Turning Housing into Hotel Rooms

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The Metropolitan on Sunset

If you needed any more proof that City Hall has no real interest in solving our housing crisis, you should have come to the September 12 hearing held by the Central Area Planning Commission. On the agenda was an appeal of a decision by the Department of City Planning (DCP) to approve a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) for transient occupancy at the Metropolitan Lofts on Sunset near Van Ness. There’s a long, complicated story behind this, but basically the owners want to be able to turn apartment units into hotel rooms. Susan Hunter, of the LA Tenants Union (LATU), filed an appeal to try and overturn the CUP. But the Commissioners sided with the owners, and gave them the go ahead to allow transient occupancy at the Metropolitan.

The September 12 session was actually continued from the August 8 hearing when the appeal was first heard. Taken together, these two hearings were a mind-numbing demonstration of the DCP’s arrogance and callousness. It has never been clearer that the DCP’s culture is geared toward serving private interests rather than the general public. Most of the Commissioners, along with DCP staff, bent over backwards to make allowances for the owners of the Metropolitan, while throwing the building’s tenants, and renters in general, under the bus.

The story of the Metropolitan is long and complicated, but to give you some background, here’s a brief recap….

The building originally started as a hotel back in the 80s. It ended up getting a reputation as a place to party, and by the 90s it was getting a lot of attention from the LAPD. After a while the owners decided they’d be better off turning it into an apartment building, and the DCP signed off on that in 2006. In their determination letter, the City Planning Commission said the conversion of the Metropolitan’s 52 units was consistent with both the General Plan and the Community Plan, and stated that the change would, “provide increased opportunities for residential living in Hollywood where it is appropriate and needed.”

Fast forward about 10 years. Hollywood has always been a hot spot for tourism, and with the advent of Short-Term Rentals (STRs), property owners can make a bundle posting units on AirBnB or any of the other popular sites that offer “home sharing”. This is especially attractive to landlords, who realize they can make a lot more money by getting rid of tenants and opening the door to tourists. The folks who own the Metropolitan were thinking they could cash in by turning the building back into a hotel, but they came up with a very creative way to do it. They didn’t just ask the City to turn the place back into a hotel, they requested a zoning overlay to make it into a Transit Occupancy Residential Structure (TORS), while maintaining the residential use. This way the owners could use the units as either apartments or hotel rooms, depending on how they feel on any given day.

Do you see a problem here? The small group of tenants who were still left at the Metropolitan sure did. You see, the owners decided they weren’t going to wait for the City’s approval. They actually allowed a company that specializes in STRs, Senstay, to start offering some units to travellers. The tenants started to see all kinds of strangers wandering up and down the halls with their luggage trailing behind. They found themselves letting in guests who didn’t have a key because there was no front desk to help visitors. They sometimes had to wait to use the laundry rooms because housekeeping staff was there ahead of them. And they started to worry about break-ins because things were getting stolen. These problems were piled on top of the problems they already had to deal with, like lighting that didn’t work, long periods when the AC was down, and elevators that were frequently out of service. And to make things even worse, they were required to pay fees for utilities, trash, and sewage through an on-line service which often added late charges for bills paid on time, in addition to a “convenience fee”.

It’s pretty clear that the Metropolitan owners don’t care about their tenants, and would like to get rid of them. Jerry Neuman, the owners’ representative at the hearing, claimed that they treated their tenants well, and that they didn’t intend evict anybody. That doesn’t jibe with the facts. All the residents I spoke to at the Metropolitan confirmed the problems listed above. And while the owners claim they’re not removing housing to make way for hotel rooms, they had allowed the number of tenants to dwindle to 15, and offered those who still remained money to leave. This sounds to me like they’re planning on turning the Metropolitan back into a hotel.

Which brings us back to Senstay. To give Commission President Jennifer Chung-Kim credit, she confronted Neuman with evidence supplied by appellant Hunter that the Metropolitan owners had been renting rooms to tourists for a while. Neuman’s response was one of the few amusing moments in an otherwise grimly depressing ordeal….

“As I understood it, that was a corporate lease. That was not…. I don’t…. and we…. our understanding…. and we have not rented our facility for temporary occupancy.”

But let’s take a look at the way Senstay presents itself on its own web site….

“Building upon Airbnb’s monetization and subsequent creation of a new asset class, we are passionate about bringing our own meld of ‘the sharing economy’ and traditional real estate investing to our clients.”

Senstay exists to facilitate STRs. That’s the business it’s in. When Commissioner Chung-Kim handed him the document, Neuman finally realized his clients were busted, and he decided not to say any more on the subject. There’s some ambiguity about whether the LA Municipal Code allows individuals to rent their homes as STRs, but it is illegal for landlords to turn multiple apartment units into STRs. So did the Commission follow up on this? Did they turn to the representative of the City Attorney’s office, who was sitting right there with them, and ask for an investigation? Did they recommend that the Housing & Community Investment Department take action against the owners for illegally offering apartments as STRs? Nope. They did nothing. They let the Metropolitan owners off the hook without any consequences whatsoever. The Commission just let it slide.

With the exception of Vice President Daphne Brogdon, it seemed like the Commission was ready to give the Metropolitan owners pretty much whatever they wanted. At the August 8 hearing, Brogdon repeatedly questioned the wisdom of allowing 52 apartments to be turned into hotel rooms in the middle of a housing crisis. She pointed out that allowing this dual use could be a precedent, leading to other landlords making the same request.

