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Doomscraper? Here Comes Hollywood's First-Ever Mega-Skyscraper

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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Gregory Bojorquez

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Loose-tongued: Though often ill, persistent activist Chris Shabel is seen as dangerous at City Hall

Gregory Bojorquez

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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.)

 

So far, invite-only cocktail parties, an uninformative Web site and the delicate handling of activists and City Council President Eric Garcetti, whose fiefdom is the 13th District and spans much of Hollywood, seem to be working. Although a 40-story skyscraper will dramatically alter the Hollywood skyline, pull far more cars into an area that’s essentially inaccessible at rush hour, and loom incongruously over a historic district of early-20th-century homes, casting it into shadow most of the year, there hasn’t been much outcry.

None of the neighborhood people seems to realize the builder seeks to repeal a protective 45-foot height limit on the block, switching it to a "no-limit" district.

“I live in ‘downtown’ Hollywood,” says Maripat Donovan, who resides in a 1915 bungalow just east of Columbia Square on Harold Way and owns a large chunk of property nearby. “I know I can’t resist development. I want to work with the developer to create a project that’s good for the neighborhood.”

Brogan Lane, who owns the boutique hotel Villa Delle Stelle, which was built in 1911 and stands only a few yards from the proposed skyscraper, says simply, “I think the developers are doing a good job.” And Bob Blue, chair of the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council, throws out a standard line: “We’re waiting for the environmental-impact report.”

All of them carry a few misgivings about the project, but for the most part, they talk a highly respectful line. In a community like Hollywood, where outspoken activists reign, the good vibes are a minor miracle, reflecting Molasky Pacific’s very careful work.

City Council President Eric Garcetti must be happy. It’s his vision of a Manhattan-ized Los Angeles, filled with dense housing and high-rises that probably lured the Las Vegas–based developer to Sunset Boulevard in the first place. Often earning glowing press as a new-style politician, Garcetti wheels around town in an electric-powered 2001 Toyota Rav4 and fancies himself a leader of the sustainable movement, maintaining the squeaky-clean image of someone being above politics-as-usual. But in fact, he plays the land-development game just as slyly as past council members famed for the control they enjoyed over their roughly 250,000-person duchies, unveiling plans when the deal is all but cemented, or when prodded by the media to explain.

Columbia Square is a prime example, and his near-silence in public has helped the project steam along below the radar of Angelenos, without serious debate over what shape Hollywood, and its skyline, should take.

Ryan Ward

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Ted Soqui

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Sunblock: Shadows will envelop this cozy avenue near Gower if City Hall abandons a strict 45-foot height limit.

Sometime in the early spring of 2006, Ralph Horowitz, then co-owner of Columbia Square, met with representatives of Molasky Pacific. Horowitz and developer Larry Worchell had formed Sungow — the property stands on Sunset and Gower — to buy the land in 2003 for a reported $15 million from Viacom, CBS’s parent company. Now, Molasky Pacific was offering Horowitz and his partner $66 million — a staggering profit of $51 million for essentially doing nada with the old CBS complex and tattered city block for three years.

Horowitz says a swinging night out at a restaurant near Columbia Square had inspired him to buy the land, not any top-class insider information that property values on Sunset Boulevard might zoom into the stratosphere. “I met a waitress who gave me a good tip,” he recalls cheekily. “I then got laid, I woke up in the morning, and I felt lucky.”

For Molasky Pacific and Mark Cassidy, the reason to purchase Columbia Square from Horowitz was, “It’s a whole block.” Relaxing at last month’s cocktail party, dressed in a dark suit and holding a glass of red wine, he gushed, “You can do so much with it.” Especially in a town like L.A. Especially in a district whose ultimate land-use decisions are largely controlled by a pro-growther like Garcetti, a onetime suburbanite child of affluence now eager to turn large swaths of “his” district into a dense urban tableau.

