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Standing Stall

Photo by Ted Soqui

Motorists cruising through Hollywood seem resigned to the 35-foot-tall glass tower surrounded by trash and wire fencing at the triangular wedge where Franklin and Wilcox avenues meet Cahuenga Boulevard. Once hailed as “the next landmark of Hollywood,” the Gateway to Hollywood project was to serve as a beacon to the city’s 8 million–plus visitors and commuters; instead, it has become a monument to bureaucratic quagmires and civic inattention, not to mention how the old road to hell is paved with good intentions.

“It is supposed to represent the revitalization of Hollywood,” said Terry Mosher, an apartment-building manager at Wilcox Place Apartments, located next to the site. “Instead, it is an eyesore. This is not a good welcome to Hollywood.”

The project was a considerable undertaking for a community group, but the more than 200 members of the Yucca Corridor Coalition of Property Owners and Managers (YCC) had experience in taking on large tasks. In the early 1990s, the 12-block Yucca corridor was known to harbor drug dealers and prostitutes. The 18th Street Gang ruled the streets. Spearheaded by local community activist Merle Singer, the nonprofit YCC set about cleaning it up. Within a few years, the group had installed two surveillance cameras, hung banners with slogans like “Do Drugs, Go to Jail” throughout the neighborhood, persuaded landlords to evict gang members, alerted liquor-store owners that their stores were acting as covers for drug dealers, and erected barricades to divert the stream of motorists who made quick stops in the neighborhood to buy drugs. Crime was reduced by an estimated 50 percent, according to the YCC.

In the late 1990s, the YCC decided to shift its efforts to revitalization and approached the late L.A. City Councilman John Ferraro about its vision “to beautify” a triangle of grass and dirt that had become a favorite spot from which to deal drugs in Hollywood. Ferraro backed the idea, and the nonprofit went to work. Former Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg introduced the coalition to a Woodbury University architecture professor, who agreed to assign a student to make the design.

The original concept was grand. It featured a 35-foot triangular tower with Hollywood on each side. The tower was to be illuminated with fiber optics and crowned with a cascading waterfall, while the site would feature custom cement moldings, colorful tiles with inlaid film reels, new bus-stop benches, lush green gardens and pedestrian streetlights. The money to pay for the $800,000 revitalization effort would come from both public and private funds.

The groundbreaking was in January 2002, with newly elected Councilmen Tom La Bonge and Eric Garcetti, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, and former Mayor Richard Riordan on hand. It was hoped that the project would reinvigorate the area and usher in an era of change, giving the beautification of Hollywood a centerpiece. La Bonge, who pledged $20,000 to the effort, urged the public-works department to waive the related city fees, while hailing the Gateway to Hollywood project as an example of “redevelopment from the bottom up.” Money began to pour in, including $140,000 from the Department of Water and Power, $2,500 from the Metropolitan Water District, $25,000 in Community Redevelopment Agency tax increments for landscaping, and $10,000 in matching grants from the L.A. Department of Cultural Affairs. The CRA also promised $43,200 in Proposition C money for a bus shelter. All told, the project had nearly $200,000 with which to get started.

“Light bulbs in people’s heads started to go off,” said Jonathan Varsano, a real estate broker and secretary-treasurer of the coalition. “I never thought it would work. I was thinking of a small landscape project, and it turned into this tower and waterfall in the six figures. We wanted to turn it into an area that was pretty to look at. The architect turned it into a landmark structure. Now, it is basically a tower and dirt.”

Unforeseen obstacles began to waylay the project, including the death of Councilman John Ferraro, who had backed the Gateway plan from its inception. Gene Austin, the YCC’s main fund-raiser and grant writer, also died. That left Singer and Varsano to pick up the pieces.

“I think we rushed things that maybe we shouldn’t have rushed,” said Singer. “We just pushed so hard to get it done for him [Austin] to be there to see it. And when that didn’t happen, it was the biggest disappointment.”

Then, both the project’s architect and Varsano added newborns to their families. Bureaucratic quagmires also delayed the project on numerous occasions. “You apply to one city agency and need approval from the other,” said Varsano. “You get caught up in all this red tape. The city is not passing us on the inspection. There are small panels damaged on the tower and electrical issues that still have to be pushed through.”

Despite these detours, the tower was erected. By 2003, though, it was becoming clear that the well was drying up. The $200,000 to $250,000 in donations the YCC had received was used up building the tower and installing a couple of pedestrian streetlights. Meanwhile, the economic climate had changed for the worse. Business owners started to withdraw their pledges at the same time local funding for grants and nonprofits began to disappear. The YCC has since abandoned plans to construct the waterfall and other big-ticket items, including the ceramic tiling.

In recent weeks, community complaints have spurred Councilman Tom La Bonge’s office to undertake a rescue effort.

“It is a tremendous, ambitious endeavor that has stalled,” said La Bonge. “I am a Gateway guy. I believe in the project so much, and I am upset that we have tripped on it. It is the fault of unintended consequences.”

But what that rescue effort amounts to is unclear as yet. La Bonge has brought together a small group of community stakeholders to help the YCC complete the project in 90 days, but financing remains the key issue. The YCC says it has the money to turn on the tower light and fix the electrical panels but that it doesn’t have the cash to build the park bench, complete rudimentary landscaping or pick up the $6,000 tab to repair damage vandals inflicted on the tower a few months ago. It also doesn’t have the money to build a plaza with a plaque dedicated to the sponsors who donated money to the project or the $15,000 needed to pave the sidewalks around the triangle. Meanwhile, Gateway advocate La Bonge says what little money he had earmarked for the project he doled out years ago. All it needs, he says, is some downsizing and management skills.

Efforts are being made by the coalition to enlist the neighborhood councils, but even that proposition seems like it’s going nowhere.

“We have such a full plate of agenda items. We have nightclub issues,” said Paul Woolsey, chairman of Area 3 of the Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council. “We only meet once a month. There is only so much we can do. We haven’t taken a position on the project yet.” However, it is on the agenda next month.

Not everyone in the community is overly sympathetic to the Gateway, and some residents are calling for an independent audit on the project’s expenditures. Varsano says nothing underhanded has occurred. His life, he says, has been turned upside down by the project — a cause to which he says he has dedicated hundreds of hours.

“In 20/20 hindsight, we would do this whole thing differently,” he said. “It’s just that circumstances made it so that we accomplished something but not at the pace or scale as we originally intended. At the end of the day, it will be a beacon of light in Hollywood. We just want to get on with the rest of our lives.”

Mosher says his livelihood has been affected too. He had planned to use the Gateway Tower in advertising to bring new tenants into his 30-unit apartment complex. Now, he says, he has difficulty renting the units out. “Who wants to look at something that is dead and dying and has construction fences around it? I wouldn’t want to look out my window at that.”