Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
West Hollywood has long been a microcosmic theater of cultural, social and spiritual evolution, where the dynamic play of past, present and future blend into a city-community with an inscrutable flair for reinvention. Travel the sinuous western span of Sunset Boulevard and you’ll see some of Southern California’s most renowned, trendiest restaurants, clubs and hotels, while the Formosa Café — watering hole of choice for the rich, famous and infamous — Barney’s Beanery and the Troubadour are time-honored establishments on and around Santa Monica Boulevard, a portion of which was the terminal leg of the 2,400-mile “Mother Road”— Route 66.
A progressive social and political agenda, savvy, activist leadership, and a diverse, slowly expanding demographic base has transformed what was some 40 years ago a diminutive trolley-stop town in the shadow of snooty Beverly Hills, into a vital, nationally recognized urban enclave with a thriving community, where the average annual household income is just shy of $40,000. Tolerance has always been an integral part of the spiritual fabric of West Hollywood, from its earliest days as a friendly hangout for hippies and a haven for homosexuals, who were systematically harassed in other parts of L.A. by the upright, heavy-handed goons of law-enforcement vice squads. Its substantial gay and lesbian population is a formidable political constituency, and it was the first city in the country to declare Yom Kippur a legal holiday. The “Gay Camelot,” as it was touted long ago, has come a long way since incorporating in 1984, and at the onset of a new millennium, is embarking on yet another exercise in transformation.
Last August, West Hollywood began the most ambitious public-works project in its 15-year history. Under a glaring summer sun on San Vicente Boulevard, the groundbreaking ceremony for the Santa Monica Boulevard Reconstruction Project took place, punctuated by the requisite fanfare, photo ops and speeches. Present were city and project staffers, residents, council members and County Supe Zev Yaroslavsky. The 18-to-24-month undertaking will cost the city $32 million, and will convert the heavily traveled 3-mile stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard from La Brea Avenue to Doheny Drive into a world-class urban Main Street that’s attractive, pedestrian-friendly, safe and a representative image of the city.
One of those in attendance on that summer afternoon was longtime resident and 10-year City Councilman Sal Guarriello, who was mayor of West Hollywood at the time when the project was in the nascent stages of planning three years ago. Guarriello was instrumental in negotiating the complex thicket of bureaucratic workings that resulted in the transfer of ownership of Santa Monica Boulevard from the state of California Department of Transportation to the city of West Hollywood in early 1999, a change of title that allowed reconstruction of the boulevard by West Hollywood itself. The state also kicked in nearly $9 million for the project. Guarriello has lived in West Hollywood for 36 years and says the makeover was long overdue.
“The street was terrible,” Guarriello states in a tone tinged with disgust. “There were potholes and cracks all over the place, and in all the time I’ve lived here, the boulevard had never been resurfaced.”
After reviewing the submitted bids, the contract was awarded to La Habra Heights–based Shawnan, a company with an impressive résumé of public-works projects in Southern California, including the Port of Los Angeles and John Wayne Airport. Shawnan was also the city’s contractor for the Fountain Avenue Roadway and Traffic Signal Reconstruction Project. Improvements planned include: re-paving the boulevard, expanding the sidewalk, adding new crosswalks and a bike lane, such pedestrian convenience enhancements as curb and gutter access ramps for wheelchairs, narrowing of the central median, planting more than 1,000 new jacarandas and evergreens, and landscaping areas for buses. A public-arts program is also in the works, and the city plans to erect a Veterans Memorial on the triangular plot of land at the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Olive and Holloway drives. But the bright sun that shone that summer day when the project was started soon began to go into eclipse — symbolically, that is.
For last year’s Halloween parade celebrants, the realities of massive change and upheaval were already noticeable. The parade, one of several held yearly, is a no-holds-barred WeHo tradition and always draws thousands of people, while raising big revenues for the city. This time around, the grassy center median, customarily an inviting place for people to hang out during the festivities, had been transformed into a forbidding dirt trench that bisected the boulevard, causing a crowd crunch in some of the adjacent areas, where pedestrian traffic became increasingly gridlocked. “I’ve been coming to these things ever since they started,” said one attendee, “but this year it seems far more crowded. It’s a lot like the stand-still strangulation at Mardi Gras in New Orleans.”