Molasky Pacific, with the help of its partner, Apollo Real Estate, planned to restore the historic CBS studios as a salve to the public, and then stuff as many money-making features as possible into the proposed two towers on 4.69 acres: 100 condos and 380,000 square feet of offices in the 14-story building, and 300 condos, plus a hotel in the 40-story skyscraper, a pool, two helipads, a vast garage and probably more.

 

Molasky Pacific doesn’t fool around. Since 1985, a press release boasts, the Las Vegas company has “developed and acquired more than 20,000 multifamily units, 2.8 million square feet of retail space and 2,000 acres of raw land.”

Steven D. Molasky, whose corporate Web site shows a seemingly confident man in his mid-50s, with a bright, wide smile and thick, dark hair, owns the firm. He’s a Vegas rich kid, whose father is Irwin Molasky, a legendary developer the Las Vegas Review-Journal profiled as one of the “first 100 persons who shaped southern Nevada.” The elder Molasky studied at UCLA and moved to Las Vegas in 1951. He constructed Las Vegas’ first enclosed mall and high-rise office building, the well-known Bank of America Plaza. Irwin Molasky has such deep roots in Las Vegas, Clark County named a park after him.

In October 2007, though, Steven Molasky made the news when the Nevada State Contractors Board suspended his company’s license for owing seven subcontractors $1.2 million for work on a condo complex, which took a hit when the housing market slid. In February 2008, Irwin Molasky jumped into the mess and financially rescued his son, even as Steven’s pricey PR handlers were preparing their Hollywood cocktail event.

The Hollywood project’s genesis is a lesson in how massive developments — from Playa Vista on the Westside to the Grand Avenue Project downtown — take on an air of inevitability long before the broader citizenry is invited into the picture.

According to Molasky Pacific spokesman Brian Lewis, the firm took its audacious plans for Columbia Square to Garcetti’s people at a single meeting in May 2006. But public records show the developer met with Garcetti’s aides four times that spring. The encounters included a flurry of three meetings in a nine-day period in May, complete with a “site visit” at which Garcetti’s staff was present, on May 5. And there would be more meetings to come.

At the time, Molasky Pacific was working through its “due diligence” period, in which a developer researches a property before it makes a financial commitment. For decades in Los Angeles, knowing where the City Council member–cum–land-use czar stands on a project in his or her council district has been the first, and most crucial, stage of due diligence.

Throwing down $66 million on a whim and a guess about the council member’s intent simply doesn’t happen.

“The first thing you do [as a developer] is make sure your plan is in line with the council member’s vision,” says former City Councilman Art Snyder, an originator of the City Council’s closed-door, land czar–based culture, who served in the 14th District on the Eastside from 1967 to 1985. “Otherwise, you have a heck of a time getting it through the system.”

Snyder is too modest. In truth, major projects are almost impossible without the council member’s tacit approval. The fact that the council member usually has few, if any, credentials to make such sweeping decisions, spending much of his or her life as a teacher, cop or college lecturer, is irrelevant to his or her influence over the land in Los Angeles. “Unless the councilman says ‘no,’ you go ahead,” Snyder explains.

Jacque Lamishaw, a land-use consultant for more than 20 years, who advises developers on how to approach City Hall, agrees, explaining, “We’re telling [developers] that the do-all and end-all is your city councilman.”

Going into that first meeting in the late spring of 2006 with Garcetti''s people — he and his fellow council members often employ 20 or more loyalists, apiece, on the public rolls — Molasky Pacific must have felt confident. Although Garcetti’s spokeswoman, Julie Wong, this week strongly dowplayed his leadership of it, the councilman is a big backer of “smart growth” — a major shift toward more density that has at its center "transit-oriented development.” Its feature is compact, multistory, mixed-use housing projects to be erected within 1,500 feet of bus and subway lines citywide. The policies, embraced both by Garcetti and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, dramatically water down hard-won, protective zoning in almost every area of Los Angeles. (Click here to download a PDF of the map.)

