West Hollywood Development Pains the Funky
By CHRISTINA HOAG
WEST HOLLYWOOD, California – The city is considering holding a Go-Go Dancer Appreciation Day this fall to honor the club “groovers” who helped establish the Sunset Strip as a hub of hipness in the 1960s, and whose successors lend an edgy energy to its gay bars today.
Go-Go day would also highlight the quirky flamboyance that for decades has been the hallmark of this small burg shoehorned into the middle of Los Angeles.
“West Hollywood has been toned down to be family friendly. That’s not what we are,” said Mayor John Duran. “I was concerned there seemed to be a sanitizing of the city. This is the sort of campy, tongue-in-cheek thing we’re known for.”
With a 40 percent gay population, this densely populated enclave has been long known for its dare-to-be different lifestyle that has fostered a funky vibe of artsy boutiques and coffeehouses along leafy streets lined with quaint bungalows and aging apartment buildings.
But intense development pressure has brought a wave of gleaming condo and office towers, tony shops and big-box retailers over the last decade, leading many residents to fear that West Hollywood is falling victim to the bland metropolitan sprawl that typifies much of Los Angeles.
“Our personality is changing,” said Elyse Eisenberg, who heads the West Hollywood Heights Neighborhood Association. “The city’s been pushing out old time residents in favor of upscale residents, and destroying the quality of life. We want to see an urban village, not high rises.”
The swelling backlash has included lawsuits against the city, the formation of residents’ groups and the election of an anti-development councilman earlier this year in a race where gentrification was the hot-button issue.
For many, the city of 35,000 stands at a crossroads to determine its future.
“It’s critical for the city to maintain and forge its own identity,” said council newcomer John D’Amico. “It’s easy to turn into another part of Beverly Hills or Los Angeles.”
That would be anathema to West Hollywood, which takes pride in its renegade history.
Formerly unincorporated, the 1.9-square-mile (5-square-kilometer) community was historically a place where Angelenos could let loose with lax liquor and gambling laws. It later became a refuge for gays fleeing the heavy-handed Los Angeles Police Department and for Jews escaping the Soviet Union.
In the 1960s, a shambling stretch of Sunset Boulevard became the epicenter for the burgeoning rock music scene with venues such as the Troubadour, Roxy Theatre and Whisky a Go Go launching legendary bands including The Doors and The Byrds. The area became a hippie haven.
When the county planned to do away with rent control in unincorporated areas, seniors, gays and immigrants banded together to incorporate the city in 1984. Today, 77 percent of residents are renters who enjoy one of the strictest rent-control laws in the nation.
Local leaders cleaned up the city, whose odd boundaries look like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. They got rid of street prostitution, buried utility lines, added landscaping and lighting, and promoted civic events such as an outlandish Halloween parade that attracts 350,000 revelers.
They also made a point of implementing liberal, if sometimes offbeat, policies- stipulating pets be called “companions” and owners “guardians” and barring gasoline-powered leaf blowers- as well as providing a generous array of social services, including taxi vouchers for seniors, free HIV testing, youth scholarships and a transgender advisory board.
Over the past dozen years, as West Hollywood has found its niche in LA’s cosmopolitan landscape, a slew of office, condo and retail projects- large and small- have gone up.
John Heilman, a councilman since the city was formed, attributed at least part of the flood of interest to a waning of homophobia and AIDS fear since the 1980s.
“I think gay communities the world round have seen greater acceptance,” he wrote in an email.
The biggest developments are landing on the famed Sunset Strip.
One project, Sunset Time, entails a hotel-condo tower to be built on the site of the House of Blues nightclub. Nearby, the proposed $300 million Sunset Millennium development would build a hotel, shops and condos at a key intersection.
Residents say these types of developments are ruining West Hollywood’s eclectic neighborhood feel, and adding to traffic and parking woes.
They’re particularly riled by the city’s use of “development agreements,” which allow developers to skirt zoning laws governing issues such as building height and parking spots in return for cash payments to the city.
“I call them bribes,” said community activist Jeanne Dobrin, who sued the city over a five-story office-condo tower and got its height reduced slightly and $300,000 more for the city. “I claim the city is for sale.”
But officials note residents have benefited as the revenue enabled the city to stay in the black- with no cuts in staff or services- and even expand with a $64 million library to be opened next month and an automated parking garage when many other municipalities are being financially squeezed.
“We don’t have overdevelopment, but we want economic development. It’s a question of where you draw the line,” Duran said. “That’s the challenge.”
Critics say the boom has led to a whitewashing of the city’s provocative, adult atmosphere.
They point to instances when the city last year decided not to endorse the annual Erotic Fair Weekend due to the licentious art displayed, and another proposal to replace a building housing a popular addiction recovery center with a preschool. The council relented on both issues after residents complained.
Bar and restaurant owners protested an outdoor smoking ban, arguing it was out of place in anything-goes West Hollywood, which only has about 1,500 children, but that measure was approved.
West Hollywood’s growing pains are far from unique.
Many former cheap-rent neighborhoods have undergone similar evolutions after being revitalized by a Bohemian crowd, said Peter Dreier, director of urban and environmental policy at Occidental College.
He pointed to Brooklyn Heights in New York and San Francisco’s Mission District as two examples of once-dicey neighborhoods that are now fashionable addresses.
“They say ‘first come the gays and artists, then come the croissant restaurants, then come the lawyers.’ I think that’s true,” Dreier said.
Many in West Hollywood say they want to preserve their community’s character.
“We don’t need any more development,” said 20-year resident Karl Klug. “It’s much nicer to walk by a small house with a garden than a big apartment building with generic landscaping and security gates.”