Neuman’s response? “As much as you may say that Hollywood…, that we have a housing crisis, we have an equal amount of crisis in the number of temporary occupancy units available in Hollywood.” It’s true that tourism is booming, and there is a demand for more hotel rooms throughout the city. But there are 25 hotels within a 1 mile radius of the site, and in Hollywood there are 13 more either under construction or currently making their way through the approval process. On top of all this, AirBnB alone offers hundreds of listings in the Hollywood area, without even counting those offered by platforms like VRBO, Oasis Collections, Housestay, and One Fine Stay. Oh, and let’s not forget Senstay. Honestly, I haven’t heard any stories about tourists sleeping on the street because they couldn’t find a hotel room.

But there are thousands of homeless people sleeping on LA’s streets, and Ellis Act evictions continue to climb, with over 1,000 rent-stabilized units being taken off the market annually. It’s amazing that in Neuman’s eyes the lack of hotel rooms for tourists represents a crisis equal to the lack of housing for residents.

So it was great to have Brogdon at the August 8 hearing to ask tough questions about adding the transit occupancy use. Unfortunately, that was her last day on the Commission. When the hearing continued on September 12, her seat was vacant, and no one was left to speak up for the tenants.

And speaking of the tenants, where were they during all this? None of the tenants that Hunter was representing made it to the August 8 hearing. It’s not always easy for people who work to make it to City Hall at 4:30 pm on a work day. But 4 of them showed up for the continuation in September. They came down because they wanted to speak about the habitability issues they’d experienced at the Metropolitan, and about the difficulty of living in a building that had already been partly converted to a hotel, and about their fears that the owners were planning on getting rid of them.

But they never got the chance to speak. Commission President Chung-Kim decided that since they’d already heard public comment on August 8, there was no need to hear any more. She had mentioned earlier that it was difficult to reopen public comment once it had been closed. Somehow, though, she had no problem doing exactly that back in August when she wanted to hear from the owners’ rep. Toward the close of that session, Chung-Kim wanted to get Neuman’s input on a possible compromise, and it seemed pretty simple to reopen public testimony. But in September somehow that wasn’t possible. This is actually something I’ve often seen at hearings held by the DCP’s various Commissions. They always seem more than willing to let the developers and their reps babble on endlessly, but public comment is usually strictly controlled. At the August hearing and the September continuation, Jerry Neuman had ample opportunity to talk about why his clients needed the CUP, and I’d be willing to bet he spoke more than any other individual in the room. But the tenants Hunter was representing, the people most affected by the change of use, weren’t allowed to say a single word.

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A shot of the September hearing.

I’ve been to a number of Commission hearings over the years, and I do feel like there’s definitely a bias in favor of owners and developers. But maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’ve got a chip on my shoulder. Or maybe, since the Commissioners are appointed by the Mayor, they all just share his enthusiasm for aggressive gentrification and rampant displacement. But there could be other reasons, too. It’s interesting that the owners’ rep at this hearing was Jerry Neuman of Liner LLP. In case you haven’t heard of Liner, they’re one of LA’s top lobbying firms. In fact, in the Ethics Commission’s 2nd quarter lobbying report for 2017, Liner ranked number one in terms of payments received, racking up $2,310,565. Pretty impressive. And one of Liner’s top clients is Harridge Development Group. If you take another look at the Ethics report, under the section for clients, you’ll find that Harridge is number 10 in terms of payments reported, having shelled out $118,765. But that’s actually kind of misleading. If you really want to know what kind of money Harridge is throwing around, you should take a look at the number 2 spot on the list. This is where you’ll find Crossroads Associates LLC, which is behind Crossroads Hollywood, a massive complex planned for Sunset and Highland, and even though the name is different, this is also a Harridge project. For this project the client has paid out $393,837, and the recipients were the swell folks at Liner LLP.

So what does all this have to do with the Metropolitan? If you look at the applicant for the Metropolitan’s request to the DCP, you’ll see Brad Woomer, 5825 West Sunset Boulevard, LLC. The company is just another anonymous LLC, but it turns out Woomer is the Chief Financial Officer for Harridge. So the people behind the request for transient occupancy at the Metropolitan just happen to be the same people who figure so prominently on the Ethics Commission’s lobbying report. And the firm handling the request is none other than Liner LLP, which ranked number one in terms of payments recieved in the same report. Liner is definitely well connected. Among the agencies they’ve lobbied for the Crossroads project are the City Attorney, the City Council, Building & Safety, and of course, the Department of City Planning.

But maybe this has nothing to do with how the Metropolitan hearing went. Maybe I’m just a crazy conspiracy freak with nothing better to do than pore over Ethics Commission reports and show up at grindingly dull Commission hearings. (Seriously, I think I need to get a life.) Whatever the reason, the Commissioners voted to deny the appeal and grant the CUP. The Metropolitan owners can now legally turn residential units into hotel rooms. And since this does seem to be a precedent, it opens the doors for other landlords to do exactly the same thing.

Still, the Commission had to make it look like they were taking care of the tenants. So between the August and September hearings, Neuman met with DCP staff to work out a set of conditions that were supposedly going to make everything okay. The conditions included granting the remaining tenants a 4 month extension on their lease, and the option to move to a part of the building where they would be consolidated, the idea being that this would resolve conflicts with short-term guests. The Commission acted as though they were doing everything they could to protect the tenants, but it’s really all a game, because the City rarely enforces any of these conditions. Even when violations are brought to the City’s attention, enforcement is generally so lax as to be meaningless. Agreements like these are put in place to make it look like the DCP is doing its job. Once the hearing is over, it’s just a lot of language to be stuck in a file and forgotten.