Eight months into the project now, streets are torn up, dust is flying and traffic hardly moves. The enthusiasm and optimism has, in some quarters, been replaced by a gnawing pessimism. Public-works projects, in particular one this ambitious, inevitably cause massive disruption of the community that can only be ameliorated by sound, flexible logistics, planning and implementation, as well as a great deal of cooperation and patience from the citizenry. Questions continually have arisen in discussions with the city’s business owners and operators about whether or not those involved in the design and planning and, more importantly, those in city government foresaw all of the coincident problems, principally those that have impacted the business community, and to what extent, if any, they were prepared to address them. It seems that there are no hard and fast answers that will satisfy everyone.
“I think we did an outstanding job in the way of planning and implementation,” says Ray Reynolds, community development director, who’s been involved with the project from the get-go. “There was a lot of discussion and a lot of input from all segments of the community, and I can’t see where we could have done any better.”
Joan English, head of the city’s Transportation and Public Works Department, which has jurisdiction over the project and traffic control, is equally firm in the conviction that preparation at all levels was thorough. She is optimistic about the progress that’s being made, and praises what she calls the “phenomenal” efforts being put forth by all departments in the city to help out. “But,” she adds, “there have ä been some problems that have come up; obviously you never know as much before something happens as afterward.”
Nowadays, strolling down Santa Monica Boulevard is often easier and less nerve-wracking than driving. Walking the street also gives one a stark, eye-opening perspective on the enormity of the job still ahead, and the hardships that have been imposed on commuters, residents and businesses in the area.
Traffic flow on the boulevard, which has always been something of an ordeal for motorists, is a nightmare, particularly during rush hours. Along the street there are huge sections of sidewalk ripped out, with new, freshly poured ones in some areas adjacent to old ones; open dirt trenches, street barricades, warning signs and orange tape are everywhere you look; and nearly all of the residential side streets are blanketed with automobiles. Not that parking has ever been trouble-free in West Hollywood, especially on the weekends when the party crowd hits the streets. But construction has severely exacerbated the situation. “That is our fault,” muses Guarriello. “We should have built more than one parking garage for the public.
“But,” Guarriello adds, “the naysayers and the detractors should remember that as bad as things are, they would have been far, far worse if Caltrans had finally gotten around to doing this work and not the city of West Hollywood.”
There are some encouraging developments with regard to parking and access, which the businesses in the area claim are significant factors in their declining revenues. The city has freed up restrictions during the day, and has created additional metered spaces on a number of cross streets east of Fairfax Avenue. The Department of Transportation and Public Works has added 40 non-metered spaces on the west side, located on cross streets at 11 locations north and south of Santa Monica Boulevard, and is in the last stages of leasing a small parking lot at Santa Monica and Westbourne Drive. In addition, according to Interim City Manager Paul Arevalo, a valet parking program will soon be up and running for nighttime use. Stations will be set up where motorists can drop their cars off, shop, dine, enjoy the city’s alluring nightlife, then go back to retrieve their cars. Arevalo says the city is currently negotiating with the Pacific Design Center for the use of its parking facilities for the program.
One of the most appealing characteristics of Santa Monica Boulevard is the grand, picturesque mix of new and old shops, restaurants and businesses that line both sides of the street. Not surprisingly, there is no scarcity of opinions and grievances coming from those who operate or work in these establishments about life in West Hollywood today. More pointedly, it’s the imperatives of day-to-day survival that concern them, and what the pages of the future hold. Some people interviewed expressed contempt and anger toward City Hall, and Shawnan, the contractor, for what they assess as shabby workmanship, inept planning and an overall lack of consideration.
Guerry Pirtle, manager of the Tango Grill, says that his biggest problem is with the contractor. “They [Shawnan] are supposed to be limiting the noise and debris that is created, and they’re supposed to be spraying water to keep all the dirt and dust down, but they only do it if we call and complain after things are really bad.” Repeated calls to Shawnan for comments were not returned.
