CityWatch, Apr 13, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 29
The W Hollywood Hotel & Residences is finally open, bringing over a decade of architectural and political alchemy to a conclusion, resulting in LA's largest inhabitable mixed-use Billboard Development, also referred to as a Transit Oriented Development (TOD) or as they say in Hollywood, Transit Disoriented Development (TDD).
Blessing the corner of Hollywood and Vine and perched neatly atop the Metro's Hollywood & Vine Red Line Station, the W Hollywood celebrated its long awaited arrival with a ribbon cutting ceremony that featured some of LA's finest spokesmodels, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Ryan Seacrest, most of whom arrived in motor vehicles and availed themselves of the TOD-obligatory valet parking. (Two locations - Hollywood Boulevard or Argyle Avenue!) Since then, the valets have maintained their presence, standing like little soldiers outside Delphine and at the W Hotel front door, inside the Motor Court.
Mixed-Use and TOD projects such as the "W" are considered a blessing by the New Urbanists who subscribe to the mythology of LA's unique style of TOD but a curse by the detractors who have failed to drink the TOD Kool-Aid which is quite tasty at first but typically comes with a 99-year long bitter aftertaste that lingers well after the developer has left town.
Theoretically, this TOD project brings human density and robust economic activity along with lifestyle choices that will concentrate activity in the Hollywood and Vine hub while allowing people to avail themselves of the rich mass transit and people powered transportation opportunities, reducing the need for single occupant motor vehicles and the corresponding vast amounts of vehicle parking.
Then again, there's reality.
In fact, much of the W Hollywood Hotel & Residences journey has been one of "the theoretical vs. the reality" and while it remains to be seen whether the reality is of greater positive impact than the theoretical, it doesn't look good. In fact, it looks bleak. Based on results, often harsh but always fair, the W Hollywood Hotel & Residences does little to encourage any of the purported benefits of TOD projects and instead encourages the very behavior and negative impacts that TOD proponents fight to discourage.
It's been months since I stood on the sidewalk with Marty Collins, the CEO of Gatehouse Capital, the developer (along with Legacy Partners) of the project and the guy who brought in the W Hollywood as the anchor tenant. He purportedly owns a condo just above the Walk of Fame where we stood discussing bike parking and the W's community benefit. As we chatted, he took a long drag on his cigarette and then flipped the butt on the sidewalk, in front of what is now Delphine. The cigarette butt rolled across the Walk of Fame star of Charles Coburn, one of the few Hollywood stars who actually lived on Hollywood Blvd., and landed in the gutter. (the butt, not Coburn)
I regret to this day that I remained silent.
Coburn isn't here to feel slighted but the people of Hollywood are. That simple moment of contempt and arrogance is a clear indicator of Collins' commitment to any "community benefit" that was part of the City of LA, CRA, Metro, Gatehouse deal.
Nevertheless, the W Hollywood Hotel & Residences is upon us, a Transit Oriented Development of such significant size that it has its own gravitational pull, both politically and architecturally.
"This isn't Hollywood the movie. This isn't Hollywood the ride," Collins declared as the W Hollywood opened its doors. "This is the real Hollywood." What's not clear is if Collins was referring to W Hollywood's record billboard entitlement or its auto-centric design. In either case, he is correct, this is Hollywood and any promises to promote a pedestrian environment, to support cycling access to the Red Line, to encourage mass transit passengers, to create an environment that "connects" with the street, all fell by the wayside in the time it took to hire the valet and tell the public "This door isn't for the public but if you walk around the block and through the Auto Court you can come in the back way."
LA Time Architectural critic Christopher Hawthorne gently reviews the W Hollywood, noting the lack of architectural coherence as well as the lack of clarity that is demonstrated by the contrast in the stated TOD commitment to vertical density which is then contradicted by the obligatory homage to Hollywood's "love affair with the car and the glossier, more exclusive corners of celebrity culture." Christopher concludes his insightful review of the W Hollywood's fabrics, textures, and color schemes by offering up this soft dismissal; "the W Hollywood isn't just an urban-planning experiment for Los Angeles. It's something of a sociological one too."
It's an experiment?
Perhaps in funding and gullibility and so far it has demonstrated that there is no limit to either.
Legacy Partners, co-developer of the W Hollywood qualified for $10.2 million in ARRA funding. The W Hollywood has had tremendous support from the leadership of Los Angeles which translates into big bucks. From the CRA to City Council Eric Garcetti to the Mayor himself, this project had some heat. When the Metro's meager parcel of land was insufficient for the fortress sized plan of Gatehouse/Legacy, the CRA and the City of Los Angeles stepped in and offered up their eminent domain support, seizing adjacent properties and explaining that the support of the W Hollywood was for the Greater Good! WooHoo! (Of course by Greater Good, the doorman explained that the public will need to walk back to the street, east on Hollywood Boulevard, south on Argyle Street and then through the Motor Court in order to partake in the public's portion of the Greater Good!)
Of two recent travel reviews, both authors arrived by car, demonstrating quite conclusively that even those who are out to immerse themselves in the W Hollywood's unique brand of TOD environment know enough to steer clear of the transit and to err in favor of the automobile. Of the two, one used the motor court and opened the review with "Welcome to Hollywood!" The other used a taxi and attempted to enter the W Hotel from the public plaza but somehow got lost. "Geez! If we have to tell you where we are, perhaps you're not supposed to be here!"
One can only imagine the experience of the travel writer who actually arrives on mass transit, exits the Red Line station and depends on the Metro and the W for any wayfinding help. There's a curbside sign announcing the discontinuation of the DASH bus stop. There's a sign advertising available retail space. There's a sign directing cyclists to non-existent bike racks. But there's nothing that says "Welcome to the W Hollywood, you transit riding, TOD superstar! Turn to your right, walk toward the smell of urine but don't actually enter the elevator area, instead turn right and walk down the hallway toward the velvet ropes. They'll ask for your room key, you'll explain that you don't have one because you just arrived, they'll look at each other with puzzled looks and mild confusion will break out! All the while, they will size you up to see if you really are a potential guest or simply one of the many glitz-free locals who wants to turn the W Living Room into a real living room!”
It appears that the W Hollywood is many things but it is not a Transit Oriented Development, at least by any accepted planning standards. As for Collin's Castle, the Fortress of Fortune, LA's largest inhabitable Billboard Complex, it's here and the opportunities for the W Hotel to improve the quality of life in the surrounding community remain untapped.
Next week, I'll detail the W Hollywood's shortcomings based on Transit Oriented Development standards and will offer recommendations for amends, starting with a butt can on the off-chance that Collins should return to the scene of the crime.
(Stephen Box is a transportation and transit advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net)