Garcetti had also been talking up high-density projects on his own turf, like the W hotel at Hollywood and Vine, where a 296-room hotel, 350 apartments and 145 condominiums were planned. On May 5, 2005, Garcetti described the project on his blog as “truly impressive,” noting that 74 rentals were considered affordable housing. The other 421 were not.

“Eric is pro-development,” says Lamishaw. “If a project has affordable housing, he loves it even more.”

That same year, the Clarett Group, a firm known for high-rise development in Manhattan, was seeking to build a different project nearby: more than 1,000 rental units and 175,000 square feet of retail/restaurant space near the Pantages Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Frank Stephan, manager of the Clarett Group’s West Coast operations, told The Planning Report, “We booked a flight, flew out here, and sat down with Eric Garcetti and his staff.”

 

The congestion now shutting down Highland Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard, an outgrowth of the massive Hollywood & Highland project and other constant construction that has turned the district into a gridlocked destination point for urban hipsters, was not the focus of the 2005 meeting with Garcetti.

They did talk housing, 10 percent of which Clarett promised to set aside as affordable rentals. The other 900 or so apartments were expected to bring in “market-rate” rents — developer lingo for “not cheap” — in an area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, where about 60 percent of the residents are foreign-born, 16 percent have no education beyond the sixth grade, 83 percent are renters, and the median household income is just $24,074.

“Council President Garcetti has been extremely helpful,” raved Clarett in his interview. “He was supportive [of getting] City Council approval.”

Molasky Pacific was undoubtedly expecting the same kind of treatment. Firm president Cassidy wouldn’t comment on the specifics of its several meetings with Garcetti’s staffers. But on July 20, 2006, a few weeks after the crush of meetings in April and May, Kenneth Wynn, executive vice president of design and construction for Molasky Pacific — and brother of Las Vegas casino titan and hotel developer Steve Wynn — contributed $500 to Garcetti’s campaign chest.

Garcetti does not acknowledge that his team almost certainly gave the go-ahead to the Columbia Square skyscraper in the closed-door meeting two years ago. Yet Jon Perica, a veteran former zoning administrator at the city’s Planning Department, points out, “If Garcetti told them up-front, ‘No, it’s too big a project,’ the developer wouldn’t have moved ahead. That’s just too much money.”

Three months after the series of quiet meetings with Garcetti’s people, Molasky Pacific closed the $66 million deal for Columbia Square. Then, about eight weeks later, on October 16, 2006, television producer Jon Crowley posted rumors on his blog that the old CBS buildings would be torn down.

The very next day, Crowley, who writes at www.hollywoodthoughts.blogspot.com, received anxious e-mails from both council President Garcetti and Molasky Pacific officials, rebuffing his post. “Garcetti e-mailed me personally,” says Crowley, who works at Sunset Gower Studios.

It was a curious situation — a tiny blog read by just 30 people per day had set off a panic attack in the office of the busy and powerful City Council president. Clearly, Garcetti was standing on high alert.

Molasky Pacific then attended a meeting with Garcetti himself on Valentine’s Day, 2007, according to the developer’s spokesman Lewis. That apparently went well too. Several days later, in March, the firm sent an application to the city’s Planning Department for the project’s approval. It is said to take longer for a single Los Angeles homeowner to navigate the same system to build a backyard shed.

In the application, a little-known fact is buried in confusing, zoning-code jargon: A hard-won height limit of 45 feeet would be wiped out to allow a “no-limit” building, 922 percent taller than permitted.

It’s unclear why Garcetti won’t cop to his role as the overseer of development, along with the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, which currently has four cranes in the air above Hollywood. Maybe he’s uncomfortable peddling luxury giants while playing to his audience as a lefty lover of open space. Perica, who in the city''s Planning Department worked cases involving high-rise development, says of the stealth skyscraper, “A project that large is not even going to be submitted to the Planning Department if the City Council office isn’t behind it.”

Records from Molasky Pacific show that, in fact, Garcetti is closely involved. Besides his February 2007 meeting, the council president met personally with the firm in October 2007, and again in February 2008.

