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Protesters Rally Against Plans to Raze Portions of The Lot

West Hollywood City Council cannot stop the project, but adding The Lot to the National Register of Historic Places could, say advocates.

Saving Hollywood history was the order of the day as a protest rally convened Sunday to try and save a 90-year-old movie studio lot from the wrecking ball.

About 30 people showed up on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Formosa Avenue in West Hollywood on Sunday afternoon. Some dressed as classic movie characters, others carried signs and cheered as cars drove by honking in support.

At issue is the plan to demolish portions of “The Lot,” the 10-acre movie studio and backlot built in 1919. Silent-era megastars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks subsequently bought the lot and renamed it Pickford-Fairbanks Studio, but it was commonly known as “Pickfair Studios.”

This is the place where the hit vampire series True Blood is currently filmed and where classic movies like West Side Story, The Manchurian Candidate, The Apartment and Some Like it Hot were filmed.

“I am tired of losing history,” said protester Phillip Mershon, who gives Hollywood history tours. “We keep tearing down Hollywood history. It would be nice if we could actually preserve our history rather than only be able to see it through photographs.”

Director Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging, Grace of My Heart), who is spearheading the Save the Pickfair Studios movement, believes it is about preserving a way of filmmaking where everything is done in a campus-like environment.

“Our foremothers and forefathers in this business did not build skyscrapers to make movies. It doesn’t work for making movies,” Anders told Patch. “You have to be able to go from wardrobe, from the dressing rooms and from makeup to a soundstage. The writer has to be able to come down from his office. You have to be able to walk freely among these buildings . . .you have to keep the feel of the lot. You keep the feel that was originally in place. It’s what worked for making movie ever since 1919 and it continues to be the best way to make films.”

National Register of Historic Places

Another protestor, director Michael Donahue, told the crowd he had just filled out the papers nominating The Lot for the federal government’s National Register of Historic Places. Donahue said he planned to Express Mail the papers to Washington, DC on Monday morning, and if the application is accepted for review, no demolition could take place until the feds make a decision.  

“This is the last intact silent film studio in the world,” Donahue told Patch. “What needs to happen, the entire property needs to be put on the Registry and then the National Park service brings experts in and will do proper research. Anything that is historic will be preserved and restored.”

While Donahue’s news seemed to placate the crowd, it remains to be seen whether his application for The Lot will be accepted. And even if accepted, there’s no way of knowing if it will be approved.

“It important that we try,” Donahue said.

Demolition plans

While many of the protesters were reporting that the entire facility was going to be demolished, that is not the case. According to a map of the facility (see accompanying photos for detailed map), about a third of the buildings will be demolished – primarily those in the southeastern end of property.  

Two others will be demolished, but their facades will be retained – the Santa Monica West building at the corner of Santa Monica Blvd and Poinsettia and the Formosa building on the corner of Santa Monica Blvd and Formosa. 

Plans call to expand the lot by 680,000 square feet, including adding four more sound stages (bringing the total to 11), plus more office space, post-production areas and storage areas. The demolition is to be done in several phases, starting with the 1927-built Pickford Building and the 1982-built Goldwyn Building.

In October 2011, the Design Review subcommittees of the city’s Planning Commission and the Historic Preservation Commission signed off on the plans relating to those two buildings. In mid-March, the planning permits were issued and on March 26, the city’s Building and Safety department issued the demolition permit.

Thus, the property owners, real-estate investment company CIM Group (which also owns the Hancock Lofts in West Hollywood and the Sunset-Vine Tower in Hollywood, along with dozens of other properties in the greater Los Angeles area), can start demolition at any time.

City Council can’t stop the project

West Hollywood City Hall reports it received outraged calls from as far away as Australia after the Los Angeles Times broke the story on March 26. They all begged the City Council to halt the project, but the council’s hands are tied.

