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Things are starting to look up for a revamped Hollywood high-rise

Hollywood’s tallest tower has shed its bones and skin -- and hopefully its reputation as the most cursed building in town.

The slender 20-story Sunset Vine Tower that was Los Angeles’ first modern skyscraper when it opened to international acclaim in 1963 at Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street has been converted into a luxury apartment building that will have its coming-out party Thursday.

The skyscraper has been vacant since late 2001, when an electrical transformer exploded, plunging it into darkness and sending employees of 40 companies with offices there running down stairwells to safety.

Because the electrical meltdown knocked out the building’s fire alarm system, city inspectors and fire officials for months barred workers from entering to remove files, office equipment and personal property.

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But with the building’s tenants locked out, vandals moved in, trashing some offices and stealing files and equipment. Neighbors were soon calling the place “the world’s biggest crack house.” Authorities ordered the tower fenced off about six months after the explosion.

When tenants were eventually allowed temporary access, the city refused to let them hook up a generator to operate the elevators. Instead, they had to hire professional movers to carry heavy equipment down the stairs. Those with upper-floor offices complained of having to pay as much as $1,200 to have a large copy machine carried down the stairs.

The high-rise’s headaches were just starting, however.

The building’s owner slid into bankruptcy, stalling repairs to the tower and leaving tenants who suffered damages totaling $2 million in further limbo.

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In 2003, the CIM Group, a commercial developer, acquired the padlocked skyscraper and began mapping plans to rehabilitate it. The company eventually decided to gut the building and convert it into residential units.

Workers dismantling rooftop equipment with a cutting torch accidentally set the tower on fire in 2005. Because the elevators were still out of service, firefighters had to carry hundred-pound loads of hose and gear up stairwells to fight the flames. Later, they had to undergo decontamination because of asbestos exposure.

Locals began calling the tower “the condom” after work crews wrapped it in a plastic shroud as they removed asbestos from its interior and untempered exterior glass panels from its sides.

When high winds ripped away part of the plastic and blew through the now skeletonized tower in early 2007 neighbors worried that asbestos particles might be raining down on them. But the carcinogenic fireproofing material had been completely removed three months earlier.

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At about the same time, a false report that the unwalled tower appeared to be “leaning” to one side surfaced on the Internet, and controversy erupted over plans to install giant billboards on its sides.

This week, officials with CIM Group described the quartet of nine-story vertical billboards as a necessary financial component of their $70-million investment in the tower. Along with residential rents that will range from $2,500 to $10,000 a month (the penthouse will go for $25,000 a month), three restaurants and a wine bar have leased space on the ground level.

John Given, a principal with the development company, said his firm was confident that it would find tenants willing to pay such rent. Several have already moved in, he said.

The tower’s proximity to Hollywood clubs, theaters and restaurants and entertainment industry employers, coupled with its spectacular corner-window views, should help fill it, Given said. “The previous owner had reached such a standoff with the city. We stepped in and tried to clean up the situation. We made a beautiful project on a bad corner,” he said.

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Ryan Harter, CIM Group’s vice president, said the iconic tower -- which was depicted as falling apart in the 1974 disaster movie “Earthquake” -- now has a state-of-the-art fire sprinkler system, a 30,000-gallon emergency water tank and a generator that will keep the elevators running during any future power failure.

The apartment units feature double-pane, floor-to-ceiling windows and loft-like 14-foot ceilings. Stephen Kanner, the Santa Monica architect who was in charge of the redevelopment project, said the residences were designed so that the exterior billboards would not spoil any views.

The advertising is positioned away from the units’ corner windows, and Kanner has placed studio-like bedroom areas along the solid walls that are behind signs facing north and south. Stairwells are positioned behind those facing east and west.

“It was an exciting challenge turning such a negative into a positive,” Kanner said.

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bob.pool@latimes.com


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