The Housing Chronicles Blog: Building around the Hollywood sign: when property rights become obnoxious

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Building around the Hollywood sign: when property rights become obnoxious

When I served on a community planning group in San Diego in the early 1990s, I always had to balance my wants as a homeowner and what was fair for developers pitching the group their projects. We had the usual couple of magpies who said no to everything, but they were more than balanced by some very smart architects able to bring a left-brain/right-brain sensibility to the table.

But sometimes private property rights can be taken to an extreme -- and in the case of land next to the famous Hollywood sign, an obnoxious one at that. But don't blame the development community -- this is all the work of an investment group out of Chicago that has no interest in developing anything but their bank account and is holding the city hostage for not coming up with a sales price that I'd consider plain and simple extortion:

A Chicago investment group said Tuesday that Los Angeles officials had failed to come up with the cash to preserve the mountaintop next to the iconic sign, so it has put the ridge up for sale.

Cahuenga Peak, the backdrop to one of L.A.'s most famous postcard views, will carry a $22-million price tag, its current owners said, and could attract buyers seeking the ultimate L.A. pad.

But the listing immediately generated loud protests from city officials and Hollywood residents, who say building homes on Cahuenga Peak would mar hillside vistas and scar a pristine hilltop...

The 138-acre property is zoned for five luxury homes, according to investment group partner Keith Dickson. "It could be used for one large home or a family compound," he said.

Fox River Financial Resources acquired the mountaintop in 2002 from the estate of Howard Hughes for $1.675 million.

The eccentric tycoon had bought it in 1940 with plans to build a love nest for actress Ginger Rogers.

But she balked at that idea, fearing that the reclusive Hughes would "lock me up in a hilltop house and never let me see anyone," as Rogers later put it.

For the last several years city leaders have scrambled to raise money to buy the ridge property from Fox River and turn it into an extension of Griffith Park. So far, they've accumulated about $5 million.

The city had intended to ask the nonprofit Trust for Public Land to negotiate a selling price with the Chicago owners. Two months ago, a city-commissioned appraisal calculated that the mountaintop was worth about $6 million...

So does the city have any recourse? Could they reclaim an easement made long ago?

Dickson said city leaders may have dragged their feet because they thought the acreage was landlocked -- inaccessible and thus undevelopable.

But the developers insist the land is accessible, thanks to Hughes' actions in the 1940s.

He sued to obtain an easement to his peak property. In 1949 the city settled the lawsuit, granting Hughes a 100-foot-wide access to the site from the end of Wonder View Drive, said Mark Ward, a partner in the investment group.

In addition, the eastern edge of the property comes within a few yards of another road, the city's Mt. Lee Drive, which crosses the ridgeline above the Hollywood sign.

I think this type of greed is truly grotesque, and could paint all developers as equally greedy and insensitive -- which has not been my own experience. Let's hope the city has the cojones to find clever ways to fight this, and that public outcry will shame Fox River into a more reasonable deal. And for those who think that there's no relation between this type of corporate behavior and people thinking it's okay to walk away from a mortgage as just another "business decision," you would be wrong. It's simply another nail in the coffin for what used to be common sense. This is one time we could use some real leadership from the City of Los Angeles.

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