In 1993, the council approved a Comprehensive Development Plan (similar to a specific plan) for the property and entered into a development agreement with then owner Warner Hollywood Studios. That agreement has been amended and extended several times, the last being in 2007 when the council voted 4-1 to approve the development agreement (Councilmember John Heilman voted against it).

The current development agreement expires in March 2013. But if work is started on the project before that date, then the development agreement remains intact. Thus CIM’s need to complete the demolition and start construction quickly.

However, the development agreement states the project must be under “major construction” prior to March 2013. The demolition of the Pickford and Goldwyn buildings is the most minor of the three phases originally projected for the project.

City officials say that CIM has not submitted any other plans for the project. And those plans would likely take a year to approve before the demolition permits could be issued. Thus, it is unlikely that the other phases could begin by March 2013.

The larger question is whether the beginning of this minor phase would be considered major enough for the development agreement to remain vested past March 2013. It may ultimately be up to lawyers to haggle the issue out.

CIM issues a statement

While CIM has remained quiet throughout the controversy, declining to respond to press calls, it did release the following statement on March 31:

CIM respects the history of The Lot, and we intend to honor it as part of a thriving studio campus. All buildings designated as historic will remain. The re-development of The Lot, as has been done successfully at many other Hollywood studios, is necessary for the studio campus to evolve and remain competitive.

The land use, building design, and historic preservation at The Lot, formerly known as the Pickfair Studio, is governed by the Comprehensive Development Plan and Development Agreement adopted by the City of West Hollywood into the city’s General Plan in 2007. Consistent with this plan, CIM is beginning the initial phase of the revitalization of The Lot’s 11-acre site by removing two non-historic buildings and constructing a new 93,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art media office building designed for production and media companies. This new building is located on the southern portion of the property along the Formosa Avenue perimeter. At every stage of planning and construction, great consideration has been given to not disrupt the sensitive production operations on the property.

Subsequent development phases have not been specifically designed or scheduled.

Save the Pickfair Studios issued a detailed response that ended with, “We will not stop our protest and campaign until CIM and the city of West Hollywood saves these buildings, gives them real historic designation and protection (monument status means nothing), restores them and promises to never do something so idiotic again.”

Patch will continue to follow this story.

ruth April 03, 2012 at 12:28 AM
Hi Ruth Williams..I am Ruth of Hollywood..Sounds like you are Ruth of West Hollywood. A tale of TWO Ruths..
GoodGriefCharlieBrown April 03, 2012 at 04:41 AM
I understand that Irv's Burgers was declared historically relevant & preserved so Jeffrey Prang would have a permanent window in which to place his campaign poster. Perfectly understandable, considering Mr. Prang's legend and imprint in history. Mary and Douglas who?
MarkD April 03, 2012 at 02:57 PM
You understand wrong. A group of neighborhood residents went to bat for Irv's and they did it against the objections of city council at the time.
Scott Zwartz April 03, 2012 at 05:24 PM
When looks at other projects where CIM Group has been involved, the City Atty for WeHo should launch his own investigation of this developer. Hundreds of millions of dollars go missing, while its LLC's and LLP's seem to disappear over night. It has literally hundreds of these temporary LLC's and LLP's --check with the Secretary of State on-line and you'll find them. Who's financing this 93,000 sq ft project and what commitments and/or gifts has the WeHo City Council provided? Is this anything more than a ploy to force the City to allow more mega-high rise mixed-use projects. If it is accurate that the demolition of these two buildings may not qualify as Major and there are no plans for major construction by March 2013, then someone should sue for an injunction to stop the demolition. Irreparable harm will be done and if CIM Group has not filed for any additional permits which will take more than one year for approval, then CIM Group should not be allowed to destroy something significant, albeit minor. Injunctions were invented to stop irreparable harm.
George Martin June 06, 2012 at 06:17 PM
As one who worked at this studio when it was called Warner-Hollywood, I can support any plan to replace its 90-year old buildings with musty hallways, rickety stairs, and leaky roofs.

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