So that was it. The Commissioners denied the appeal. The Metropolitan owners got their CUP. And after it was over the tenants stood outside the hearing room, realizing that the City had thrown them under the bus. For me it was one more maddening demonstration of the City’s staggering disregard for the rights of LA’s renters. I can’t imagine how the tenants felt. The DCP seemed to be saying to them, “We just don’t give a damn about you.”

The appellant, Susan Hunter, who’s a friend of mine, was frustrated, but has refused to give up. She’s been working on trying to find legal representation for the tenants so they can get relief from the courts. This isn’t her first fight, and it won’t be her last. I have to give credit to Susan for her tenacity, and to all the others in this town who keep pushing for some kind of justice. It’s got to be tough to keep going when the deck is clearly stacked against you.

P.S.
In the post above I mentioned Jerry Neuman’s claim that the owners had no intention of evicting anybody, and that they just wanted the option to post vacant units for transient occupancy. Well, since the hearing I’ve been told by Susan Hunter that the tenants she does not represent have been told to vacate the premises. They’re supposed to be out by Christmas.

Met Side

 

Moral Mondays in Hollywood

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Does it seem to you like this country is coming apart at the seams? There’ so much turmoil right now, just looking at the news can be a frightening experience. So it was really reassuring to sit in on a Moral Mondays meeting last week. About a dozen people gathered at a coffee house in Hollywood to talk about how to deal with healthcare, homelessness, and environmental issues. There was no tension, no anger. Just people sitting around a table talking about solutions.

Moral Mondays began a few years ago in North Carolina. It was originally a movement led by religious progressives who were alarmed at actions taken by the legislature in that state. Since then Moral Mondays has evolved into an ongoing effort to press for social justice, with the movement spreading to Georgia, Illinois, New Mexico, and now California.

The group usually meets on Mondays at Elderberries on Sunset, an old school coffee house stuffed with books and art. The meeting was moderated by Kait Ziegler, who led the discussion and recorded everyone’s ideas on a sheet of paper propped up on the piano. The question for the evening was, How do you reach out to align groups with different interests? In other words, How do you bring people together? There are hundreds of groups out there campaigning for all sorts of things, from affordable housing to healthcare, from voting rights to the environment. And of course, we all feel the issue we’re engaged in is the most important. So how do we step outside of ourselves to see the bigger picture?

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Elderberries is filled with all kinds of art…

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…and hundreds of books.

Everybody in the room agreed that empathy was the key. Kait suggested one way to practice that was to, “Imagine yourself as your neighbor.” That’s not easy. Most of us are pretty wrapped up in our own lives, often because it takes so much energy just to keep our own head above water. And everybody agreed that extending empathy to others can be difficult. There are so many people in need, and we all have to maintain some boundaries. But we still need to make the effort. Sometimes just letting people know that you’re listening can be powerful.

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Setting up for the meeting.

None of us came up with any brilliant solutions that night, but for me it was encouraging just to sit with a group of people who want to find solutions. Rather than letting the world get them down, or running from the chaos, these people are trying to make the world a better place. I was really struck when somebody said, “One of the biggest problems is that people feel helpless. We’re trained to think we’re helpless.” Is this true? Maybe. How many times have I heard people say they don’t watch the news because it’s depressing? How many times have I heard people say there’s no point in voting because it doesn’t matter who gets elected?

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Kait moderated the discussion and wrote down everybody’s ideas.

We’re not helpless. We can make things better. One of the other attendees said, “If everyone in this town took one small action, change would happen.” This is true. History has proved it, over an over again. Change won’t be easy. It won’t happen overnight. But it can happen.

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The Hollywood Rip-Off

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The other day I picked up a copy of the LA Weekly and came across Besha Rodell’s review for Tao in Hollywood. Clueless loser that I am, I’d never heard of this popular mini-chain before, and had no idea it had been a huge success in New York and Las Vegas. Tao’s latest location is tucked into the just-opened Dream Hotel in Hollywood, and it seems to be doing big business. But Rodell wasn’t impressed. At all. You can read his review here.

Worse Than We Imagined from LA Weekly

Reading Rodell’s description of the decor’s garish excess and ridiculously inflated prices, I felt like his review could apply to a lot of what’s happening in Hollywood these days. The Dream Hotel and Tao just seem like the latest in City Hall’s efforts to wreck the community.

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Tao on Selma in Hollywood

Does that sound extreme? And does it sound strange to be railing against garish excess in Hollywood? Hasn’t that been Hollywood’s game all along? Certainly if you look at the movie industry’s output, from the lurid spectacles of the 20s to this summer’s CGI-fueled action flicks, you’ll find plenty of outrageous, vacuous entertainment. You could also point to the sumptuous nightclubs and decadent nightlife that flourished during the studio era, when gossip columns were filled with the shameless antics of movie stars.

But the studio era ended decades ago, and over the years the place called Hollywood has grown into something very different. For a long time now it’s been a low to middle-income community with a fairly dense mix of residential and commercial. The movie stars are long gone, but there are lots of hardworking people here, people who run small shops and family-owned restaurants. Would-be actors and actresses who knock themselves out waiting tables while trying to get auditions. Kids who walk to school on streets where they have to learn early to look out for themselves.

And these people are struggling harder than ever because the City seems to be doing everything it can to push them out of Hollywood. What these people need more than anything is housing they can afford, and instead the City keeps approving high-end mutli-family projects that most Hollywood residents could never hope to move into. Yes, some affordable units have been created in recent years, but the wave of evictions continues, and we’re still losing scores of rent-stabilized apartments.

And with all this going on, the City decides we need over a dozen new high-end hotels? With multiple bars? Rooftop decks? Live entertainment? In some cases right up against apartment buildings? Really?

