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There’s a New Buzz on Hollywood Blvd.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was the last Saturday night on Hollywood Boulevard as we knew it, and Jonas West was loitering in the well-lighted doorway of his tattoo parlor, taking drags on a cigarette. His arms were embellished with skulls, waves, flames, naked girls, oaths and swirls too elaborate to easily decipher.

“It’s beautiful,” he said, nodding across the street.

His gaze rose to encompass the soaring walls and grand entryway of Hollywood & Highland, one of the largest retail and entertainment projects to be built in Los Angeles in many years. Although it was nearly midnight, construction workers were still there, small figures bathed in bright lights.

“I totally dig it, and hopefully a lot of people will come here,” said West, manager of Hollywood Boulevard Tattoo. “The new Hollywood, you know.”

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The new, cleaner Hollywood is set to emerge this week when TrizecHahn, a large Canadian development company, throws open the doors to Hollywood & Highland, named after the intersection on which it stands and destined, some say, to be the catalyst for an economic boom not seen since the days of Cecil B. DeMille.

The $615-million project officially opens today with a private event at the elegant Governor’s Ballroom, and opens to the public Friday with the launch of 60-plus shops and restaurants and the first concert at the 3,600-seat Kodak Theatre, which will be the new home of the Academy Awards. The complex, which adjoins Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, will also include a nightclub, a convention hotel, a television network studio and a six-screen multiplex.

If it succeeds, and many people believe it will, Hollywood & Highland will do for Hollywood what the Disney-led urban renewal did for New York’s Times Square: transform an iconic American place from degradation to decency. Along the way, it will make Hollywood a little bit more like everyplace else, introducing national chains--Banana Republic, Benetton, the Gap--to one of the last places in Southern California to resist them.

If it fails, it will take with it roughly $90 million in public funding--about $30 million for the Kodak Theatre and $60 million for a 3,000-car, six-level underground parking garage.

Critics may find it ungainly, kitschy (which can be an asset in Hollywood), overly suburban, but it has a lot going for it, starting with its location. Hollywood already draws millions of tourists each year, many of whom visit the Chinese Theatre next door and are eager to find other attractions. Nearby residential districts of Hancock Park, Silver Lake and Los Feliz have few of the kinds of shops found in a mall.

Given its location, its near-mythic status and that pent-up demand, Hollywood “will emerge as the next great entertainment district in America,” predicted Michael Bayard, a research fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington and the author of “Developing Urban Entertainment Centers.”

“We’re at the edge of a dramatic, dramatic change,” he said.

In fact, the change appears well underway.

Where prostitutes and drug dealers once gathered, families were out strolling Saturday night, drawn to Hollywood Boulevard by two Disney attractions on either end of a still-scruffy retail strip: “The Lion King” musical at the Pantages Theatre and, a dozen blocks away, the new animated movie “Monsters Inc.” at the El Capitan Theatre, directly across from Hollywood & Highland.

Delma and Abraham Sahagun of Maywood brought their 16-month-old daughter, Nathalie, to the 11:30 p.m. showing of “Monsters Inc.” They weren’t alone. Families with children packed the sidewalk for a solid block. It was the Sahaguns’ first visit to Hollywood, and they were impressed.

“It’s really nice--not what I thought it was going to be,” Delma Sahagun said. Gesturing across the street at Hollywood & Highland, she added, “This makes it a lot nicer, too.”

Down the street, between the Pantages and El Capitan, an American Film Institute festival at the Egyptian Theatre had drawn a chic industry crowd. A Starbucks catering truck stood sentry outside, right across the street from a new Starbucks shop. (Another one will be inside Hollywood & Highland.)

The Musso and Frank Grill, which opened in 1919 and has witnessed more Hollywood scene changes than Busby Berkeley, was jammed with a mix of old-timers, martini-drinking hipsters and parents with small children. The newly reopened Pig and Whistle bar could scarcely contain its crowd of well-dressed 20-somethings, who spilled out onto the sidewalk in a blur of black fabrics.

“You think this is busy?” asked Pig and Whistle hostess Caprice Crawford. “You should have seen it a couple of hours ago.”

Business was slow at many of the souvenir shops selling their gaudy mix of Marilyn Monroe T-shirts, movie clapboards, collector plates and maps to stars’ homes.

The Sept. 11 attacks and general economic slowdown have led some to suggest that TrizecHahn, which took a year longer and hundreds of millions of dollars more than anticipated to build Hollywood & Highland, is opening at the wrong time. But company officials remain publicly upbeat and are hoping the buzz surrounding the project will encourage curious Southern Californians to take up the slack until tourism rebounds. Hollywood & Highland, they insist, isn’t just for tourists.

