From the sixth-floor sun deck of the St. James apartments, leasing manager Todd Nathanson can watch his competition rising.
Wooden skeletons and plaster casings are growing steadily under the ministrations of construction crews. Soon the frames will be apartment houses like the 6-month-old, 298-unit St. James, where Nathanson markets two-bedrooms, one-bedrooms and "junior bedrooms" to the whirlpool-fireplace-and-microwave set.
"That one's probably about 50 units," Nathanson said, pointing. "This one here, 100. This one, they just did the cement, close to 250. This one down here, it's 87. Now look on the horizon, see the frame, that's 102."
He turned around and spread his arms. "It's the same in this direction."
Arrival of Luxury Living
Luxury apartments, with luxury rents, have indisputably arrived in this corner of Hollywood, tucked between central Hollywood's redevelopment zone, West Hollywood's cafes and the Melrose Avenue boutiques.
The boxy new buildings are transforming a neighborhood that until recently was a mix of decaying bungalows, low-rise garden apartments and a few condominiums.
Like most attempts at gentrification, the influx is spawning mixed emotions.
To builders, apartment managers and some of the new tenants, it is an indicator of faith in the coming $922-million Hollywood redevelopment project, a sign that some of the young and affluent may be lured to a traditional dense urban setting, even in sprawling, space-loving Los Angeles.
To elderly, longtime residents, the change means fear that they will be forced to move by new landlords who want to raze their homes or increase the rents. And city officials express concern about growing parking and traffic problems in the area.
The trend became readily apparent last year. Alarmed by the rapid construction of high-density buildings across vast parts of Hollywood, as well as farther east in Los Feliz, City Councilman Michael Woo sponsored an ordinance to require Planning Commission approval for work that previously could be undertaken without public review.
The measure, adopted in June, 1986, affects a region bounded roughly by Laurel Canyon Boulevard on the west, Hyperion Avenue on the east, Santa Monica Boulevard on the south and the Hollywood Hills on the north--except for the 1,100-acre redevelopment district and the 155-acre Highland-Cahuenga Corridor Plan area.
The ordinance is temporary. It is intended to stay in effect for two or three years while the community zoning plan for Hollywood is reviewed.
To get the law passed, though, Woo was forced to accept a compromise exempting all projects filed with the city before May 8, 1986, the date the ordinance was approved by the Planning Commission.
Of the 1,000 units allowed to go forward without public hearings or city review, more than 400 were in the slice of Hollywood where the heavy equipment is rumbling and the paint-sprayers are buzzing now: from Laurel Canyon Boulevard to La Brea Avenue, between Fountain Avenue and the hills.
This part of Hollywood was "zoned generously," said Woo. At the same time, nearby West Hollywood incorporated as a city and restricted growth, the Hollywood redevelopment plan started taking shape and interest rates dropped.
With the interim zoning law in place, Woo said, "I don't think it will be an entirely gentrified area."
The brakes have definitely been applied. Ron B. Rubin, president of Harlon West Inc., said his firm backed off plans for two apartment buildings when the city imposed conditions under the new ordinance that increased costs beyond the amount he was willing to spend.
But the building boom is also far from over. Rubin's company is putting up a 68-unit structure on Martel Avenue north of Sunset Boulevard and an 87-unit apartment house on Martel south of Sunset. Both were approved under the new ordinance.
And so stacks of plywood line the streets. The sound of hammers and saws fills the air. Everywhere, lines of triangular banners, flags waving from poles and clusters of gaily colored balloons compete for the prospective renter's attention.
Signs advertise a litany of upscale comforts: "pool-Jacuzzi-sauna," "sun deck-fitness center-microwave oven."
The yuppie appeal is deliberate. Said the St. James' Nathanson: "I have an idea. We have 70 washers and 70 dryers. I told the owners to sell all the machines and put in a dry cleaners."
These amenities cost. Rents range from nearly $700 monthly for a studio apartment to as high as $1,200 for two bedrooms.
Change for Better
The transition makes Tim Wagner ecstatic. He has lived in the neighborhood for five years.
"I moved in when it was still tacky. Now it's not tacky," said Wagner, a 34-year-old electronics firm executive. "All the things they tore down were terrible looking. There were rats. In two years, I think it's going to be a classy place."
But city planner Michael Davies sees problems ahead. Already, it's more difficult to find a parking place and traffic is more congested.
And "the turnover will be higher and the neighborhood will be less stable," he said. "The new buildings are also much larger in scale. The feel of the neighborhood changes."
Davies also believes that many of the apartments will remain vacant for long periods.
'Curve Is Falling'
"Within the next six months, for those who are coming on line, the curve is falling pretty rapidly," he said. "There is not this vast pool of young upwardly mobile professionals. We could be stuck with a housing stock that's really inappropriate for the population of Los Angeles."
Rubin of Harlon West disagrees.
"People tended to work east and live west, but that's already been changing," he said. "The Hollywood Roosevelt, the new movie theaters coming in, the office complex around the Chinese Theater will no doubt shift the center of gravity further eastward" from the farther reaches of the Westside.
Meanwhile, two communities live uneasily side by side. Outside an awninged entrance on Poinsettia Avenue, a young man in a brown suit hurries into a white BMW. Across the street, emerging from an older, smaller building, a silver-haired woman helps her cardigan-clad companion with his walker.
Bill Richardson, 33, is one of the newcomers. He moved from Chicago, where he was a chemist with Texas Instruments. His investments, he said, have enabled him to retire.
'Sorry for Old Folks'
"This is great," he said from the balcony of his two-bedroom, $1,000-a-month apartment. "Coming from Chicago, I don't have a car and this is close to all the mass transit."
But, he added, "I feel sorry for the old folks who live around here. They're scared of all these new people. They just stay to themselves and huddle together."
Maria Kish, 73, explained why. "I am retired," she said in an accent that reveals her Hungarian birth. "I live from the Social Security. And $800, $1,000, who can pay these prices? A hooker. A drug pusher, maybe."
She frets about "all these junk people." But she worries even more about the fate of the building where she has lived the past 15 years.
"I already pay almost $460. What if they want me to leave?" she said. "I have a friend, she had to move from her building. They tore it down to build new."