The City has long said that one of the key components to its plan to revitalize Hollywood is to boost the night life, but how’s that working out? I like a drink as well as the next guy, but last time I counted there were 67 places that serve alcohol in Central Hollywood. It’s not hard to get a drink here. And still the City continues to approve new liquor permits, even though violent crime and property crimes have been rising steadily in the area since 2014. Are you wondering if there’s a connection? Actually there are years of research that show a strong connection between alcohol and crime. Check out this report from the Department of Justice if you’re skeptical.

Alcohol and Violent Crime

And then there’s the traffic. Every time the City approves one of these projects, planners insist it won’t have any significant impact on congestion because Hollywood is a transit hub. The hotel guests and the partiers won’t need to drive because they can ride the bus instead. Well, take a look at these photos I snapped in front of the Dream Hotel around seven o’clock on Saturday night.

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Cars lining up in front of the hotel.

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The line of cars continues west on Selma.

And now let’s take a look at traffic a half a block away on Cahuenga.

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A shot of traffic on Cahuenga, facing Hollywood.

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A shot of traffic on Cahuenga, facing Sunset.

Remember, this is not a weekday at rush hour. This is early evening on a Saturday. Somehow I don’t find the City’s claims about people taking transit to be completely credible.

It used to be the club scene in Hollywood was mostly concentrated on Cahuenga. But the City wants to change that. Selma used to be a fairly quiet street running through a largely residential neighborhood between Vine and Highland. There’s a senior center about a block and a half away from the Dream Hotel. And there’s an elementary school about two blocks away in the other direction. But the City doesn’t seem too concerned about the elderly or the children living in the neighborhood. Our elected officials are going to turn Selma into a party corridor. A few years back Mama Shelter opened up, now the Dream, and the City Planning Commission (CPC) recently approved the tommie, an eight-story hotel featuring 2 bars, a rooftop deck, and live entertainment. It didn’t bother the CPC at all that Selma Elementary is less than 500 feet away from this latest project.

And you haven’t even heard the best part. Just blocks away, a developer is planning to build the massive Crossroads Hollywood project, and they’re asking for a master alcohol permit to allow 22 establishments to serve alcohol. You read that right. Twenty two. And not only is Crossroads Hollywood in close proximity to Selma Elementary, it’s right across the street from Hollywood High School.

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The front of the Dream Hotel.

This is the City’s idea of revitalizing Hollywood. We need low-cost housing. They give us high-end hotels. We need relief from violent crime. They keep pouring on the alcohol. Meanwhile traffic is worse than ever, transit ridership continues to decline, and the number of homeless keeps growing.

City Hall keeps saying they’re trying to bring Hollywood back to life. Why does it feel like they’re trying to kill it?

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Lost LA through a Camera Lens

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A view of Downtown circa 1960 from The Exiles.

Los Angeles has changed a lot over the past hundred years. Rapid population growth, rampant real estate speculation and a slew of technological advances have caused the city to expand and mutate with amazing speed. And one of the most interesting things about LA is that it has recorded those changes since almost the beginning of the 20th century. As the center of the global film industry, and a major hub for all media, it’s always in one spotlight or another. You might say Los Angeles is obsessed with seeing itself in the mirror.

When the film industry first moved west back in the teens, there were a number of production companies shooting silent two-reelers on LA’s streets. Nobody was thinking about documenting the city as it was beginning to grow. Location shooting was just a cheap way to make movies. Hollywood silents made before 1920 are filled with scenes of the city’s early days, but because there hadn’t been much development and few of the familiar landmarks existed, it’s often hard to identify the streets and neighborhoods that appear in the background.

In the 20s Hollywood became studio bound, and for about two decades location shooting was the exception rather than the norm. But in the 40s studio crews started to venture back out into the streets. Many of the crime films shot after WWII used LA as a backdrop for the action. In the 60s, independent filmmakers started shooting all kinds of movies on the city’s streets. By the 80s filmmakers had begun to use the city self-consciously, making deliberate references not just to the city’s past but to its movie past.

Looking at the films shot over the years on LA’s streets we can see a broad panorama of the city’s history, but one that’s still maddeningly incomplete. While some locations appear over and again, there are whole communities that never appear at all. And so much of it is totally random. In a few cases filmmakers deliberately set out to take a good, hard look at the landscape and the people. Others focussed on famous landmarks that have a specific meaning for movie audiences, or used their settings to evoke nostalgia. And others just didn’t have the money to shoot anywhere else and let their location scout call the shots.

I watch a lot of movies, and as I’ve gotten older, I’m more aware than ever of how they reflect the changes that have happened over the course of LA’s history. I’m especially fascinated by images of things that no longer exist. Change is inevitable. The city’s landscape is never the same from one day to the next. Even when the streets and structures stay the same, the people, the customs, the culture keep changing, and that transforms the landscape, too.

In this post I’m pulling together images of places and spaces that have disappeared. I’ve been thinking about doing something like this for a while. It took me months to get around to it. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out which movies to focus on, but I can’t even explain why I ended up choosing these six. The only thing they have in common is that they show pieces of LA that no longer exist. And trying to approach them in some kind of order was impossible. Or maybe better to say there were too many possibilities. Should I have organized them by the year the films were made? Or maybe used the locations to tell some kind of story? Or should I have tried to find a theme that ties them all together?

In the end I just decided to dive in and let my intuition guide me. This post may not even make sense, but hopefully you’ll get something out of the images. Let’s start in Downtown….

