The project has been hailed as the new gateway to the Sunset Strip: Two residential towers, terraced gardens and a shopping center designed by Frank Gehry with dramatic glass sheets and jutting angles.
The complex would rise from the base of the Hollywood Hills at the corner Sunset and Crescent Heights boulevards, becoming an instant landmark for people coming west from Hollywood or south from the San Fernando Valley.
But since renderings were unveiled last year, the discussion has turned away from Gehry's daring architecture to whether the 334,000-square-foot development is simply too large for the famed boulevard. The main tower, at 15 stories, would be the tallest building to be erected on the Sunset Strip in more than 30 years.
Hollywood Hills residents have come out against the project, as has the neighboring city of West Hollywood. But 8150 Sunset now faces a more daunting challenge from the councilman who represents the area. David Ryu is calling for significant size reductions. When new developments are reviewed, council members typically defer to their colleague who represents the area so Ryu's concerns are expected to take center stage when a City Council committee considers the proposal Tuesday.
Ryu said he wants the 15-story tower to be cut considerably, along with other changes such as more affordable housing units, more parking, improved pedestrian access and traffic mitigation measures.
The Gehry project has become a flashpoint in the larger debate across Los Angeles about denser development, one that has sparked a measure on next March's ballot that would significantly slow growth. The Sunset Strip is just one of many Los Angeles neighborhoods being transformed by the development of residential towers, low-rise mixed-use complexes and other buildings that are significantly bigger than what was there before.
Many city leaders support this type of planning, arguing that Los Angeles needs more housing units at a time when rents and property values are rising rapidly. They also see denser development, especially along transit lines, as a way to get people out of their cars more. But like many new developments, the 8150 Sunset project benefits from a state law that allows for significantly more density in exchange for affordable housing units. Ryu said he has concerns about that.
"Mr. Frank Gehry's design is unique and has the potential to become a part of the architecturally significant fabric of this neighborhood," Ryu wrote in a letter to the council. "However, I want to be clear that I will not support a de facto revision to the Community Plan for this area."
The project was approved by the city's Planning Commission in July when Gehry talked about his desire to create something that "deserves to tell a story and be inviting and denote the beginning."
"Most of the buildings have no spirit or humanity to them so we've been very careful and very interested in creating buildings that invite people in. That feel good to be in. That make a place that says something about where we are, who we are," he told the commission.
The land has a storied Hollywood history. It was once home to the Garden of Allah, a hotel that catered to writers and actors. That was eventually demolished and replaced by a mid-century bank building that some consider worth preserving as well as a strip mall anchored by a McDonald's.
The strip mall would be demolished to make way for the towers — one 234 feet tall and a second 174 feet tall with a total of 249 units — and 65,000 square feet of commercial space. Townscape Partners proposed the project several years ago, and for a while it looked as if it would win easy approval at City Hall — especially with the design by Gehry, who is considered one of the world's top architects whose work includes the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles.
Townscape said it has already modified the project based on numerous community meetings. The developer said in a statement that the current proposal "will add much needed market rate and affordable housing units while improving the pedestrian experience in the neighborhood."
Critics of the development argue that it's simply too big, even with Gehry's unique architecture.
"The power of the name Frank Gehry was blinding city representatives to the reality that they're not adhering to their own policies and principles," said Anastasia Mann, president of the Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council. "There's a certain audacity in the assumption that people will give up principles for some sort of celebrity status."
Some opponents say they want some type of new development at the corner. But they believe Gehry's plans would cause significant traffic problems in an area that already sees gridlock. Crescent Heights leads to Laurel Canyon, which is a key route between the Valley and the Westside and Hollywood.
"We're not against development but we just don't think the burdens of the development should fall on our backs," said Jamie Hall with the Laurel Canyon Assn.
The city of West Hollywood, which borders the project to the west and the south, opposed the project, citing concerns over sewer maintenance, site access, traffic light upgrades and pedestrian safety. West Hollywood Councilwoman Lindsey Horvath said her city is now in talks with Los Angeles and the developers about some possible changes to the plan.
Further complicating the development is a Chase Bank on the project site. The 1960 building with the zigzag-folded plate roof was designed by architect Kurt Meyer for Lytton Savings. The Cultural Heritage Commission has recommended it for historic-cultural landmark status.
"It's in amazingly great shape," said Steve Luftman with Friends of Lytton Savings. If the building is preserved, it may need to be incorporated into Gehry's design. "There's no reason why it can't be done. To have these two work together — there's no reason at all it can't be done," Luftman said.
The battle on the Sunset Strip comes six months before L.A. voters will consider the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, which would temporarily block real estate projects that require exemptions from key city development rules on height, density and overall size. The ballot measure is backed by activists and community groups who argue that City Hall is approving mega-projects that harm the feel of local neighborhoods.
Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, associate dean of UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, said increasing density is an issue L.A. and many other cities are grappling with amid the housing crunch.
Often, good design that incorporates existing facades or varying heights can help ease that tension, she said. So can the addition of parking and open space.
"What are you going to do? Build a wall and say people cannot come to L.A.?" Loukaitou-Sideris said. "It's a huge battle because the city is growing and it needs to house people."