“I haven’t anywhere on the record supported that project — privately or publicly,” says Garcetti during a telephone interview with the Weekly. Molasky Pacific’s flack, Lewis, denies in an e-mail that the skyscraper is a done deal under the City Council’s land-use overlord culture: “City Council President Garcetti has not ‘signed on’ to the project. He has not expressed support at any of the meetings we have held with him.”

When informed of Snyder’s comments about how things really work in City Hall, Garcetti somewhat backtracks. “I certainly haven’t said, ‘Don’t build anything there,’ ” he says.

 

Robert Nudelman, a knowledgeable pro on the inner workings of City Hall and director of preservation issues at Hollywood Heritage, a feisty local group that’s saved numerous old buildings, notes it is standard procedure for a council member to appear, outwardly, to have no position on a project. “His silence speaks for itself,” Nudelman says.

Land-use consultant Lamishaw believes Garcetti’s refusal to admit he’s given any kind of nod to the Columbia Square project comes of political necessity. The 14 other council members, who operate in the same fashion — rulers of their fiefdoms when it comes to the land — rarely finger each other over the practice.

“He would just cause trouble for himself and the rest of the City Council,” Lamishaw says, if he let voters see how it works. Not just Garcetti, but “the other City Council members don’t want people to know they do that kind of thing.”

Lamishaw notes that Garcetti “needs to hold the cards close to the vest” so he can still have leverage and win a few “concessions” from the developers. Garcetti, in fact, says he handed over a list of “community benefits” to Molasky Pacific. They included affordable rents on 10 percent of the units, a set number of living-wage jobs during construction, Garcetti’s favored mix of live/work units, “green” buildings, “open plazas and parks,” and “adequate” parking. Most of these things, though, are not concessions. Affordable housing and parking are created by law — based on the size of the building — and a sculpture garden in a condo complex is not a park.

Yet the key issues likely to shock Angelenos the most — the sheer height of the skyscraper and its effect on the nearby historic community and Hollywood’s classic skyline — didn’t make Garcetti’s modest wish list.

With Garcetti apparently standing aside, and its application moving along, Molasky Pacific lastly geared up its outreach campaign for neighbors living within 500 feet of the proposed buildings — by law, the only Angelenos who must be notified at this point. The broader public, who might think skyscrapers in Hollywood are an atrocious idea that will create a toehold for more skyscrapers or ruin the recently revived district, typically don’t get invited into the loop until a deal is nearly unstoppable.

Members of the firm met with community leaders, hosted a “scoping meeting” at the Hollywood Presbyterian Church, attended a meet-and-greet in the neighborhood east of Columbia Square and invited selected guests to the cocktail party last month.

When the important meetings with the experienced suits from Las Vegas went down, Garcetti was noticeably absent, according to people who attended. A Garcetti staffer would show up — often his green, 23-year-old Hollywood field deputy Helen Leung, with a salary in the mid-$30,000s — but community activists say it seemed odd that the City Council president didn’t show. The proposed project, after all, rivals in height many downtown skyscrapers, and it is unlike anything Hollywood has seen in size, expense and potential congestion. (The area’s most prominent high-rises — the Sunset-Vine Tower, circa 1963, and the Sunset Media Tower, circa 1971 — are only about 20 stories tall and are seldom referred to as skyscrapers today.)

Garcetti insists, “I take my cues from the community.” But according to Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council chair Bob Blue, Garcetti has never personally contacted his group about the project. Still, Molasky Pacific doesn’t seem to be hurting in the PR game, although the developer hasn’t released a draft of its environmental-impact report, more than a year after filing its application with the City Planning Department. The environmental report will reveal all of the goodies the firm is seeking from the city — such as its plans to blow past existing height limits on Sunset Boulevard by 922 percent, any efforts to cut the required parking spaces to squeeze in more condos, or any plans to reduce the required open space between the sidewalk and the building. One City Hall insider describes the delay as “unusual.”