In the late 50s, Kent Mackenzie began working on a film set in Bunker Hill that focussed on the Native American community living in the area. The Exiles took over three years to make, and the production had more than its share of problems, but the end result was a unique blend of documentary and fiction that gave voice to people whose voices had never been heard before. Bunker Hill began in the 19th century as one of the city’s first upscale developments. By the middle of the 20th century the rich were long gone, and the aging homes that remained now housed a diverse low-income community. The Native Americans who lived there had left the reservations behind, looking for a different kind of life. In LA they were relegated to the margins of society, but living in Bunker Hill they at least had some kind of community. That lasted until City Hall declared the area “blighted”, and began pushing residents out as civic leaders and business interests pursued a massive redevelopment project.

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Angel’s Flight climbing Bunker Hill next to the Third Street Tunnel.

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A closer shot of Angel’s Flight with apartments in the background.

The Exiles captures the lives of three Native Americans as they live through a single night in Downtown LA. Shot entirely on location, it shows these people in their homes, on the streets, in bars and juke joints, and finally gathering on a hill that looks out over the nighttime landscape. It’s a vivid picture of a vanished world.

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One of the vanished streets of Bunker Hill.

Displacement is a recurring theme that runs through the whole history of Los Angeles. The city’s original Chinatown was situated on the edge of Downtown, straddling Alameda between Aliso and Macy (now Cesar Chavez Avenue). But in the 20s voters approved funds for a new rail terminal, and much of the Chinese community had to relocate to make way for Union Station.

In the late 40s Anthony Mann made a startling series of thrillers, often giving them a sense of immediacy by shooting on real locations. Much of T-Men is shot in LA, and it features glimpses of what was left of Chinatown in 1947. Check out this first still, which shows a determined US Treasury agent walking across Alameda with Union Station in the background.

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Dennis O’Keefe crossing Alameda Street in T-Men.

Then the camera pans to follow him, and on the west side of Alameda we see Ferguson Alley, a remnant of the original Chinese community.

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Ferguson Alley, one of the last remnants of LA’s original Chinatown.

Our hero visits a number of herbalists looking for someone who recalls selling a specific blend to a certain man. It’s a brief montage, but it gives us a look at what was left of early Chinatown after WWII. Eventually, these buildings were also levelled. After some false starts, a new, more modern, and more touristy, Chinatown was built to the north and west of the original site.

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O’Keefe mounts the stairs to an herbalist’s shop.

Crime Wave, directed by André de Toth, was also shot largely on location and gives a sweeping view of Los Angeles in the 50s. While it features a number of Downtown locales, the climactic bank heist takes place across the LA River in Glendale. The suburbs were thriving in the first decade after the war, and the film gives us a view of what Brand Boulevard looked like back in the day. In this scene we’re riding with Gene Nelson and Ted de Corsia as they drive up to the Bank of America at the corner of Brand and Broadway.

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The Bank of America at Brand and Broadway in Glendale.

The suburbs were a product of car culture, and cars are central to the story. The main character is an ex-con who’s forced to become the gang’s getaway driver. The scenes before and after the robbery offer numerous shots from the perspective of the man behind the wheel. And an abandoned car serves as an important key in the cops’ search to track down the criminals.

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The corner of Brand and Broadway.

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Ted de Corsia inside the Bank of America.

Crime Wave is tough as nails and brimming with tension, but even if you’re not into classic crime flicks, it’s worth watching for the way it maps out the city in the 50s. The final car chase more or less follows the actual path you’d take from Glendale back to Downtown, speeding down Brand toward the Hyperion Bridge.

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Another shot of Brand near Broadway.

By the late 60s suburbia had spread across the San Fernando Valley. Car culture played a major role in the rapid proliferation of housing tracts tied together by the ever expanding freeway system. Thousands of families moved to the suburbs in pursuit of a placid and prosperous lifestyle.

Which was an illusion. You can escape the city, but you can’t escape reality. The US was going through a violent upheaval, rocked by a string of political assassinations and a growing protest movement. Director Peter Bogdanovich looked past the supermarkets and the swimming pools and saw a side of the suburbs that most people were determined to ignore. Bogdanovich had been doing odd jobs for low-budget director/producer Roger Corman. Through Corman he got a chance to direct his first feature, Targets. The film follows a young man living with his parents and his wife in a tidy little house in the Valley, who one day picks up a gun and starts shooting people.

Targets is an innovative and unnerving look at the suburbs, America’s obsession with guns, and our twisted relationship with the movies. After following the young killer as he randomly picks off a number of unsuspecting victims, Bogdanovich stages a chilling climax that offers a complex reflection of the American landscape at the time. Cars lined up in rows at a drive-in movie, moms, dads, children and teens watching a horror flick unfold, when suddenly a sniper starts shooting at the audience from behind the screen.

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The marquee at the Reseda Drive-In.

The film was shot at the Reseda Drive-In, which was located at the corner of Reseda and Vanowen. It survived into the 70s, when it was torn down and replaced by a business park. Aside from the fact that it’s an arresting and original debut feature (one of Bogdanovich’s best), Targets also offers a fascinating glimpse of the vanished world of drive-in theatres. Passionately devoted to movies since childhood, the director records every aspect of the experience, from the people visiting the snack bar to the projectionist putting the reels in motion.

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The drive-in before the show starts.

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The playground near the screen.

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The snack bar.

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The projectionist setting the film in motion.

Hollywood has always been shameless about the strategies it uses to lure audiences to the movies. Two of the most common tactics are jumping on whatever fad is currently sweeping the nation, and exploiting people’s nostalgia for a past that never existed. Xanadu tries to do both at the same time. The story follows the efforts of two men, inspired by a muse, who come together to create a new nightclub that will bring back the glory of the big band era while catering to the roller disco crowd. Yeah, it’s a pretty strange movie, and one that will probably only appeal to those with a taste for bizarre kitsch. But I found out that parts of it were shot at the Pan-Pacific Auditorium, and decided I had to check it out.