“People ask me, ‘Do you think people will go back to Hollywood?’ ” said Lee Wagman, president of TrizecHahn. “I say, ‘What do you mean?’ People come to Hollywood when there’s something to come for. They come to the Hollywood Bowl, they come for the nightclubs, they come for ‘The Lion King.’ ”

Some Concerns About Noise and Traffic

With some exceptions, the project appears to have widespread support in the surrounding community. It will employ about 2,500 people, at least 70% of them from the area, according to spokesman Doug Piwinski.

One group, the Hollywood Heights Homeowners Assn., has filed suit over aspects of the project--construction noise, the size of signs and increased traffic. But the decision to sue was far from unanimous, and even supporters of the lawsuit say they welcome the development.

“Really, our concerns are that they aren’t planning for the things that they need to be successful,” said the association’s president, Kurt Kassulke.

“If it works,” he added, “the great side is, we’ll be able to walk down to the Gap, to the Ann Taylor Loft . . . and whatever other places they have there. It’s basically a Hollywood version of the Beverly Center.”

Hollywood & Highland grew out of two major public initiatives in the 1990s. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority had planned a subway station beneath the intersection and wanted to lease out the land above. And the Community Redevelopment Agency was looking for a way to reclaim Hollywood’s glory days.

At the same time, David Malmuth, who spearheaded Disney’s portion of the Times Square project, was looking for something to do. State Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, then a member of the Los Angeles City Council representing Hollywood, recalled meeting with Malmuth.

“I said, ‘David, you live here. You fly to New York to fix New York, and you don’t come here to fix Hollywood? What’s wrong with you?’ ” she recalled. Malmuth reportedly tried to persuade Disney to get involved in the development and then defected to TrizecHahn.

The project took on a new dimension when Malmuth asked to meet with Bruce Davis, executive director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The academy, Davis said, was having problems with its two local Oscar sites, the Shrine Auditorium and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It had begun a quiet search for a new home.

Davis said Malmuth didn’t initially offer to build a theater. Instead, he sounded out Davis about the prospects of building a motion picture museum at Hollywood & Highland.

“I said, ‘If you really want an academy presence at your new wonderful project, what you ought to do is build us a theater large enough to do the Oscars in, and we’ll see if we can’t agree to get the board to go there,’ ” Davis recalled.

Malmuth came back with a design for Davis to present to his board of governors. “And to be honest, I wasn’t sure how the plan was going to be received,” Davis said. Hollywood “was a pretty seedy place. Many people on the Westside made it a point never to go there, and I wasn’t at all sure that the board was going to say, ‘Yes, indeed, let’s go back to Hollywood.’ ”

Of course, it did.

“They saw the drama of taking the show back to the place of its origins--and saw, too, that this whole project could be a wonderful thing for the neighborhood of Hollywood,” Davis said. “And it turned out that a lot of us had been feeling a little embarrassed that the name that has become synonymous with our art form had become such a dreary kind of place.”

Academy Was Involved in New Building

Despite some grumbling over TrizecHahn’s efforts to sell corporate sponsorships related to the Oscars, the motion picture academy is generally thrilled with the project. It has agreed to lease the theater annually for the Oscars for the next 20 years.

Architect David Rockwell worked closely with academy technicians to build the theater to their specifications, resulting in something that looks like an opera house inside but works like a high-tech broadcast studio.

“We are delighted with the theater,” Davis said. “If there are mistakes in there, they’re our fault, because we had every chance. They built what we told them to build, and they built it beautifully.”

The only qualms among merchants and community leaders is whether the development will bring in too many people--or too much traffic. The city has put in left turn lanes and reconfigured traffic lights, and says traffic should be no worse than the current weekend crush.

“It’s going to do many things for Hollywood,” said City Councilman Eric Garcetti, who succeeded Goldberg. “It will become an anchor for the revitalization of Hollywood and Hollywood Boulevard, but it also will add pressure to an already stressed infrastructure.

“Everybody wants to see a Hollywood that isn’t seedy--I think there’s unanimity about that. . . . But now the challenge is: How do we make smaller projects work to fill in the space that is Hollywood? How do we take the momentum of the night life that’s resurged, and turn that into a day life that serves not just tourists but local residents, and makes tourists want to stay there?”

On Saturday night, 26-year-old espresso barista Travis Lee was closing up at the Green Room espresso bar on Hollywood Boulevard, a block from Hollywood & Highland. Lee lives right behind the new development, and has watched it--and heard it--rise for two years.

“I think all in all it’s a good thing, man,” he said. “I mean, this is the entertainment capital of the world, so you’ve got to keep up the name.”

Video showing Hollywood & Highland’s Babylon Court and the interior of the Kodak Theatre is available on The Times’ Web site at https://latimes.com/hollywood


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