Recent, unverified rumors floated around Hollywood that Molasky Pacific planned to sell Columbia Square, handing off its project to yet another speculator. At the cocktail party, Mark Cassidy said this wasn’t true. “It’s never been on the market,” he said. “It’s unfounded.” The developer also said the “soft market” spurred by the burst housing bubble isn''t affecting the project. Maybe. But maybe not. Major projects are under intense fiscal pressure, even as the Villaraigosa administration continues to approve luxury buildings, needed or not. (See “Bitter Homes and Gardens,” L.A. Weekly, Feb. 29–March 6, 2008.)

In the meantime, the project exists only as a scale model, photographs of which are not allowed. Angelenos will learn the details of the stealthscraper only when it reaches the stage of environmental reviews and what passes, in Los Angeles, for “public hearings.”

 

Thanks to months of groundwork, the locals will almost certainly not fight it, at least not too hard. Ed Hunt, chair of the Planning and Land Use Management Committee for the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council, describes Molasky Pacific’s outreach as “pretty good,” and says, “so far, I don’t get any false notes.”

One key community meeting was the spring 2007 meet-and-greet, held at Maripat Donovan’s home on Harold Way, across the street from Columbia Square. The Community Redevelopment Agency designated her neighborhood of cozy bungalows a historic district soon after the 1994 Northridge earthquake caused the area extensive damage. Donovan helped turn the block around, and her work earned special notice from Garcetti during his January 26, 2006, State of Hollywood speech, citing her as a “one-woman redevelopment agency.”

In the tree-shaded backyard of Donovan’s 1915 “airplane” bungalow, Molasky Pacific representatives brought their easels and posters and gave a short presentation. At one point, Donovan says, a Molasky Pacific rep joked about hiring housekeepers to clean away the dust during a loud and dirty construction period of three to four years — barring delays common to skyscrapers. The crack didn’t go over well.

“That really bothered some people,” says Donovan, who’s also a board member on the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council. “One woman told him her health wasn’t a joke.” But no one came up afterward and said the project needed to be stopped. “I’d say 90 percent of my neighbors are for it.”

Down the block from Donovan, just a few houses to the west, Brogan Lane sits at the front desk of her boutique hotel, Villa Delle Stelle. Also a Neighborhood Council board member, she is dressed entirely in black, with a black bandanna wrapped around her head. Lane says, “We’re superexcited about the redevelopment of Hollywood. It’s time.”

Lane comes across as a tough, independent woman — “We make shit happen,” she says, “that’s our motto around here.” But the hotel owner wants to keep the feel and look of the historic neighborhood intact. “We want to preserve our little area here,” says Lane, a former wife of the late actor Dudley Moore, “and we’ll do whatever we have to do to preserve it.”

But in fact, the pressure to tear down her bungalow enclave once a skyscraper rises will be intense. Lamishaw, the consultant to developers, who has watched L.A. land transformations for three decades, says that once the height limit is blown, more skyscrapers will come. “The bungalows across the street are going to go,” she predicts. “You can save them for a while, but they’re going to go.”

In the mid-1980s, Ralph Bouwmeester, a civil engineer based in Barrie, Ontario, wrote his own computer software to study the ways in which tall buildings cast shadows. Since then, he has testified in court cases and consulted with developers throughout Canada and the United States.

When Bouwmeester heard that only a few people had begun asking questions about the shadows that the proposed side-by-side buildings at Columbia Square would cast over a large area, the classic views they would wipe out, and the long construction schedule that Hollywood’s first true skyscraper would require, he was surprised.

“You have those westerly winds coming off the ocean and heading into the basin,” says the tall-buildings expert, “so they may be in for quite a dusty period.”

But a more profound change in the microclimate would come from the huge shadows. Bouwmeester says that during the spring, summer and fall, a 40-story skyscraper and 14-story office building would throw “significant shade” on the historic district to the east. According to his calculations, the dark silhouettes would have a “1-to-1 ratio,” meaning the 447-foot skyscraper and 210-foot office building would cast 447-foot and 210-foot shadows.