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The front of the Pan-Pacific Auditorium.

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A closer shot of the Pan-Pacific.

For years the Pan-Pacific was a major venue, hosting car shows, sporting events and the Ice Capades. Designed by the firm of Wurdeman and Becket, the striking streamline moderne facade was one of LA’s architectural landmarks for decades. But it closed in the 70s, and though it was later listed on the National Register of Historic Places, no one was able to find a way to make it viable again. It was destroyed by fire in 1989.

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Another view of the Pan-Pacific.

It’s possible that if the Pan-Pacific had survived a while longer, it might have been revived. The local preservation movement was just taking shape in the 80s. But for years Los Angeles was seen as a city without a history, in large part because the people who lived here didn’t have a sense of its history. Buildings were put up and knocked down based on whatever the market dictated, and few people worried about what was lost in the process. Visitors from other places talked about how the city felt impermanent, and complained about a sense of rootlessness.

Having lived here all my life, I don’t see it that way, and I’ve had a hard time understanding what people from other places are talking about. But I think I got a taste of it the last time I watched Wim Wender’s The State of Things. It tells the story of a director shooting a sci-fi film in Europe whose funding dries up, and he flies to LA to get some answers. Friedrich picks up a rental car at LAX and sets out to track his producer down, speeding along the the endless freeways, cruising the wide boulevards of Hollywood and Century City. He seems lost, totally disconnected from the city around him. Watching the film again recently I think I began to understand the sense of disclocation so many complain about. Friedrich is just one more in a long line of European filmmakers who have found themselves wandering LA’s vast landscapes, squinting into the sun as they try to make sense of it all.

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Friedrich, played by Patrick Bauchau, cruising down the freeway in a rental car.

Many of LA’s buildings were never meant to be permanent. They were constructed by people who saw a market for a product and moved quickly to jump on whatever trend was popular at that moment. The roadside restaurants and coffee shops that started springing up after WWII weren’t meant to last forever. They were meant to catch a driver’s attention and pull them in before they sped past. The commercial architects who worked on these projects in the 50s quickly realized that the more extravagant and unusual a building was, the more likely it was to draw people in. The building became its own advertisement.

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Tiny Naylor’s at the corner of Sunset and La Brea.

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Bauchau orders a cup of coffee from a car hop.

As I said, nobody thought these structures would last through the ages. But as the years wore on, architects and critics began to value these brash, flashy buildings. And the people who had frequented these places had gotten attached to them. In the 60s if a developer had levelled one of these coffee shops, nobody would have batted an eye. By the 90s, preservationists were arguing that they held a special place in the area’s culture and should be protected.

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Another shot of Tiny Naylor’s.

That was too late for Tiny Naylor’s, located at Sunset and La Brea. The building, a Googie masterpiece by architect Douglas Honnold, was designed so that people could park outside and be served in their cars, a common feature of coffee shops from the era. The State of Things, released in 1982, captures Tiny Naylor’s in all its glory. A few years later it was torn down and replaced with a shopping mall.

The argument over what should be saved and what should be torn down will go on for as long as LA exists, and that’s part of the dynamic of any urban area. Cities are formed by the tension between the past and the future. LA will go on changing. And the movies will go on watching it change.

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Bauchau in an office building at Sunset and Vine, gazing at the LA landscape as it stretches out to the horizon.

 

LA’s Latest Innovation: Freeway-Adjacent Rooftop Decks

RD Ovrcast

You just never know what the City of LA will come up with next….

There was an empty lot in my neighborhood that had been sitting vacant for years.  After a developer pitched a hotel for the site and got turned down, a new project came along consisting of 18 3-story condos.  It seemed like a good fit, the Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council (HHWNC) looked it over and gave it a thumbs up, and construction started last year.

Everything seemed okay until last November when I noticed what looked like a railing going up around the perimeter of the roof.  Were they adding rooftop decks?  That wasn’t mentioned in the hearing notice for the project or the environmental assessment, and it wasn’t part of the project approved by the HHWNC.  Not long after the railing went up, it became clear that the construction crew had added staircases leading to the roof, and soon they were building stairwell coverings.

Why was I concerned?  Well, here in Hollywood people like to give parties.  Nothing wrong with parties in general, but sometimes they get pretty noisy, and sometimes they go on really late.  It’s already an issue in the neighborhood, and building 18 individual rooftop decks seemed like it was just increasing the chances of someone throwing an all-night open-air bash.

So initially my concern was selfish.  I was worried about the noise this project might create, and I was wondering why the rooftop decks hadn’t been included in the package that was presented to the community and approved by the Department of City Planning (DCP).  I called up my City Council office, and talked to a very nice guy who said he’d look into it.  Over the next two months I sent three e-mails to this Council Office staffer asking for an update.  Never got an answer.

But during that time it occurred to me that there might be another problem with this project, a much more serious issue than raucous late night parties….

You see, these condos are going up right next to the Hollywood Freeway.  I’d say at the farthest point the structure is about 150 feet from the freeway and at the nearest point about 50.   I started wondering if building so close to a major traffic corridor wouldn’t pose health risks for the future occupants, so I got on the net to do some research.

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The space between the project site and the freeway.

Probably everybody reading this already knows what I found out.  There’s a large body of research showing a higher incidence of respiratory problems among people who live near freeways.  The risk is especially high for children and seniors.  In fact, young people can suffer lifelong damage since ongoing exposure to pollutants from auto exhaust may affect the development of their lungs.  This problem has gotten a lot of media attention recently, but the information has been out there for years.  USC has been studying the effects of air pollution on children since the 90s.  Here’s an article published by USC News back in 2004.

