Hollywood gazes into the future and sees skyscrapers

Hollywood, no stranger to the art of reinvention, is now at the center of a citywide urban planning makeover that could bring a sea of skyscrapers to the historic streets near the Walk of Fame.

New zoning guidelines approved this month by the Los Angeles City Planning Commission will make it easier for developers to build bigger and taller buildings in many parts of Hollywood, often with extra incentives for placing them near bus and subway stops.

It’s part of a grand vision of concentrating development around transit hubs — a doctrine Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa likes to call “elegant density.” The principle can be seen in the pricey downtown condos built over the last decade, and can be expected to be repeated in the future at current and future transit-rich communities like Woodland Hills and the Crenshaw district, officials say.

Ostensibly, Hollywood is a place where the payoff for the region’s multibillion-dollar investment in a rail transit network should be easy to recoup. After all, it has a pioneering past, and in recent years it has seen a burst of new development that has revitalized its central core.

But as the zoning changes head toward final City Council approval, some residents are fighting back. They contend that the new plan is based on inaccurate projections of population growth and future demand for new housing, retail and other development. And they worry that the new construction would increase traffic in an area already plagued with congestion.


Tourists come to Hollywood to see the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, they argue, not 50-story buildings like those that have been proposed for either side of the landmark 13-story Capitol Records building.

On Monday, a group of protesters gathered outside the Hollywood Towers apartment complex, where Villaraigosa held a rooftop news conference to urge approval of the new zoning guidelines. One protester held a sign that read: “Residents Hate This Plan.”

The community plan, part of the city’s all-encompassing General Plan, was last updated in 1988. It is the first of several reworked neighborhood-specific plans that officials hope to adopt in the coming year.

It envisions “a compact city that is growing vertically, mixing residential, commercial and industrial uses in new and interesting ways.” It generally limits development in single-family residential and historical neighborhoods, as well as the Hollywood Hills, but allows greatly increased density elsewhere, such as downtown Hollywood, along the Metro subway corridor. New size and height restrictions, for example, would allow towering buildings on Sunset and Hollywood boulevards just west of the 101 Freeway.

Developers with enough money, political will and lobbyists often can secure special permission to build more than allowed under city zoning guidelines. But that system has worked to hinder growth and has led to “piecemeal” development, Villaraigosa said. “This drawn-out, uncertain process was holding Hollywood back from revealing its full potential.”

The current zoning, he said, does not account for the increased transit capacity of five rail stops built in the area in the 1990s.

Joel Kotkin, an urban studies fellow at Chapman University, questions the assertion that transit stations justify denser development, or that adding large projects near bus and rail lines increases ridership.

“This is the endless Villaraigosa fantasy that you’ll get wealthy people to live near bus stops,” said Kotkin, a longtime critic of Los Angeles urban planning who has championed traditional suburban developments.

City Councilman Eric Garcetti, who represents much of Hollywood, said the plan does not create growth, only accommodates it. Hollywood development has helped reduce crime and change the image of the area, he said. “Hollywood used to be the butt of jokes,” he said. Now, “it’s a hot spot.”

Doug Haines, a member of the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council, said the neighborhood’s hard-fought resurgence, after slumping into a haunt for crack dealers and prostitution in the 1980s, should not be used to justify a wave of new development. “We feel like we’re being punished for sticking it out,” he said.

Hollywood began a recovery in the 1990s with the establishment of a business improvement district and the involvement of the Community Redevelopment Agency.

Two massive developments further transformed the landscape: the Hollywood & Highland Center shopping and entertainment complex, which received millions of dollars in city subsidies for an underground city-owned parking structure, and the billboard-wrapped W Hotel complex.

Although some new residents have been drawn to the new condos and night life on the streets near Hollywood Boulevard, census figures show the larger region lost about 6% of its population over the last decade — a point residents have used to challenge the necessity for intense new development.

City officials based their new plan on Southern California Assn. of Governments population forecasts showing Hollywood with 244,602 people in 2030 — about 23% more than the 2010 census count of 198,234.

Several residents have threatened to sue over the city’s population growth estimates — and other aspects of the plan — if it is passed.

Michael Woo, a former city councilman representing Hollywood who is now on the Planning Commission, voted to approve the plan earlier this month. He said planners did a good job of addressing residents’ concerns during about 150 community meetings.

He wishes the city had included architectural guidelines in the plan to avoid buildings that look like some other Hollywood developments, which he called “serviceable at best.”

Still, he added, city leaders are right to think big.

“This is really what government is supposed to be doing,” he said. “We’re supposed to be guessing and dreaming about the future. Who knows, in 2030, whether we’ll have been right.”