EVEN BY THE OUTSIZE STANDARDS of Hollywood nightlife, the proposed Shelter club is hard to overlook. From 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. daily, its 18,350 square feet will feature two dance floors, a mezzanine and a rooftop lounge. Designed by Philippe Starck, it will offer dining service, game rooms and street-level display windows for the work of local artists. If this makes Shelter a kind of nightclub emporium, the description is only fitting because the venue will occupy the old Antenna department store at 6363 Hollywood Blvd. The project is the latest outpost in an archipelago of upscale restaurants and clubs operated by 29-year-old Sam Nazarian, whose SBE group owns such hot spots as Prey, Privilege and Lobby, places whose very names evoke a new kind of Hollywood: nocturnal, feral — and expensive.
Shelter, which would not open until next year, is not merely an 800-pound gorilla politely ignored by Hollywood — it’s King Kong and everyone has an opinion about it. Especially its critics, who say that the weekend traffic generated by the club’s anticipated 1,300 patrons and staff will choke the golden goose that Hollywood’s resurgent nightlife has become for the local economy. On February 21 opponents packed a City Hall zoning hearing to dissuade the city from granting the club a conditional-use permit. They included club owners, neighborhood council members, Scientologists, the LAPD and preservationists. Supporting Nazarian’s club were members of the Hollywood Arts Council, senior citizens and Councilman Eric Garcetti’s planning deputy, Alison Becker. The scheduled half-hour hearing ran 90 minutes.
“We’re talking about a nightclub that will be the size of a department store, and therein lies the problem,” said Captain Ron Sanchez, commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Hollywood Division. Sanchez has emerged as the rejectionists’ most authoritative spokesman, a 180-degree position turn from his predecessor, Captain Michael Downing.
“The LAPD would never oppose a nightclub,” says Robert W. Nudelman of the Hollywood Division’s ancien régime. “Never. Ever.” Nudelman is Hollywood Heritage’s director for preservation issues and a Shelter opponent. Although the club site, built in 1938, is not an official landmark, Sam Nazarian says he will preserve its façade, while reinforcing the building with steel — the entire project is budgeted for about $15 million.
“This will be the new wave of Hollywood,” Nazarian says. “It is a new generation of venue — we’re not just building a nightclub, but making the space work for everyone. I know every club owner and club in Hollywood, and no one is making the commitment we are. We’re raising the bar.”
Last week Nazarian was about to leave town on a trip but was eager to discuss Shelter on the phone. From his rapid-fire litany of the hurdles SBE has cleared, emerged the frustrated tone of an impresario who has jumped through all the bureaucratic hoops only to be told it’s not enough.
“We’ve been working with the LAPD and Councilman Garcetti for a year and a half,” Nazarian says. “The majority of the outcry has only come from a consortium of owners who have their clubs on the market or are in a distressed situation.”
Tricia La Belle, who owns Boardner’s and is president of the Hollywood Nightclub Owners Association, denies her group fears a new player with deep pockets.
“We’re completely in support of Sam Nazarian,” she says. “The people Sam Nazarian will bring in are not my customers. Many of us don’t only own clubs, we live here in Hollywood. We need to table any more nightclubs until we balance nightlife with residential life.”
Even Shelter’s backers concede that its end of Hollywood Boulevard literally has a night-and-day character, with the boulevard teeming with life at night while resembling a ghost town during the day. SBE is trying to address this by reaching out to the Hollywood Arts Council and proposing that Shelter’s ground floor be donated to daytime programs involving schoolchildren, and for community meetings and public events. Critics say this is merely a cynical PR fig leaf thrown on at the last moment.
“We have to look at how many nightclubs they’re letting in,” says Chris Breed, the veteran Hollywood club owner (White Lotus, Cabana, Sunset Room). “It’s definitely nothing against SBE — Nazarian runs a good operation. [But] it’s such a big club. Is it business savvy to put another big club on the block when there’s no traffic moving and not even fire trucks can get through?”
The perfect-storm scenario involving traffic and parking, drawn by Shelter opponents, points to the 2,500 new housing units slated to be shoehorned into central Hollywood in mixed retail-residential schemes, which will add to the already gridlocked weekends. (Saturday valet parking can cost $30.) They also scoff at SBE’s contract for 181 parking spaces located behind the Pantages Theater, claiming that several other clubs have similar contracts for those same spaces. This overlapping of contracts, they allege, is a well-known end run around city requirements that compel new club operators to show proof of a parking contract.
SBE, which will not construct an underground parking structure beneath Shelter, counters with a plan that includes three valet stations, on Hollywood Boulevard, Ivar Avenue and Cahuenga Boulevard, although the Cahuenga station would be drop-off only. When asked about the overlapping parking-contract charge, Nazarian shrugs: “I would like to see those clubs’ leaseholds. Our agreements are very kosher.”
At the zoning hearing, Hollywood Division’s Captain Sanchez claimed that club-associated crimes — public drunkenness, date rape — are increasing with the growing number of nightspots.
“There is a direct nexus between growth and crime,” Sanchez said. “The Hollywood Division is saturated with nightclubs and liquor-licensed establishments.”
“I’VE TALKED TO MORE PEOPLE about this club than any one thing,” sighs City Councilman Eric Garcetti, whose district includes Shelter and most Hollywood clubs. Garcetti has been an early backer of Shelter, earning him flack from critics who accuse him of hypocritically rejecting a similar permit for a club positioned to take over the old Vogue Theater, ignoring police warnings about increased crime and even cozying up to Nazarian for the sake of future political funding. He replies by saying the Vogue Theater club proposal was a different situation than Shelter’s (the Vogue’s backers had no real parking lined up, he says), and that “in my four-and-a-half years in dealing with the SBE they’ve been among the most responsive [people]. I would hope we’re moving more toward putting in new restaurants and housing, but the last thing I want to say is that we’re closed to building new nightclubs.”
Like many boulevard stakeholders, Nazarian’s SBE uses the restoration of Hollywood’s golden age as a selling point, though Hollywood Heritage’s Nudelman sees no resemblance between the clubs of yesteryear and Shelter and its young contemporaries like Mood and LAX.
“The average age at El Mocambo and Ciro’s was much higher than it is today,” Nudelman says. “They were the kind of places Humphrey Bogart would go to. Humphrey Bogart wouldn’t go to Mood.”
L.A. nightlife historian Jim Heimann points out that Hollywood’s golden age only lasted between 1920 and 1933.
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“The Sunset Strip started in the early 1930s, about the time nightlife started to move west,” Heimann says. “By 1935, Hollywood Boulevard was already becoming seedy.” Heimann believes Shelter can only improve its neighborhood.
Depending on whom you speak to, the architectural and commercial transformation of Hollywood either compares favorably with Baron Haussmann’s reconfiguration of medieval Paris or it more resembles Nicolae Ceausescu’s razing of historic Bucharest. Regardless of aesthetics, however, the fact remains that boulevard nightlife is fast losing its democratic character as clubs increasingly cater to a moneyed clientele whose patrons either live in expensive condos nearby or far beyond the stucco apartment complexes and wooden bungalows of Hollywood’s working-class neighborhoods. Nazarian points to the renaissance of New York’s meatpacking district as his inspiration, although that now-chic district is less a symbol of urban renewal than an allegory of gentrification gone berserk.
The decision regarding Shelter’s permit has been delayed until May. Nazarian told the Weekly he plans to buy one of the new Hollywood condos and live near Shelter.
“We’re not short-term guys,” Nazarian says. “We have a sophisticated mentality, and that scares a lot of people. Hollywood is not the same Hollywood it was 10 years ago.”