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Going Nowhere : City Officials Are Cool to a Hollywoodland Resident’s Idea to Build a Tram From Travel Town to the Famed Sign

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Want to build an aerial tramway to the top of Los Angeles’ biggest landmark? Then you better be prepared to hang in there for the long haul.

That’s what Chuck Welch is discovering as he struggles to persuade city officials to let cable-hugging gondolas carry tourists to the famed HOLLYWOOD sign.

Such a tram would be a major moneymaker for the cash-strapped city, Welch is convinced. Better yet, it would lure camera-toting visitors off narrow, winding residential lanes in the Beachwood Canyon area beneath the sign.

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That’s where Welch, a retired furniture company owner, has lived for 45 years.

These days, he says, the 550-home Hollywoodland area south of the huge sign is jammed with tourists’ rented cars and chartered vans trying to take visitors as close to the landmark as they can get.

Welch envisions a tram that would pick up sightseers north of the sign, carrying them from the Travel Town area in Griffith Park next to the Ventura Freeway to the top of 1,700-foot Mt. Lee. There, visitors would walk to an enclosed platform along the bottom of the 450-foot-long letters.

Besides offering a close-up look at the world-famous sign, the tram would serve up a breathtaking panorama of the San Fernando Valley and an unparalleled view of the Los Angeles Basin.

City officials are reacting with skepticism to the idea, however.

They doubt that a tramway would be a financial success. And they are not sure they want anybody getting close to the sign, anyway.

The sign originally was erected in 1923 for $21,000 as a real estate advertisement promoting the Hollywoodland subdivision. Letters spelling LAND were removed in 1949.

The sign was rebuilt of steel at a cost of $27,700 per letter 17 years ago. Since then, city parks officials and leaders of the nonprofit Hollywood Sign Trust, which licenses use of the sign’s likeness on things such as posters and T-shirts, have struggled to protect it from vandalism and graffiti.

A $90,000 security system using motion detectors, laser beams and video cameras was installed around the sign two years ago to prevent trespassers from hiking to it from the nearby neighborhood. Last year, the nine letters were repainted.

Welch has been polishing his tramway plan for more than four years. Although he acknowledges that he does not want to be involved in developing or operating a tram, he has commissioned artist drawings and done a fiscal analysis.

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The tram’s proposed two-mile route primarily would travel over city-owned parkland, skirting the Forest Lawn and Mt. Sinai memorial park cemeteries. Cable would be strung between small terminal buildings at Travel Town and on the north side of Mt. Lee. A support tower is all that would be required at the midway point, according to Welch.

At the top, a short tunnel would lead from the upper terminal to the sign’s letter H. From there, visitors could reach a catwalk beneath the sign.

Welch calculates that it would take about $4 million to build the tramway and about $1.25 million a year to run it. Those figures are based on costs associated with the Palm Springs Tramway, he said.

He predicts that more than a million people a year would ride the tram. That estimate is derived from ticket sales at 10 attractions, including Seattle’s Space Needle, San Francisco’s Coit Tower, the Empire State Building in New York and the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Welch said.

At $5 a round trip, the tram would generate more than $4 million a year in profits after operating expenses, he said.

Welch suggests that the tramway could be built without any cost to the city by a private developer who would run it as a concessionaire, paying a yearly lease to the parks department. In time, ownership of the tram would revert completely to the city.

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“The Hollywood sign is the visual emblem of our city,” Welch said. “It’s our Eiffel Tower, our Empire State Building, our Golden Gate Bridge. People want to see it up close.”

So far, the tram idea hasn’t come close to triggering enthusiasm among city officials--even those urged by Mayor Richard Riordan to come up with new ways for park sites to produce revenues.

Last year, Riordan instructed recreation officials to consider concessions such as miniature golf courses, batting cages and water slides.

Parks department analysts have questioned the tram’s money-making potential. They also warn that ferrying visitors to the sign will increase vandalism to it.

“In order to maintain its integrity, staff recommends keeping the public away from the sign,” they said in a report to the parks commission.

“I don’t like to close the door on creativity, but I don’t think now’s the time” for a tramway, Jackie Tatum, general manager of the Department of Parks and Recreation, said this week.

Riordan said he continues to support “responsible ideas to bring revenue” to the city.

But “in order to succeed, these ideas must be financially viable and environmentally sound. The aerial tram does not appear to meet these needs,” he said in a statement.

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Despite Welch’s assertion that an aerial tramway would leave the mountainside virtually untouched, environmentalists also oppose it. “It’s preposterous,” said Mary Ferguson, a Montecito Heights resident who is a leader of the Sierra Club.

“I resist the idea that because it makes money for the city, it’s going to be good. I don’t think it would be more than a potential liability to the city,” said Jill Swift, a Sierra Club activist from Tarzana who served five years as a city parks commissioner.

Other people say the tram plan should be investigated.

“A tram would be an attraction, obviously. It’s something the city should seriously look into,” said Leron Gubler, executive director of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce--which so far has not been asked to take a position on the tram.

Chris Baumgart, chairman of the Hollywood Sign Trust, said: “I think it’s a neat concept. If you look at the big picture, not just at the reasons it might not work, wouldn’t it be neat to have a viewing point up there?”

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Baumgart said his group is eager to help find ways for tourists to enjoy the sign without “impacting on the poor residents” who live beneath it.

Welch likes the sound of that.

He said city-owned Travel Town, with its transportation theme and plenty of room for parking, is the perfect place for a tram to begin. But if municipal officials are not interested in creating a new tourist attraction, maybe nearby Universal City Studios or Warner Bros. Studios would be.

Although both studios are outside Los Angeles’ city limits, a tram route from both could be mapped if easements over private property and Barham Boulevard or the Ventura Freeway are obtained, he said.

Welch said he is confident that a tram eventually will be able to sail over all of its roadblocks.

It’s just a matter of getting it off the ground.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Tramway to the Sign

The proposed Hollywood sign aerial tram would run from Travel Town to the top of Mt. Lee, skirting Forest Lawn Memorial Park. At the mountaintop, visitors would walk through a 50- foot tunnel leading to the base of the letter H. A walkway built beneath the sign would allow visitors to inspect it- and admire a stunning view of Los Angeles and Hollywood.

Tram Facts

* Tramway would cost $4 million to build, but would produce that much in profits every year, according to proponet Chuck Welch.

* Trams would travel about two miles each way.

* The tramway is expected to draw about 1 million visitors each year to the Hollywood sign.

Source: Chuck Welch


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