Since the sun keeps moving, so would the largest man-made shadow created so far in Hollywood. By 3 or 4 p.m., Brogan Lane and her guests would not be enjoying the unique Southern California sunlight.

In Manhattan, affected New Yorkers would not only be informed in detail about the new darkness to befall their homes, offices and schools, but many would be calling lawyers and circulating petitions. Shadow wars, in cities accustomed to skyscraper developments, are a very, very big deal. But in mostly low-rise Hollywood, it’s an entirely new concept — and one that Garcetti’s office is not exactly advertising to the greater community.

 

The skyscraper would also obscure views of the Hollywood Hills for potentially thousands of residents to the south — including beloved views of the Hollywood sign.

“You get these tall buildings with big, very ugly signage blocking the views, the vistas of the Hollywood Hills and the Hollywood sign — all of the things that make Hollywood unique,” says Greg Williams, a producer and writer who has lived in Hollywood his whole life. “The Hollywood we’ve known is gone, and gone forever.”

Williams wrote the award-winning book The Story of Hollywood, which covers its long, storied history. His uncle operated a market in Hollywood — ”He delivered groceries to Jean Harlow,” Williams says — and he attended Hollywood High. For him, the Columbia Square monolith is yet another development that force-fits modern buildings into a unique area, with no thought for the past or the future.

“They’ve done almost nothing to complement the neighborhood,” explains Williams. “The Hollywood Historic District [as created by the CRA] is pretty much shot.”

Williams says it’s important for people to see the Hollywood sign without an obstructed view. “Looking at the Hollywood sign is like looking at the Eiffel Tower,” he explains. “It gives you a sense of where you are.”

Instead, Garcetti has just been doing what the past three City Council members have done before him, starting with Peggy Stevenson and continuing with Mike Woo and Jackie Goldberg. They’ve all allowed Hollywood to be developed in a thoughtless, too-intensive way.”

The Columbia Square tower affects far more than Hollywood. Residents far to the south, near Larchmont, live in just one area that will see the skyscraper instead of the Hollywood sign. Yet members of that area’s very active Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, including its 16-member board of business owners and residents, haven’t heard of it. “I’m not aware of the project,” says Elizabeth Fuller. Fellow member Russell Sherman also says he knows “nothing” about it.

Nor has any information yet seeped out about the expected mass congestion from the project.

During an August 6, 2007, “Hollywood Mobility Strategy Plan” meeting held near the Hollywood police station on Fountain Avenue, the Community Redevelopment Agency and some hired consultants acknowledged that Sunset Boulevard attracts even more cars than Hollywood Boulevard during rush hour. Robert Nudelman of Hollywood Heritage, who attended the Fountain Avenue meeting, says, “If you put up something as big as Columbia Square, it’s going to be catastrophic. And no one is going to use the subway. People who own condos don’t take public transit. They drive cars — and they probably own two of them.”

In fact, an obscure “traffic-impact study,” prepared by Fehr & Peers/Kaku Associates and reviewed by city transportation officials in March, says that eight of the 27 Hollywood-area intersections affected by the two towers’ thousands of commuters would be “significantly impacted” — a rating that signals mass congestion. Those intersections are: Argyle and Franklin avenues at the 101 freeway, El Centro Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard, Gower Street and Franklin, Gower and Hollywood, Gower and Selma Avenue, Gower and Sunset Boulevard, Bronson Avenue and Hollywood, and Bronson and Sunset. (Click here to download a PDF of the seven-page report.)

Three road segments also look grim, according to the study, including Selma east of Gower, Labaig Avenue between Selma and Sunset, and El Centro south of Leland Way. Yet neither Maripat Donovan nor Bob Blue, chair of the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council, has seen the report.

Garcetti holds a weird faith that rich urban dwellers will eventually ditch their cars to escape the gridlock, hopping on the subway or bus. He first insisted, during an interview with the Weekly at his City Council office downtown last July, that, “I’m not trying to get people permanently out of their cars.” But a few minutes later, he switched gears and rhapsodized about people in Hollywood “never having to get into their cars.” He said he admired the pedestrian-friendly “streetscapes” of London and New York City, and wanted Hollywood to build something similar.