“It’s kicked the living shit out of our business,” says Herb Dempsey, an employee of Koontz Hardware, a fixture on the boulevard since 1938. Owner Russ Wilson, a well-respected and active member of the city’s business community, is sympathetic with both the merchants who are suffering financially (though he adds he’s better off than many others), and the “big picture” benefits of the project. He is effusive in his praise of Interim City Manager Arevalo, who, since coming on the job seven months ago, has been outstanding in trying to solve problems and interacting with the owners, Wilson says.
But like others, he expressed doubts about the extent to which the city’s leadership was prepared for all of the difficulties. “[The council] unleashed this $32 million juggernaut on us, and I really don’t think they anticipated the devastation that would follow. But,” he adds, with a sigh of resignation, “the train has left the station, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
The most searing invective regarding the Santa Monica Boulevard Project came from Brad Craft, manager of A Different Light Bookstore. “I’ve had to reduce my hours and my staff because of the construction, and I’ve been involved in the process of trying to get the people in city government to address our concerns. But what they tend to do is send out very nice people who can’t provide ä answers, and instead show us pretty pictures of what it’s going to look like when it’s all done and we’re all out of business.”
Phyllis Ayres is the soon-to-be 90-year-old owner of the Big White Elephant, a small antique shop and haberdashery on the boulevard, in business 42 years. Like many, she wonders how long she’ll be able to hang on. “As soon as this started, I lost all of my customers. They just don’t come in anymore, and I’m months behind on my rent.”
Then there are voices like Liama Leko’s, owner of Eat Well Café, and Robaire Boisvert, co-owner of Trash With Class, an antique store, who have adopted a stoic attitude about things, and even expressed gratitude and admiration for the assistance that City Hall has provided. Says Boisvert, “I understand the position [the City Council] is in, and they’re doing the best they can.”
Arevalo concedes that this enormous undertaking has caused a lot of unforeseeable problems. “Part of the learning process is that you are going to make mistakes. One of the things I should have done much earlier is to go out and meet with the merchants, which would have helped enormously.”
One issue that repeatedly emerges among business owners and operators is that of compensation. The city should reimburse them, they say, to make up for lost revenues, or at least provide some sort of monetary assistance while the project is in process. A Different Light’s Craft mentions that there is talk of a lawsuit. Arevalo says so far there have been no discussions about money, but there have been continual, developing efforts at mitigation, lauded by some, scoffed at by others.
A shop was set up in August on the boulevard to provide information and assistance to the public, and meetings are regular and ongoing to allow business and community members to vent, address construction-related concerns and keep abreast of developments. Parking and access are areas that are constantly being looked at for improvements. A tax program begins in July 2000 that will rebate all or part of the business-license tax to businesses during ä reconstruction. This has provoked a chorus of derision among owners and operators, who say the money saved won’t come close to equaling what they stand to lose, or what they have already lost.
Executive director and CEO of the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce Hillary Selvin says that she has hired a part-time employee, Barbara Hirschorn, to negotiate problems with city staffers and the community, and has developed a direct-mail and media-marketing campaign to help business in WeHo during construction.
“I think we all knew that there would be some impact, but we just didn’t know to what extent until things got started. What matters is that we all went into gear trying to come up with programs to help out, and we’ve done that, and are continuing to do so. Yes, we are doing construction, but there are places for people to park, and we want the public to know that they can still come to the city and enjoy themselves,” Selvin says.
Contrary to what some have stated or might believe, it appears that Arevalo and his office, as well as others in city government (which in this case is just about all departments), have been reasonably forthright and responsive in their efforts. That they have fallen short in many instances is not surprising, given the complexity and magnitude of the job. At this juncture, the issue of whether or not things could have been done or planned better is a moot point, because the train has left the station. Perhaps there is a bit of economic Darwinism at work here: There is the likelihood that some businesses might not survive, while others will.
Back in the late ’80s a similar project took place along Third Street in Santa Monica, where approximately 70 percent of the original businesses closed. The Third Street Promenade is today one of the busiest, most bustling, prosperous districts in L.A. Longtime merchants like Margie Ghiz of the Midnight Special Bookstore, who survived the massive reconstruction, never dreamed a revamped street would ever become the commercial powerhouse that it has. “It’s great,” she says. The end result should be no less gratifying or surprising for West Hollywood, a city with a charmed life and a gift for reinvention.