Actors Pursue Housing ‘Miracle’ : Unions Propose N.Y. Central-Living Concept for Hollywood
Impossible dreams come true every day in the world of entertainment. So why not dream of building affordable housing for performing artists and, coincidently, helping to revitalize Hollywood? So what if the actors wanting to do this don’t have the financing or even the land?
They formed a coalition, a 16-member joint-housing committee representing the three actors’ unions: Actors Equity Assn., the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists and the Screen Actors Guild.
They passed a resolution, stating that they:
”. . . will attempt to achieve the funding and construction of an apartment complex that will have as its prime tenants, members of the performer unions as well as those related unions that are involved in the theater, motion pictures, television and entertainment industries, to the end that they will be able to live together in a central area in a dignified and affordable manner.”
And they just held a meeting with other union members, city officials and interested parties at producer/director Steven Spielberg’s North Hollywood office building, known as the Egg Co., to hear housing proposals drafted for them by students in the UCLA School of Architecture and Urban Planning.
That night also marked the first time that local board members of the three unions had gotten together since 1933, according to Howard Caine, chairman of the joint committee, who observed, “That in itself is a miracle. So miracles can happen.”
For proof of that, he also pointed to a project in New York called Manhattan Plaza but known in entertainment circles as “the miracle on 42nd Street,” a word play on the 1947 movie “Miracle on 34th Street,” starring Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara, John Payne and Natalie Wood.
Manhattan Plaza, a 1,688-unit apartment complex, was built in a seedy part of town for upper- and middle-income residents who refused to move there. The project was then turned into a subsidized housing complex, primarily for members of the performing arts and support personnel, who moved into the twin, 45-story towers in 1977. Since then, other projects have been built nearby, further stimulating area revitalization.
“Zale wanted to see that happen here,” Caine said, referring to Zale Kessler, a member of Actor’s Equity who participated in the Manhattan Plaza housing committee before moving to Los Angeles.
About a year ago, Kessler started asking members of his local union if something similar could be done in Los Angeles “because housing is a problem and continues to be a problem with the fluctuations of actors’ salaries from year to year,” he explained.
Caine approached UCLA to study the feasibility. “I told them that we are trying to do the impossible, but there are a lot of people dreaming of a miracle,” he remembered.
It would be a miracle, he said, because government financing for such projects has been reduced, the cost of land in Los Angeles is high “and we can’t have 45 stories on one site.”
Necessary and Possible
Nonetheless, the goal of providing affordable housing for performers in Hollywood is necessary and possible, said Peter Kamnitzer, UCLA professor and partner in the Los Angeles architectural firm of Kamnitzer & Cotton.
A survey conducted by his UCLA students indicated that the median income of 250 actors in the area in 1984 was $16,000, and of that, only about half was earned from professional activities in the entertainment field.
After six months of arduous research, including many consultations and computer printouts, the 10-member graduate-student team he formed with the help of fellow professor Gene Grigsby also developed housing proposals for six separate sites. (Students included Seda Yaghoubian, Dave Ryan, Teresa Hung, Pamela Portillo, Lisa Hunt, Weber Hsu, Angela Moreno, Dwight Johnson, Patricia Combes and Mohamed Abdillahi.)
“The goal of 1,200 housing units will not be answered in one area. That’s clear,” Kamnitzer said. “So there should be several projects.”
And those projects should be located, the students concluded, in “the greater Hollywood area.”
This was based on the findings that two-thirds of the 250 actors surveyed live in the area, and Hollywood is, as the students described it, “internationally perceived as the entertainment capital of the world to millions of tourists and aspiring actors,” even though most major movie studios are in Culver City, Century City and Burbank.
The team also decided that the projects should be mixed use to provide what the students called “a new focus for tourists and aspiring actors alike.”
As Kamnitzer told the union members, “The problem with Hollywood is that there is no there there. Tourists come to see Hollywood, and they don’t like what they see. It’s in sufficiently bad shape to give you plenty of opportunity.”
Yet, referring to projects such as the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel restoration now under way, he said, “I believe Hollywood is on the verge of a renaissance.”
The proposed, state-funded Hollywood Exposition Museum would fit in nicely with a mixed-use concept including housing for performers, he added.
If Gov. George Deukmejian approves the additional $785,000 required to finance the museum, it will be built somewhere along Hollywood Boulevard between Gower Street and La Brea Avenue, said Phyllis Holzman, administrative assistant to state Sen. David Roberti (D-Los Angeles), author of the museum legislation.
Along that stretch of the boulevard are a couple of sites suggested by the students as possibilities for mixed-use projects, including actors’ housing.
One is what the students called “the Superblock,” generally bounded by Hollywood Boulevard, Yucca Street, Wilcox Avenue and McCadden Place. Students see a 345-room hotel there along with a 150,000-square-foot museum, a total of 886 units of subsidized and market-rate housing, 237,000 square feet of office space and 100,000 square feet of retail space.
What about the Musso & Frank Grill, still functioning in the area since opening there in 1919? “God forbid, we wouldn’t tear that down,” Kamnitzer said.
The students also envisioned an “expanded superblock,” including the area north to Franklin Avenue, west to Highland Avenue and east to Cahuenga Boulevard. Several historic residential buildings would be rehabilitated for actors’ housing under this plan. Ironically, some of these structures were built originally for this purpose.
A third suggested site is termed “the Selma Neighborhood.” The project there would combine the museum with the Egyptian Theatre. There has been some interest in combining the museum with an existing Hollywood movie palace.
For the same reason, Mann’s Chinese Theatre and its surrounding area at Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue were suggested as another possible site.
As the students imagine it, the famous theater, which draws an estimated 850,000 visitors a year, would serve as the main entrance to the museum, and a lively office and retail complex with shops and restaurants would be directed at the tourists with actors’ housing “behind the activity of Hollywood Boulevard.”
A third movie palace, now used as a legitimate theater, was also considered as a potential part of a mixed-use project. It is the Pantages. Said the students: “No major designation or major attraction highlights this world-famous intersection.” The Pantages is near Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street.
Still other sites were suggested:
--The Hollywood/Western intersection, where students figure that a regional shopping center would be necessary to upgrade the area, and
--North Hollywood. Students suggested that actors’ housing might be included as part of an existing plan to build a four-theater cineplex, legitimate theaters, a Television Hall of Fame, a 400-room hotel, two office towers and retail space. The enlarged project would be bounded by Chandler, Magnolia and Lankershim boulevards and Vineland Avenue.
After selecting tentative sites, students also worked out some analyses showing that even with a $20,000-per-unit subsidy from the Community Redevelopment Agency, a financial gap in developing actors’ housing would exist. However, some suggestions were offered to close the gap. Among them:
--Include market-rate as well as subsidized housing;
--Include more high-rise development;
--Give the developer an equity interest;
--Reduce parking requirements;
--Offer a developer an 80% occupancy rate on housing.
As an example, the students estimated that 886 low-income units in the Hollywood Superblock would take $71,684,000 to develop, including the cost of land.
The students’ report states: “Fund raising by the union consortium is required for each option presented.”
Kamnitzer’s fellow professor, Grigsby, told union members:
“The bottom line is, ‘What do you want?’ Because if you decide to play, you will need an organization with the capability of entering into binding agreements, and you must decide what role you want to play.” Do the unions want to be advisers, or do they want to develop the housing themselves?
“These decisions are crucial in whether you have a dream realized or deferred.”
“It’s up to you to be inventive to make the impossible dream come true.”