From the window of his idling tour bus, parked curbside in the heart of Hollywood, Korean tourist Kim Don Phat utters the words local officials fear most.
"Not coming back," says a scowling Mr. Kim, a self-proclaimed movie-lover from Seoul who saved for 10 years to make his pilgrimage to the mecca of world film culture. "Nothing to see."
To the chagrin of 9 million tourists a year from Tallahassee to Thailand, officials here concur that the only real attraction is a 20-minute stop in front of Mann's Chinese Theatre where visitors can sink their hands into the cement imprints of Clint Eastwood's feet. Kim and others have long complained that the only other lure is miles of fading, bronze stars on Hollywood's "Walk of Fame," which leads past dozens of massage parlors, boarded storefronts, and prostitutes.
But today, after about 15 years of fits and starts, the Los Angeles City Council is expected to approve a plan that will dramatically make over the sleaziest part of the nation's dream factory and make it a landmark known the world over. The project is expected to to be on a scope and quality equal to the renovation of New York's Times Square from an X-rated, urban Babylon to a more family-friendly thoroughfare.
More than $1 billion worth of projects here are already on the move, with a centerpiece that has both film industry and government officials all aquiver: a permanent home for the most-watched global TV-event of the year - the Academy Awards.
"We think this is easily the most significant building project in Hollywood since Sid Grauman built the Chinese Theatre in 1928," says Leron Gubler, director of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. At the heart of several development projects will be the first, live-broadcast theater built to the Academy's size and standards - located across from the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, site of the first Academy Awards in 1929.
Academy's new home
The Academy has long, and begrudgingly put up with two local venues - the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the Shrine Auditorium - that did not suit needs in a number of ways. Academy president Robert Rehme says that, among other things, those venues are simply too small and don't have enough technical facilities to produce and film live shows.
The announcement of the $385 million project by TrizecHahn Corp., the same company that did the Times Square makeover, has become the catalyst for millions more in investments in a six- by two-block core and adjacent neighborhoods. Although some renovation progress was already under way with recent makeovers of major theaters and a few retail strips, observers say the decision by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to move its telecast back to the town it had abandoned in 1960 was the critical piece.
"Investors are crawling out of the woodwork now," says Ann Marie Gallant, director of the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Authority. "They feel that if the Academy is willing to center its worldwide prestige in the very town where American movies grew up, then they can feel confident in doing so as well."
Add to that a booming state and local economy - driven in part by new forms of entertainment, multimedia, and digital high tech - and you have a situation ripe for success where past efforts failed, local officials say.
"We feel that finally all the necessary elements are coming together at once to really pull this off," says Rocky Delgadillo, deputy mayor for economic development. Well-publicized failures occurred over the past decade when development companies asked for help from a city strapped for cash during the state's deep recession from 1991 to 1995. "Companies that have long wanted to come and do things are [now] able to get the financing they need."
The TrizecHahn proposal calls for 620,000 square feet of new space next to the Chinese Theatre. Components include a 3,300-seat theater designed for live broadcasts, expansion of an adjacent hotel, and a 60,000-square-foot ballroom and meeting space. A plaza is planned with views of the world-famous Hollywood sign on a nearby mountainside.
Because the plans have been in the works for so long, and little formal opposition is expected, Los Angeles City Council approval is expected today. Unless there is a hitch, the city will put $90 million toward the live-broadcast theater and underground parking. Groundbreaking will start this summer, and first use will come with the 73rd Academy Awards in 2001.
Opposition to the project does exist as some business owners and local residents say they worry about the new levels of traffic, congestion, and crowds that are expected. But overall, the business community is embracing the development.
In fact, one change that many observers say is bringing new interest to Hollywood is that local businesses that have long fought one another about who was to blame for the area's demise have now banded together. In addition, new laws allowing the creation of so-called business improvement districts (BIDs) have helped pool hundreds of thousands of dollars for safety, cleanup, and lighting.
"There was a major change of interest in Hollywood when outside investors looked and saw that the town's own businesses were getting their own act together and investing in their future," says Kerry Morrison, executive director of the Hollywood Entertainment District.
"Hollywood's comeback will be even stronger and more dramatic than anyone predicted," says Los Angeles councilmember Jackie Goldberg, who represents the area. "The Academy's decision has guaranteed the rest will follow."
Projects are already under way to redevelop the area of Hollywood surrounding Mann's Chinese Theatre, as well as adjacent neighborhoods. The various plans include:
* A 3,300-seat premiere theater designed for live broadcasts, that will serve as the new home for the Academy Awards. Opens: 2001.
* A $20 million development that will include a 500-seat IMAX theater, a restaurant, and retail space. Opens: 1999.
* A $70 million project with 5,400 movie-theater seats, retail and restaurant space, a health club, and parking for 2,000 cars. Opens: 1999.
* A $60 million retail complex at Sunset and Vine that will include record and bookstores, clothing stores, a theater complex, and restaurants. Opens: 1999.
* Five subway stations, built at a cost of $1.1 billion will open in 1999, putting Hollywood on the main transportation line to downtown and adjacent communities that include Universal City. A sixth will open in 2000.