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Waiting for Life on the Boulevard

The resurrection of Hollywood Boulevard has been predicted as often as the Second Coming. This month it happened again when our city fathers offered $90 million to help build a swanky new home for the Oscars near Mann’s Chinese Theatre.

The Community Redevelopment Agency, our official sponsor of lost causes, blessed the deal at its headquarters. Before the vote, one of the blissed-out businessmen who collect CRA dollars predicted that this development will trigger the long-awaited resurrection.

“We will see a domino effect,” he said.

Actually, if I remember the Vietnam years correctly, dominoes are supposed to fall, not rise. And if you want to see fallen dominoes, just take a stroll down the boulevard of junkies and lost dreams.

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You’ll walk past the idiotic new Hollywood Galaxy, a mini-mall structure that seems to have wandered in from West Covina. Somehow the Galaxy became the home of the Hollywood Entertainment Museum and thereby doomed it with bad design and location. Visitors have stayed away in droves, as they say, and the lonely museum cannot pay its bills.

We sank 2.5 million of our dollars into that project, incidentally. We’ll never get it back.

A block from the Galaxy--and rubbing up against the Chinese--you’ll pass the site of the upcoming “Hollywood Spectacular.” This development will sport a carnival-like sign rising 60 feet from the sidewalk--taller than the spires of the Chinese--

with gigantic letters spelling “Hollywood.” In case you didn’t know where you were.

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Then, around the corner from the freak show of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, you’ll hit the old Max Factor building, still empty after all these years. The current plan calls for yet another museum in the building, this one named the Hollywood Museum.

What’s the difference between the Hollywood Museum and the flopperoo Hollywood Entertainment Museum three blocks away? No one knows. Nonetheless, we’ve sunk $2 million into this one.

I could keep going, but you get the idea. We have missed opportunities, wasted untold millions, employed execrable taste. In other words, we’ve done business as usual in Los Angeles.

But wait. Amid the ruins, some hope is rising. Not a lot of hope, mind you. Just some.

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Along with the charlatans, Hollywood Boulevard has now attracted a few developers who respect the street and understand the revival business. And, just maybe, the city’s leaders have learned from their own past failures.

Most important among the developers is David Malmuth, head of the gigantic development that will incorporate the new Oscars theater and that, earlier this month, received the $90 million from the city.

You are probably asking why we should dole out $90 million to a company big enough to commence a “gigantic development” and partner with the Oscars. A good question, and we’ll get to that later.

In many ways, this project has sneaked up on Los Angeles. Few people know much about it. To give you an idea of its size, picture the entire city block running from the Chinese Theatre to Highland Avenue. The project will fill that block.

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The price tag has hit $350 million, or more than three times the cost of Universal’s CityWalk. When finished, the development will surround the Oscars theater with layers of movie complexes, restaurants and stores. It will also gobble up the Holiday Inn at the rear of the property and convert it into a fancy hotel.

Does that sound a little like CityWalk itself, that most insulated of fake urban environments? Yes, it does. And, in the beginning, the Hollywood project looked spookily similar. It faced inward, as if it wanted to draw people away from the street and into the womb of consumerism.

“The danger,” says Barry Malovsky of Hollywood Heritage, a preservationist group, “comes from sucking the life off the street and starving it. When that happens, you’re hurting the cause, not helping it.”

Only a few years ago, no one would have bothered to object to such a design. The development company, TrizecHahn, was spending big-time money, correct? That’s all Los Angeles needed to know.

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But something has changed. Perhaps we have absorbed the meaning of the success of the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, or Old Pasadena, or Beverly Boulevard in West Hollywood. Or a half-dozen others.

The fact is, large chunks of Los Angeles have begun to look and behave suspiciously like a city. And people seem to love it. Some of these streets now outperform the shopping malls in terms of foot traffic and sales.

So when TrizecHahn submitted its enclosed design, it met a heady resistance.

“People said we had to respect the street and its history,” Malmuth recalls. “They wanted the project to face outward and keep the edge along the sidewalk.”

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Principal among the objectors was Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg. “Hollywood is a street with massive buildings and a heavy, urban feel,” she says. “I wanted a development that built on that feeling. I didn’t want anything that looked or felt like a mall.”

So the project was changed. The inward-sucking design morphed into something more urban, with a sharper edge. Curves became corners. The importance of the sidewalk increased.

Much of the shopping and moviegoing will still take place within the protected interior, and it’s difficult to say whether the changes will spread enough life onto the sidewalk. But the movement is going in the right direction.

As for the city’s $90 million, it will go to build the parking garage underneath the structure. The experience of other “revived” streets has shown that the availability of ample parking is crucial. And of all our Hollywood public investments, this one is most likely to pay off. The city will own the garage and the revenues therefrom.

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In the end, says Malovsky, Hollywood Boulevard’s revival will depend on much more than TrizecHahn. To succeed, a street must give people a compelling reason to walk from one place to the next.

“You need these separate pieces that intrigue people,” Malovsky says. “A little thing here, a little thing there. Once you get it working, the process tends to spread outward and take off.”

So what else do we have on Hollywood Boulevard to intrigue people? Not much. Soon, however, the wonderful El Capitan will reopen as both a Disney movie theater and a refurbished office building.

In November, the third of Sid Grauman’s fanciful creations--the Egyptian--will also reopen as a movie theater, operated by American Cinematheque for art and revival films.

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If you’ve been around long enough to remember the Egyptian as an operating movie house, you will recall the long courtyard leading to the theater. When it reopens, that courtyard will contain a restaurant and other places to hang out.

Down the street, the long-suffering Musso & Frank Grill hangs on. And a new version of Chasen’s restaurant is planned for part of the Max Factor building.

As I say, it doesn’t amount to much. The truth is, though, you could have said the same for Colorado Boulevard or Melrose when they first started to gel.

In the case of Hollywood, the big difference comes from the presence of the government and the infusion of big government dollars. Colorado didn’t have it, or need it. Nor did Melrose.

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In the past, government interest has almost guaranteed failure. Witness the CRA’s pitiful, and hideously expensive, attempts to revive downtown. Witness also Pasadena’s failed mall, sponsored by the city, that sits several blocks away from Old Town.

The chemistry of revival seems too subtle for governments. They overdo it, spend money on the wrong things, try to exert the heavy hand of control when they should let go.

That’s why, with Hollywood, the next years will present an interesting drama. The city is likely to screw it up and pour more millions down the rat hole. If they do so, they will be following a long, hallowed tradition.

Just maybe, though, they’ll get it right. It will take some smarts, and a lot of luck. So keep watching. We just might see a first.

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