USC Study Links Smoggy Air to Lung Damage in Children, September 2004

Not long after, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) published their Air Quality and Land Use Handbook, warning cities about the risks of building housing near freeways.  Here’s the number one item on the handbook’s list of recommendations.

“Avoid siting new sensitive land uses within 500 feet of a freeway, urban roads with 100,000 vehicles/day, or rural roads with 50,000 vehicles/day.”

So the information has been out there for more than a decade, and the City Council is well aware of the health impacts to people living close to freeways.  They’ve talked about ways to deal with the risks, but very little has happened in the way of concrete action.  In fact, in recent years the Council has approved thousands of residential units in close proximity to freeways.  They argue that LA’s housing shortage is so dire we can’t afford to prohibit construction in these areas even if there are health risks.  Even though I don’t buy that argument, I know that many people would agree.

But rooftop decks?!  Are they crazy?!

After reading up on the potential health risks, the idea of adding rooftop decks to these condos seemed so absolutely insane I thought it was worth making a few phone calls.  I rang up the woman at the DCP who prepared the initial study for the project.  I explained that the rooftop decks hadn’t been included in the project description or the renderings that were shown to the HHWNC, and that the height had increased by 30%.  She said that the project complied with existing zoning and that the Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) had the final authority over what was permitted.  I asked how the DCP could allow this since noise impacts from rooftop decks weren’t considered in the environmental assessment.  She replied that the DCP had considered operational impacts from the project and had approved the assessment.  Finally, I pointed out that the rooftop decks posed significant potential health risks to the future tenants.  Her response was that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) did not require the DCP to consider impacts to those who would live on the site in the future.

I was angry, but not really surprised.  I’ve realized over the last few years that the folks at the DCP really don’t care about how proposed projects will affect the lives of the people who live in this city.  It’s all about keeping the developers happy.

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Traffic on the Hollywood Freeway near the project site.

Who knows why I even went on to contact LADBS.  I guess I must get some kind of sick kick out of banging my head against a wall.  Anyway, here’s their response.

 

The roof top decks and the overall building height of 44.9 feet is allowed by right, therefore LADBS does have the ability to approve the project as proposed.  The Zoning Variance reviewed by City Planning only addressed a parking requirement.  City Planning has approved the plans for the current project.

LADBS’ authority to approve projects is based on Building Code requirements.  The Building Code does not have any restrictions for a rooftop deck near a freeway.

 

So according to LADBS, they did everything by the book.  They don’t see a problem.

But there is a problem here.  It’s bad enough that a developer is allowed to present one project to the community and then build something substantially different.  But it’s even worse when a developer is allowed to create a clear health risk for the people who will live in the finished building.

I tried arguing with the bureaucrats who approve these projects and got nowhere.  Maybe it’s time to take it to the higher-ups.  If you feel there’s a problem here that needs to be addressed, I hope you’ll feel strongly enough about it to write an e-mail to the three people listed below.  And please use the following subject line….

Freeway-Adjacent Rooftop Decks at 2111 Cahuenga

Eric Garcetti, Mayor

mayor.garcetti@lacity.org

Vince Bertoni, Director of City Planning

vince.bertoni@lacity.org

Frank M. Bush, LADBS General Manager

frank.bush@lacity.org

RD Tight

 

 

Tenants Kicked Out as Landlords Cash In

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Ellis Act evictions are so common in LA these days that I’ve gotten used to hearing reports of landlords kicking their tenants out. It happens all the time. As speculative development continues to push property values higher, property owners are eager to cash in. Over 20,000 units have been removed from the rental market through the Ellis Act since 2000. And in addition to the thousands of tenants who’ve been kicked out under Ellis, it’s likely that thousands more have lost their apartments because they were bamboozled by unscrupulous landlords using cash-for-keys scams.

In the course of writing this blog I’ve met a number of people who’ve either already been evicted or are facing eviction. So when I went to meet a group of tenants who live in a small building on Las Palmas it seemed like a familiar scenario. The owner plans to demolish the existing structure in order to build a 7-story mixed-use project, and so the people currently living there have got to go. The breadwinners in these families are working hard to make ends meet, and odds are they’re getting by on paychecks that add up to well below LA’s median income. While I’m sure they’re worried about getting evicted, one thing that encouraged me is that they seemed much more angry than scared. They’re not going to take this lying down.

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Some of the tenants facing eviction.

The tenants are paying much less than the area’s median rent, but they’re also getting next to nothing in terms of repairs and maintenance. I could see walking into the building that the owner wasn’t taking care of it properly. The tenants told me a number of stories about problems with their units that the landlord was either slow to fix or didn’t fix at all. My guess is that he’s been sitting on the property, waiting for the right deal to come along, and didn’t see any point in spending money on upkeep. I should mention that he has laid out some cash to fix up a few of the units, just not the ones that are occupied by the current tenants. You may be asking, why would he do that? The answer is simple. He’s posting the refurbished units on the net as short-term rentals. This is a pretty common practice. Landlords are doing it all over the city, and it’s more or less legal unless the tenants were evicted under the Ellis Act. So when we talk about a shortage of apartments in LA, we have to remember that there are probably thousands of units that are actually being used as unofficial hotel rooms.

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Council District 13 Candidate Sylvie Shain.

My friend Sylvie Shain came by to talk with the tenants. Sylvie is running for the CD 13 council seat, in large part because of her concern over LA’s affordable housing crisis. She knows first-hand what it’s like to be evicted, having been forced out of her apartment by owners who planned to turn the building into a boutique hotel. Sylvie spent over an hour with the tenants, giving them info on what protections they had under the law and helping them figure out their next steps.

