Before developers could build Century City’s first skyscraper, they had to scrape away vestiges of 20th Century Fox’s back lot.
Steel-jawed machines ripped apart Peyton Place and the village where Jennifer Jones portrayed a French peasant in 1943’s “The Song of Bernadette.” Bulldozers dismantled fake frontier towns and plowed under the island locale of TV’s “Adventures in Paradise.”
Now, half a century and three dozen or so high-rises later, the “city within a city” that supplanted the make-believe sets on 180 prime Westside acres is nearly completely built. But it hardly resembles the efficient car haven planners originally imagined.
One of the few remaining projects, a 37-story office tower proposed on prime real estate along Avenue of the Stars, has sparked a new round of debate over what has long been the district’s most distinctive feature — traffic congestion — and what can be done about it.
Century City has the peculiar distinction of being a jam-packed business center without freeway access. Its original planners thought the development would be built in concert with the Beverly Hills Freeway, which was designed to run along Santa Monica Boulevard. The skyline materialized, but the freeway never did.
That omission is blamed for much of the Westside’s notorious congestion. And there is a growing consensus that Century City’s future success will depend at least in part on taming the traffic.
As real estate investors attempt to make the most of the land that’s left, builders are pledging to incorporate incentives to carpool or take the bus. The challenge will be to overcome Century City’s heroic scale — its long, wide streets and tall buildings — and make it a more pleasant place for those wanting to get out of their cars and off the escalators.
“The Century City vision was both very compelling and a product of its times,” said Rick Cole, Los Angeles’ deputy mayor for budget and innovation. “This was a time of big projects: putting a man on the moon and building a completely modern city from scratch.”
The most momentous change could arrive underground: a rail station for the Purple Line subway extension. Still a dozen or more years away, the subway holds the tantalizing potential of providing a true alternative to the car culture that has dominated Century City.
The notion of a de facto downtown on the Westside took root in the late 1950s. Financial disaster loomed over 20th Century Fox as production costs for the studio’s epic movie “Cleopatra” spiraled out of control. A New York developer paid $5 million for an option on the studio’s back lot property, an oasis amid the sprawling city.
Planners envisioned Century City as a futuristic haven where thousands would work and live, and where residents and commuters alike would have ample space to drive and stash their vehicles. The development would feature grand streets with pedestrian bridges.
The sector became L.A.'s premiere business address — clean and safe — but it consciously turned its back on the sort of organic, street-level vibrancy so in vogue today.
And, without a Beverly Hills Freeway to whisk away traffic, it became an anomaly — a major commercial center surrounded by a golf course and neighborhoods whose residents soon felt the scourge of cut-through traffic.
“Century City is very sleek, clean and attractive, but it doesn’t belong there,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. “If the same circumstances existed today, there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that this kind of center would be built without any mass transit or freeway access.”
The outpost became a magnet for top-tier entertainment law firms, investment banks and insurance companies that could pay towering rents for prestigious addresses outside of L.A.'s lackluster downtown, closer to clients and to their own residences. The allure remains. The Broad Foundations of billionaire philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad, expanding in size and scope, recently announced a move to Century City from Westwood.
When it comes to tony new office structures in Los Angeles, the “only place that has worked” is Century City, said Paul Habibi, who teaches real estate at UCLA. “It’s one of the very few success stories in the Southern California office market.... Century City disabled downtown’s ability to blossom.” (Downtown’s office vacancy rate is about 20%, whereas Century City’s is 14.5%.)
Century City is old enough that some edifices have been torn down and replaced with ever more modern, larger structures; one 1960s hotel became the focus of a heated preservation battle.
The ABC Entertainment Center, demolished in 2002, made way for 2000 Avenue of the Stars, home to Creative Artists Agency, with a park-like area that reflects today’s desire for open space. And the 41-story Century condo tower that Candy Spelling calls home replaced the 30-story St. Regis Hotel, which was built in 1984 and razed in 2006.
Westfield demolished a former office building and built a $70-million parking structure, part of a planned $700-million redevelopment of its shopping center. Meanwhile, Next Century Associates expects to begin construction next year on a $2-billion project to upgrade the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza hotel and erect two 46-story towers behind it. (The preservation community persuaded the company not to demolish the hotel, now a local landmark.)
Residents of surrounding areas say they are bracing for the traffic that will inevitably accompany these and other yet-to-be-built additions.
Contrary to early projections, relatively few people live in Century City. Instead of 12,000 residents, an early guess, Century City is home to only about 2,400, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, and the housing is high-end and gated. Instead of the originally anticipated 20,000 workers, Century City welcomes more like 43,000 a day. The imbalance has contributed to a surfeit of traffic.
Century City was in its seminal years when Martin Milden and his family moved to Beverwil Drive in 1967. “The kids were able to play ball in the middle of the street — there was that little traffic,” Milden said. “Now, I can’t get in and out of my driveway.”
Efforts to build anything in Century City typically involve high-stakes negotiations in which developers, the city and resident groups battle over density and potential traffic.
The process has been exemplified by the dispute over the biggest project now wending its way through the planning process — JMB Realty’s 730,000-square-foot, $350-million Century City Center. Six years ago, the city approved for the site two 47-story residential towers, but the project has since been reimagined as an environmentally “green” office tower that someday could accommodate a Purple Line subway station.
JMB has vowed to pay $4 million for traffic studies and various improvements, including a shuttle to move Century City riders to and from the Expo Line light rail.
The project has plenty of supporters, including several homeowners associations, Councilman Paul Koretz and the Natural Resources Defense Council. But the Beverlywood Homes Assn., Westfield and another property owner, J.P. Morgan, have challenged it, contending that it is much denser than the city should allow.
On June 12, the city Planning Commission recommended approval, and the project will now go before the City Council’s planning committee and then the full council.
“The worst-case scenario,” Koretz said, “would be to have an empty lot in the middle of Century City for the next decade or two.”