboards that terrorized the neighborhood until Tower was forced to take them down.

True -- but at least those had character. In the words of a Larrabee Street resident during public comment: "Signage at Tower Records was created by local artists, and was not LED billboards glaring into the eyes of residents and motorists."

At the first planning-commission meeting on July 7, the room was overflowing. Elyse Eisenberg, the West Hollywood resident who's been most involved in fighting this project's deficiencies, told us she had never seen anything like it. (Or anything like the project's crushing, 800-page environmental impact report, distributed only days before the first hearing.) Dozens of newfound activists stood up to explain how the building's entrances and exits on Sunset and Horn would create an absolute clusterfuck at the already strange intersection, and how Barket's promised 238 parking spaces, some trindle-tandem, wouldn't begin to handle demand.

However -- last night's turnout, in comparison, was meek. And by 10 p.m., the commission was so tired of sending back the 8801 Sunset plans for design overhaul, and getting minor tweaks in return, that they made a decidedly pansy move:

They issued a passive-aggressive half-endorsement of the project, with a "laundry list" of things that still sucked about the plan (yes, they themselves called it that), then passed it onto West Hollywood City Councilmembers.

The same three councilmembers, plus one new face, who have never rejected an opportunity to collect development profit in their lives. (See: "West Follywood: How a progressive town founded on renters' rights and diversity ended up gridlocked, angry and elitist.") And there's no way in hell they'll shrink the footprint of the video advertisements, despite the weak "recommendation" of the commission to do so, seeing as it'll make them half a million per year in city taxes.

Barket & Co. walked away slightly confused last night, not sure whether to hit the town for a round of victory drinks or go egg some houses on Larrabee Street. But we can assure you, Sol: After four years of pesky community negotiations, your cash cow of a tacky metropolis is as good as sold.

[@simone_electra/swilson@laweekly.com]

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