Several days later I went to a neighborhood council meeting on the proposed project. The purpose of the meeting was to talk about the impacts of the new structure, not the eviction of the current tenants, but it’s hard to separate the two. The owner has said that he will reserve seven units in the new building to replace the seven units that are currently occupied in the old building, and that he will offer them to the current tenants at the price they’re now paying. This may sound like a good deal, but there are a few problems with it. First, the owner hasn’t actually signed an agreement, which means he’s under no obligation to honor these terms. Second, while the owner is offering to replace seven units, there are actually fifteen units in the existing building that are covered by the rent stabilization ordinance (RSO). His deal would mean the loss of eight more RSO units. This may not sound like a lot by itself, but thousands of RSO units have been taken off the market in recent years, which is one of the reasons affordable housing is so scarce these days. Third, the owner knows that the new structure will probably take a couple of years to complete. If the current tenants get forced out, there’s a good chance they won’t find anything they can afford in LA. It’s entirely possible that by the time the proposed project is completed, none of them will still be living in the area, and he won’t have to offer them anything.

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Neighborhood Council meeting on the proposed project.

Then there’s the way the Department of City Planning (DCP) is trying to push this project through. They’re trying to approve it with a categorical exemption, which means they’re arguing that because it’s in-fill development and conforms to the current zoning, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) doesn’t require an environmental assessment. And to make that argument, they cite CEQA Guidelines, Section 15332. But CEQA requires that the project meet a number of conditions in order to grant the exemption, including the following….

Approval of the project would not result in any significant effects relating to traffic, noise, air quality, or water quality.

Traffic is already getting to be a problem on Las Palmas. Formerly a quiet residential street with one lane going each direction, in recent years it’s become a short cut for drivers looking to avoid congestion on Highland during rush hour. And traffic on Las Palmas is going to get a lot worse, because in addition to this project there are two others about the same size that are currently under construction, one just to the north and one just to the south of the existing building. But wait, there’s more. At the corner of Las Palmas and Franklin work recently began on a complex that wil contain over 100 units. In other words, if this project is approved, the neighborhood will gain about 300 units, which will definitely have a significant impact on traffic.*

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Traffic northbound on Las Palmas at rush hour.

What’s more, the proposed project is about 500 feet away from the facility that houses both the Canyon Pre-School and the Las Palmas Sr. Center. Children and seniors are known to be sensitive receptors, and to say that there will be no significant impacts to air quality or noise levels during construction is ridiculous. The kids and seniors at this small facility already suffered an onslaught of construction dust and noise when work on the project at Las Palmas and Franklin began last year. But the DCP apparently just doesn’t give a damn, and so they’re trying to rush this project through with no environmental review whatsoever.

After the neighborhood council meeting, I contacted the DCP hearing officer to find out what the timetable was for the project’s approval. It’s tentatively scheduled to go before the City Planning Commission on April 13, though it could get pushed back. Meanwhile, the tenants wait and wonder whether they’ll have to find a new place to live, in a city where rents are spiralling higher every year.

*
Some housing advocates may be cheered by this news, but don’t get too excited. The vast majority of these units will be well beyond the reach of those making the area’s median income, $34,807 a year. [Source: LA Times, Measuring income along L.A.’s Metro stations by Kyle Kim and Sandra Poindexter, March 4, 2016]

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View of construction site from Highland.

Fantasy and Reality

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Last week a friend of mine called to tell me he’d just seen La La Land. The movie knocked him out, and he urged me to see it. I didn’t need too much urging, since I’d already heard good stuff about it. So last night I went down to the Arclight to see what all the fuss was about.

I loved the movie. I was hooked from the opening sequence, a massive dance number in the middle of a freeway traffic jam. In fact, it started off so well I was afraid the makers wouldn’t be able to sustain that level of energy and creativity throughout. But I didn’t need to worry. Writer/director Damien Chazelle shows amazing skill and style. I was completely swept up in this archetypal Hollywood romance, and pulled into the lives of the struggling actress and the stubborn musician.

I was so completely involved that I was totally bummed when the film stopped abruptly and the theatre’s fire alarm started sounding. But we all got up and went outside. The courtyard was packed and it was freezing cold while we waited to see what would happen. Fortunately, the fire department showed up right away and resolved the problem quickly. (I never found out what triggered the alarm.) We were back inside within twenty minutes.

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La La Land is a lovely fantasy about Los Angeles. While no one would mistake it for a realistic picture of this crazy town, it was good to see a movie that focussed on the positive rather than the negative. There’s plenty to hate in LA, but also plenty to love. Chazelle celebrates the city’s beauty and history without sliding into maudlin sentimentality. And while La La Land certainly doesn’t show the ugliest or scariest aspects of life in LA, it spends a fair amount of time delving into the downside. The two main characters are both struggling to get a break, and the film doesn’t shy away from their disappointment, frustration and bitterness. And while the movie features plenty of the shallow, superficial types that are often associated with LA, I liked the fact that it focussed on two people who are passionate about their art. Those people live here, too, even though we don’t see them on the screen too often.

I felt elated when I walked out of the theatre. The reality we’re living these days is so damn scary, it was good to see a movie that showed how joyous life can be. But going back home I passed through the real Hollywood. Walking down those streets on a cold December night it was clear that the divide between success and failure, wealth and poverty, is much wider, much more stark, than anything we see on the big screen. It’s great when you can settle down in a dark theatre and escape into a movie. But when the movie’s over, the world is still waiting for you outside.

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