Any debate over the impact of Transit Oriented Development (TOD) will benefit from a visit to the densely populated and transit heavy neighborhood surrounding the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue. Thai Town to some, Little Armenia to others, this East Hollywood community is one of the most diverse in Los Angeles with over a hundred languages spoken.
TOD communities typically consist of facilities that include both residential and commercial elements (mixed use) which are supported by significant mass transit. They differ from their "urban sprawl" counterparts in that they tend to be denser and more pedestrian friendly. The emphasis on creating and supporting a "complete" community results in a wide range of local services and amenities which reduce the need to travel which in turn accommodates a denser population. At least that's how the philosophy goes.
Anyone who has travelled to any of the "Great Cities" in the world can offer examples of impressive TOD that efficiently supports a vibrant and invigorating community. (I use the term "Great Cities" loosely and define it as any of the wonderful places we have visited, loved and envied! I'm sure you can think of some. If not, you gotta get out more!)
As Los Angeles grapples with its commitment to a "no homeless cars" paradigm (LA leads the nation in homeless people but yet LA County has 7 parking spaces for every motor vehicle. It's good to have priorities!) the debates over parking, traffic, congestion, wear & tear on infrastructure, commute times, development, housing and mass transit are forcing communities to reevaluate and reconsider the TOD concept.
Which brings us to Hollywood & Western. This intersection has it all! Why, it should be the poster child for LA's TOD movement! Home to the Metro's Red Line, host to a half-dozen major bus lines, both Hollywood & Western are major arterials that serve as conduits for significant transit around the clock!
On the southeast corner is the Metro's Red Line Station topped by the "transit village." This station is coming up on its 10th birthday. Occupancy in the 4 floors of affordable housing runs high but as for the ground level commercial spaces, not so much. In fact some of the space has never been occupied. Nevertheless, the development stands as evidence of the partnership between the Metro and the CRA, and their collective commitment to the regeneration and the revitalization of this community.
Across the street, on the northeast corner, is a fortress built by the CRA and featuring senior housing which is typically occupied to capacity. The Hollywest Fortress is a daunting sight from the street, with access on both Hollywood and on Western for the motor vehicles that utilize the ample parking. (both courtyard and underground!) Pedestrians, apparently an afterthought, and cyclists, definitely an afterthought, also frequent the facility which includes Ralphs, Ross and Starbucks as anchor tenants.
On the southwest corner stands the historic Louis B. Mayer building, built in 1928, significantly damaged in the '94 earthquake, but now beautifully restored. LA City Council President Eric Garcetti moved his field office to the 4th floor a couple of years ago and when he visits, he holds court in Louis B. Mayer's old office. In spite of the building's rich legacy, its art deco beauty, its status as LACultural Monument #336 and its auspicious anchor tenant, the "House of Garcetti" sits almost completely vacant, unable to attract any of the business tenants that New Urbanists such as Garcetti tout as the natural result of a commitment to TOD communities.
But at the end of the day, it is the northwest corner of Hollywood & Western that serves as the true test of the TOD concept and the full complement of Metro, CRA and City Council vision, power, support and bottom line impact on the community. This is the corner that hosts the infamous but abandoned "Thai Hot Dog." Formerly a hot dog stand, most recently a Thai restaurant, this boarded up business sits on the high side of the intersection in stark contradiction to the promise of Hollywood & Western.
Granted, this is a vast improvement over the past when the landlord of a building on the south side of the intersection was sentenced by the court to ...gasp...live in his own building as punishment for his slumlord crimes. One might even argue that having a politician sitting in Mayer's old office is a step up from the days when the building was used to produce pornography.
There's no doubt that this is no longer the crime-ridden and dangerous neighborhood of days gone by and, quite simply, things are a lot better. But is this the promise of the TOD concept, "It's not as bad as it used to be!"
The Hollywood & Western neighborhood boasts a dozen motels, bearing witness to the tremendous value of the most significant neighborhood "brand" on earth, Hollywood! Once here, these tourists, a captive audience, find themselves requiring the quotidian amenities that should be found in the immediate vicinity of the TOD. Instead, they are basically limited to the merchants found in the "strip mall on steroids."
There are some exceptions to this dismal evaluation. For example, Angel'z restaurant is a great place for breakfast or lunch and there are so many Thai restaurants of note that it would take a couple of vacations to visit them all. Why, we've even got a Sizzler!
