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The Siren’s Song

Florentine Gardens, the once popular World War II servicemen’s hangout and the site of Marilyn Monroe and Jim Dougherty’s wedding reception in 1942, will likely be demolished to make room for a fire station. In recent years, the Hollywood Boulevard club, open only on Fridays and Saturdays, has drawn mostly Latinos who attend its salsa and hip-hop nights.

The city’s proposal has pitted the club against wealthy Hollywood homeowners, who have persuaded the area’s two City Council members to back the plan.

Other locations have been previously suggested. “Every time the Fire Department tries to do the right thing, these people get behind the scenes and influence the politicians,” says Florentine Gardens spokesperson Bill Hooey. “There is no other reason why they would choose this site.” Hooey says the club is a bad location for a fire station, because it is too far away from residences east of the Hollywood sign, and fire trucks will be impeded by the heavily congested Hollywood Boulevard. “When people start to die, their families are going to sue,” he says. “It will be a liability L.A. cannot afford.”

Club advocates insist that community members and city officials are discriminating against the club’s 18-plus mixed crowd. But community groups argue that the 65-year-old landmark, which once employed screen siren Yvonne De Carlo as a chorus girl, is in a perfect location and that other possible sites would displace residents. The new station would also help improve an area that has been plagued with drug problems and graffiti. “Hollywood can live with one less liquor license,” says Missy Kelly, president of the Beachwood Canyon Neighborhood Association. “This neighborhood is going through a transition, and it is coming up in the world, and that fire station will only add to the quality of life for the community.”

City officials admit that public pressure played a large part in their decision. “That is why we backed down on the other sites,” says LAFD battalion chief Pete Benesch. “One of the things the Fire Department desires is to have the Council and district support us, and when they don’t, it becomes a difficult situation.”

The recommendation by the Department of Public Works’ Bureau of Engineering to build a fire station on two acres comes four years after L.A. voters approved Proposition F, which set aside $378.6 million to build 19 neighborhood fire/paramedic stations, including a replacement for Station 82 on Bronson Avenue. The Fire Department says the 53-year-old edifice is too small to serve the growing community. The two-story, 15,000-square-foot station would house a storage and training center.

 

The battle over the fire station began in 2002, when city officials proposed relocating Station 82 to Garfield Place. The plan called for the demolition of 47 housing units. Community members protested, arguing that it would uproot 100 low-income renters, create excessive noise and increase the response time in the Hollywood Hills. After 100 picketers protested at a public meeting, the city backed down and paid a cash settlement of $100,000 in 2003 for canceling escrow.

In January, city officials caved again after purchasing a vacant lot on Van Ness Avenue, when community groups, asserting that the emergency response time would be increased if the station were built so close to the 101 Freeway, opposed the demolition of a six-unit apartment building, a women’s shelter and a mini-mall. The Beachwood Voice, a local newspaper catering to Beachwood Canyon residents, urged people to contact Council members and choose Florentine Gardens.

Last week, the Bureau of Engineering unveiled its plan to recommend Florentine Gardens after other sites, including Hollywood Billiards and Toyota/Scion/Lincoln Mercury of Hollywood, were turned down by the community. Club owner Kenneth Mackenzie says the city will have to try to take the property he has owned since 1979 by eminent domain, because he won’t give up without a fight.

“It is one of the only nightclubs left from the golden age,” he says. “We are going to fight. I don’t like when things are not democratic.”

Councilman Eric Garcetti believes the process to relocate the fire station was fair; both he and Councilman Tom LaBonge support the proposal. The full Council must approve the environmental assessment, but will not review full details of the new station unless the city attempts to take the property by eminent domain. At this point, the final say rests with the Proposition F Oversight Committee, which is scheduled to take up the matter on September 23.