Sunday, October 08, 2006

Hollywood landmark survives brush with eminent domain

Luggage king locks up win over eminent domain

Hollywood shopkeeper manages to keep ownership of building in face of redevelopment project

By Bob Pool, LOS ANGELES TIMES, Posted on Sun, Oct. 08, 2006

LOS ANGELES - Hollywood's luggage king refused to pack his bags and go when Los Angeles officials tried to seize his 60-year-old family business to make room for a high-end hotel development.

Shopkeeper Robert Blue fought back by blasting the city's use of eminent domain with a mocking billboard atop his Bernard Luggage store near the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street.

Then he filed a lawsuit alleging a violation of his due-process rights, and in the process became a symbol of what some residents considered Hollywood redevelopment run amok.

And on Wednesday, the luggage man bagged a victory.

The city and Community Redevelopment Agency leaders announced that Blue's business will stay -- and the largest commercial development in Hollywood history will be built instead around the historic 1928 building containing his valises, suitcases, trunks and travel accessories.

The planned $500 million Hollywood-and-Vine project will include a 300-room luxury W Hotel and 150 condominiums, 375 apartment units and 61,500 square feet of upscale retail space.

Tucked into it will be the Bernard Luggage building, set back from the street another 12 feet and restored to its original, vaguely Spanish-colonial-revival glory.

Architects changed the plans for the sprawling development, notching in the building, which will be surrounded on three sides.

Blue, 46, will retain permanent ownership and use of the one-story 5,475-square-foot structure, originally called the Herman Building.

The structure can't compete with Hollywood's glamorous architectural landmarks like the El Capitan Theater, Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and Capitol Records building. But fans see it as a symbol of Hollywood's golden era. It was designed by architect Carl Jules Weyl, who also drew the plans for the now-destroyed Hollywood Brown Derby restaurant next door. Weyl later went on to win an Academy Award for movie art design work on the 1938 Errol Flynn-Olivia de Havilland classic, "The Adventures of Robin Hood."

"This is a proud day for Los Angeles," Blue shouted over the noise of a 12-story crane parked a few steps away on Vine Street.

It was hoisting building materials onto the roof of a former Broadway department store building that is being converted into condominium units in another city-sanctioned redevelopment project.

The fate of the luggage store had become an issue of much debate in Hollywood, which is in the midst of a major revitalization and building boom. Hollywood and Sunset boulevards, both symbols of decay in the early 1990s, have seen a string of new retail and housing projects rise in the last few years as the neighborhood has become a hip destination again.

But some merchants and community activists have expressed concern that rebirth has come at the expense of Hollywood's past, including several movie houses and TV studios. Preservationists have battled to save Florentine Gardens, the Palladium and CBS Columbia Square.

Blue credited Hollywood-area Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti for setting up negotiations with developers and the city's redevelopment agency that led to Wednesday's breakthrough. But he still got in a dig at eminent domain.

Such government land seizure should be reserved for public projects, not commercial developments like the one that will rise up around his tiny shop, he suggested.

"You can't always count on a good city council president" being there to help the small property owner, Blue said.

Before Wednesday's storefront sidewalk ceremony, Blue painted over the anti-eminent domain sign that he placed in early March on the antique iron-framed billboard on the roof of his shop.

It had resembled a movie poster and read: "Reverse Robin Hood Pictures presents, 'Murder on Vine Street: Eminent Domain Kills Small Businesses.'"

It listed Garcetti, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the redevelopment agency and developers as its "stars."

"This story tells it all: Greed, Corruption and Gridlock," read the billboard's tag line.

"I took it down as a gesture of good will," Blue said.

The peaceful resolution of the dispute will allow work to begin on the Hollywood-and-Vine project. Jeff Cohen, senior vice president for acquisitions and development for one of the project's principals, Dallas-based Gatehouse Capital, said ground will be broken for it by year's end.

"I'm very appreciative of the outcome and humbled by the experience," Cohen said of the property dispute.

Redevelopment agency head Cecilia Estolano was equally relieved.

Preservation of the luggage shop building "allows us to maintain the best" of old Hollywood while bringing in the new, she said. "Those who stuck it out in Hollywood's worst days will get to benefit from Hollywood's best days."

Garcetti thanked Blue for taking his stand.

"You made me grow as an elected official and as a person," he said.

"Bob was standing up for his business. He will be able to keep his business here. They will build around him," Garcetti added.

Supporters of Blue showed up with cameras to capture what they called a "historic moment for Hollywood." Some said they hope the agreement is precedent-setting for Los Angeles redevelopment.

"I'm glad they did it, however they did it," said Robert Nudelman, director of preservation issues for Hollywood Heritage.

Other property owners and business operators in the project zone will have to move, however, including billboard figure and sometime actress Angelyne. Her small office is located in the development site.

Hair salon operator Vam Nguyen, who has rented space in Blue's building since 1996, said she hopes to move back into her space once the reconstruction is complete.

And Blue -- who has also retained ownership of the old billboard on his roof -- said he could have space for Angelyne, too.

"I might put her picture right up there," he said pointing up.


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