A few weeks ago, Garcetti suggested that taller buildings, rather than wide ones, can “help you have more pedestrian space” — another subtle push for a new kind of Los Angeles, more like the Manhattan so admired by Garcetti, who grew up in Encino, a boisterous anti-high-rise community.

Garcetti’s theory that L.A. should go higher to promote pedestrian culture has some experts wondering what books he’s reading. “The issue of building tall rather than wide has nothing to do with a better pedestrian environment,” says Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor William Mitchell, a former dean of architecture and design at UCLA and Harvard and an expert in his field. “It’s a very simplistic strategy.”

 

Mitchell points to London and Paris — “two of the great pedestrian cities in the world,” he says — as places that clearly frown upon skyscrapers and instead focus on dense, low-slung offices and apartments with attractive streetscapes. “You don’t have to do it by building skyscrapers. That’s a scam.”

Mitchell also says, “If you think of urban space in East Coast terms — that’s not L.A. L.A. should build on its own qualities.” He cites one-story and two-story hangouts like the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, Melrose Avenue near the Fairfax District, the Venice Boardwalk and, of course, the beaches as examples of “some of the world’s great public spaces.”

As for Garcetti’s fondness for bringing some of Manhattan to Los Angeles, the MIT professor practically scolds the green-living Rhodes Scholar. “Some people can’t shake this East Coast envy,” Mitchell says, “which is immature, and [they] need to get over it.”

Just a few days ago, on April 22, the rumors of the land’s sale denied by Cassidy proved true. Molasky Pacific agreed to sell the red-hot land to co-developer Apollo Real Estate Advisors.

“Molasky Pacific asked us to buy them out,” says Dean Pentikis, a partner at Apollo, which is headquartered in Manhattan, with offices in L.A. and London. It boasts an “aggregate value” of more than $30 billion, with real estate nationwide and in Japan and Europe. Molasky Pacific president Cassidy says “internal talks” started in early March, around the same time as the cocktail party, where whispers of a sale were denied. While Cassidy and his consultants worked the shindig with hardy handshakes, the land sale was already in the works. Cassidy says, “It came down to if [the deal] was worth a dollar today as opposed to three or four dollars tomorrow. We went with today" and made a “little bit” of a profit on the sale.

Garcetti’s spokeswoman, Wong, says they got word of the deal while Garcetti was presiding over a City Council meeting. He later released this statement: “No matter who is the owner or developer of this project, I have the same concern: How is this going to impact the community, the environment and traffic?”

On a recent Monday afternoon, Chris Shabel, dressed in baby blue from neck to toe, prepares for another meeting of the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council. With the help of her stroller, she moves with care around her 1918 Craftsman home. She sits down on a chair in the living room and thinks about the lack of opposition to Columbia Square, especially by her own Neighborhood Council.

“I’m amazed,” she says quietly. “I feel 40 floors is humongous, and we’re not New York City. They do everything cockeyed. Here in L.A., it’s ‘let the developers develop — then we’ll do the infrastructure.’ ”

Shabel takes a second, and continues, “If you give [the developer] a [special waiver to ignore height limits], it sets a precedent for everyone to follow. And there’s no restraining the City Council.”

Shabel has never talked with Jon Perica, but if she did, she would hear his claim that in the past 10 years, not a single tall building proposed for downtown has been denied by L.A.’s 15 elected land-use czars, the Los Angeles City Council.

Only poor market conditions kept some of the structures from being built.

And if, for some reason, that happens with the stealthscraper at Columbia Square, owner Apollo, with its vast global connections, will probably have little trouble finding a buyer. In the eyes of many an East Coast developer with an appetite to expand west and build high, L.A. is seen as the new frontier. Just like generations ago, City Hall, this time with Eric Garcetti presiding, is more than willing to do business.

Contact the writer at pmcdonald@laweekly.com.


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