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CES In The News
Los Angeles Times
March 21, 2009

In West Hollywood, Change in the East End

Cara Mia DiMassa

Mixed-use development is being proposed for the eastern part of West Hollywood, including the area around Pomodoro Cucina Italiana on the corner of Santa Monica Blvd. and La Brea.

For years, the eastern part of West Hollywood was the city's grittier district. But upscale mixed-use development is proposed for the area, and not all residents are pleased.

To understand how change is coming to the eastern part of West Hollywood, one need go no farther than the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Stanley Avenue.

On one corner, on the site of a former auto-repair shop, is the Chabad Russian Jewish Community Center, which offers free bread to anyone who needs it and opportunities to play chess, take classes or attend worship services.

Across the street is the swank new Voda Spa, which promises to combine Old World traditions with modern luxury and offers, on its menu of services, a "Russian Bear" massage for $115 an hour.

For years, the eastern part of West Hollywood was known as the city's grittier district -- especially compared to the glitzy Sunset Strip and Beverly Hills-adjacent west side. But mixed-use development is now being proposed for the area, long known as a home for immigrants and senior citizens.

The biggest change is now afoot along La Brea Avenue, where plans call for two mixed-use residential towers to replace an aging fast-food eatery and a supermarket.

A few blocks to the west, Casden Properties wants to replace the aging Movietown shopping center on Santa Monica Boulevard (home to a beloved Trader Joe's) with an upscale, mixed-use residential tower with 294 condos.

The changes have some longtime residents uneasy, with some worrying that the old-neighborhood feel of the east side could be replaced with something far more sleek.

"It's changing a lot," said Avis Wiseman, a longtime resident who was one of the city's founders nearly 25 years ago. "It used to be like a little village when we first started."

Mayor Jeff Prang said that remaking the east side of West Hollywood is part of a broader push that began with cityhood, to "equalize and enhance services and safety and other priorities throughout the entire city."

Prang said there have always been differences between the western and eastern parts of the city. One was formerly the town of Sherman, where small homes built for railroad workers near San Vicente Boulevard were slowly replaced with duplexes, triplexes and other multi-family dwellings as real estate prices skyrocketed. Rail lines crisscrossing the area allowed for wide boulevards and an open, airy feel.

Farther to the east was an extension of the Jewish immigrant community that had moved into the Fairfax district in the 1930s and '40s. Immigrant families, many of them Russian by origin, moved into the squat apartment buildings in the neighborhood south of Santa Monica Boulevard, between Fairfax and La Brea.

For years, the east side suffered in this comparison, said Prang. In the 1980s, the stretch of Santa Monica near La Brea was a popular spot for adult film arcades and male prostitutes. But a redevelopment agency established in the late 1990s, focused on the part of the city east of Fairfax, has sought to encourage investment in the area. "It's why you have seen a great deal more interest on the east side than ever before," Prang said.

The first jewel of the area's redevelopment was the West Hollywood Gateway, an outdoor shopping complex next to the Formosa Cafe that opened in 2004 with a Target and a Best Buy as its anchor tenants. Residents praise the project as having brought necessary services to the area, though they gripe about the accompanying traffic.

Casden's plan for the tower project at the Movietown center was met with some opposition from residents.

The La Jolla-based Monarch Group plans to bring housing and retail development to lots at La Brea and Fountain, where a Jon's Market now stands, and at La Brea and Santa Monica Boulevard, where there's now a Carl's Jr.

The city of West Hollywood is seeking to redevelop a property across the street from the Carl's, which is now occupied by a Rite Aid. And a developer has purchased the Faith Plating Co., which specializes in chrome bumpers, with hopes of putting up a mixed-use facility there as well.

As he hurried to his job at the Movietown Trader Joe's, Carlos Diaz said he's noticed the area's changes with trepidation.

"I think it was fine the way it was," said Diaz, adding that he worried that the area's quirkiness would be lost in a quest to be like the Grove or Americana at Brand, a cleaned-up version of a city.

In a city in which rent control is considered a founding principle, the idea that low-income housing might vanish in the rush for redevelopment is a concern, said Larry Gross of the Coalition for Economic Survival, which organizes tenants in the area.

Gross said developers are hedging their bets until the economy begins to recover, because projects probably won't get built until construction loans are easier to obtain. But he added that actions now can have dire consequences later.

"When no one is looking or thinks it's going on is when they are laying the groundwork to accelerate the gentrification of a community," he said, "and when the economic situation picks up, that will directly result in displacement of lower-income working people in that community."

Gross said the City Council needs to act to stem the development that is threatening to overwhelm the city's east side, where Russian and other immigrants have found a home. Those residents, he said, "give the diversity to that city that could all be threatened, could all be gone."

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