But the brutal reality is this, even the Dapper Cadaver closed up and left the neighborhood. The local business with the greatest staying power is "The X Spot," a 24 hour porn shop. As for other offerings, the selection gets better the farther east or west you move, not a strong testament to the significant positive development that we are promised is the residual impact of New Urbanism.
This intersection begs the hard question, does the positive impact of TOD happen naturally or does it require assistance and support? If it requires support, who dropped the ball at Hollywood & Western?
It was public funds that got things going but our leadership failed to push for the finish line. This is consistent with the "legal minimum" standard for performance that we have grown to expect from our City as we are, once again, asked to settle for mediocrity and simple accept "It's not as bad as it used to be!" as the battle cry.
The missed opportunity for this TOD is that it never became the place to be, but instead is simply a place to pass through on the way to somewhere else.
Welcome to our neighborhood!
In a neighborhood that suffers from the lowest ratio of parkland to people of any of the city's council districts, there are empty lots to be found, boarded up or surrounded by chain link fence, but no public space to speak of. Granted, the Metro Station, under the "No Loitering" sign, offers the opportunity to hang out with some of the community's under-challenged youth and the Starbucks across the street offers the opportunity to sit on the narrow sidewalk and engage in the ongoing sunflower seed-spitting contest that never seems to end. But as for open space or green space, not so much!
The courtyard space at the Metro Station is not really "useable space" and it joins the empty commercial space and the secluded bike racks in the "unfulfilled promise" category of TOD.
The Aaron Brothers store has a "fake" door on the Hollywood Blvd. side of its business, demonstrating the lack of commitment to pedestrians that is the hallmark of the Hollywest project. It's no small wonder that one of the anchor tenants, the Shoe Warehouse left them hanging with so much empty and dead space, after all, nobody walks in this neighborhood!
The interior courtyard of the Hollywest Fortress, where cars go to hang out. This would have been a great place to create shared public space for the community but then nobody would be able to look at your car! The underground parking is so large that the facility is rarely close to capacity and is often rented out to production companies who use the space to store crew vehicles.
Periodically, the community will get together for a game or two of Frogger, great fun for the motorists, keeps the peds in shape!
Only in Hollywood! Such a bittersweet moment. No longer will we walk past the Dapper Cadaver, your local source of coffins, autopsy tables and other accoutrements of death. Apparently the "DC" was not so dependent on pedestrian traffic and the move to Sun Valley will allow them to focus on their huge internet audience. Who knew!
The Gershwin Hollywood Hotel and Hostel, partially occupied and partially boarded up as its owners await the development opportunities that seem to simply come and go. Its street side tenants include a publisher, a self-defense studio, a furniture refinisher, a production designer and a clothing designer. Only the self-defense studio is open to the public. The blue space next door is the home of the Blu Monkey, the white space with the security bars is the former home of the Dapper Cadaver.
Auto parts, an anemic mini market, a Thai restaurant and Thai club, another empty shop (green awning) and the neighborhood's merchant of the year, the X Spot, featuring porn around the clock!
On the bright side, the neighborhood is flush with opportunities to eat. Angel's for breakfast, Thai anytime and the Sizzler for those less adventurous!
Motels throughout the neighborhood bear witness to the power of the "Hollywood" brand! If only our leadership believed in it as much as the rest of the world does.
On the House of Garcetti side of the street, the abundant presence of security bars bears witness to the long distance that remains ahead if we are to truly revitalize this community.
Sadly, the large amount of empty space, empty buildings and empty lots indicate that the real opportunity in this neighborhood is for real estate agents. As they stand in the midst of this densely populated community filled with people who crave the services that a TOD promises, one can't help but wonder how they will answer the question "What went wrong?"
For those who might argue that the dismal occupancy rates along Hollywood & Western are simply a sign of the times, I look to other areas of Hollywood and note that business is booming. Space 15 Twenty just opened between Ivar and Cahuenga. With Hennesey + Ingalls as one of the anchors, this development features performance space in its courtyard and actually stimulates pedestrian activity in the neighborhood with the pedestrian alley that connects Ivar to Cahuenga.
Now is the time for the Hollywood & Western community to turn to our leadership and our community partners and to raise the standard and to demand that this neighborhood realize its full potential and become the Transit Oriented Development that is the sign of a Great City.
See you on the Streets!