(Note: an update was added to this story on September 28, 2006)
Lights. Camera. Action. That’s about how quickly the City of Los Angeles is working to condemn thriving businesses on Hollywood’s most famous street corner for the sole benefit of a private developer. Among other harms, the government’s land grab on Hollywood and Vine will destroy everything one hardworking man has worked to create—and he understands that all too well.
“The City can pull the trigger at any time, and all you get is a 90-day notice,” said Robert Blue, the owner of Bernard Luggage Company. “I grew up working in this luggage store, our whole family did. It was literally a mom-and-pop shop and I took it over in 2002 when my father passed away.”
The City is moving to condemn his 78-year-old building so a private developer can pursue a $400-million project slated to create a W hotel, luxury condominiums and glitzy shops and restaurants. According to the Los Angeles City Council, the grandiose redevelopment will displace more than 30 small businesses—and the hardworking people whom all Los Angelinos know give Hollywood its true character.
Blue phrased it best: “How is it public use to have a $300 a night hotel?”
|“The City can pull the trigger at any time. . . and all you get is a 90-day notice,”
The battle to save Bernard Luggage Co. from the government’s wrecking ball has plagued the Blue family for decades. As far back as 1986, Robert’s sister fought against the City when it included the business in a redevelopment zone—giving the government the power to take their property for private use, under California law.
“She was part of a group called Save Hollywood Our Town, and they did everything they could to save the businesses on this city block,” Blue said.
The City’s eminent domain powers died with the expiration of the redevelopment zone in 1998—but that would soon change. By 2002, rumors circulated around town that the City’s redevelopment agency was working to renew the redevelopment zone. Government officials calmed citizens’ concerns by assuring them there would be a public and political process before such action was taken, and that their voices would surely be taken under consideration. But as it turns out, redevelopment plans had already been in the works since 2001—before the City, through its political process, decided if redevelopment would even occur.
For the hardworking small business owners on Hollywood and Vine, the writing was already on the wall. That was particularly frustrating for Blue, considering his business has been around since 1946 and in the same building since 1965. In 1975, his parents formally purchased the building, and the family has owned and maintained it ever since.
The City’s plot to designate the property as “blighted” would not be believable as a Hollywood script. The architect who designed it, Carl Jules Weyl, went on to win an Academy Award in art direction and design for a future work. Furthermore, the building is well maintained and is home to a number of successful small businesses, poses no danger to the health or safety of the public, and reflects the character and history of the town.
But despite all that, the City is still using such gems—like the fact that it lacks sufficient parking—to justify taking it and giving the land to another private party. What is interesting, however, is Blue’s reaction. “They are also saying that the immediate area around the building has an excess of parking. Does that mean the new development area is going to be declared blighted?”
Indeed, the City is also calling into question the very future of “Old Hollywood.” By teaming up with land-hungry developers bent on using government force for their private gain, City officials aim to replace the eclectic corner with cookie-cutter development. Doing so will replace a vibrant and energetic working-class neighborhood with what the City hopes will be a wealthier one—imposing all the costs on the people displaced accordingly. These small businesses include a hair-and-nail salon, Hollywood Import House, an insurance office, a cocktail lounge and even the business office of billboard legend and B-actress Angelyne—an icon known to every Los Angelino.
A billboard depicting a parody of a movie advertisement raises public awareness about the abuse of eminent domain in Hollywood, CA.
Many of these mom-and-pop shops have survived the city’s devastating riots, economic recessions, the 1994 earthquake, major road and subway construction, not to mention the advent of chain retail establishments. Bernard Luggage has even out-survived the mammoth Broadway Department Store, which was located across the street for years.
Blue said, “We survived all the hard times. We’re all paying our taxes, we’re all citizens, and we should all be treated equally. That’s not happening when they take our business and give it to someone else.”
City redevelopment officials are claiming that private commercial development in this area is impossible without eminent domain. Never mind that major redevelopment projects—several-hundred million dollar creations—are occurring without any government involvement whatsoever within blocks of Blue’s store, he says.
“Our business is doing well. We’d like to stay where we are. I’ve hired an architect to improve our building if necessary,” he said. “But I’m not a big developer so the City is ignoring me.”
Blue has retained legal counsel and has vowed to take his case all the way to the California Supreme Court, if necessary. He is also fighting the condemnations at the grassroots level, speaking out at city council meetings, raising awareness in the community and bringing as much attention to his cause as possible—pledging to do everything he possibly can to save his luggage store.
J.J. Abraham, vice president of Legacy Partners, one of the principal developers for the Hollywood and Vine project, said, “We’re not the big, bad developer coming in to squeeze out the little guy.”
In fact, that is exactly what is taking place and the Castle Coalition could not have phrased it better. As the result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2005 decision in Kelo v. City of New London, the floodgates for eminent domain abuse have been thrown open. Nationwide, Cities such as Los Angeles are condemning successful businesses solely and entirely because somebody else may make more money with the land—and there’s the fundamental problem.
Robert Blue and the other merchants on Hollywood and Vine are on the frontlines of the battle against eminent domain for private commercial development. They face the unholy alliance of tax-hungry city officials and land-hungry developers who are taking their properties with public force, not private negotiation.
William Jackson, chairman of the Los Angeles Redevelopment Agency Commission, said to the Los Angeles Times, “We have to make an extra effort not to destroy something as we attempt to create something.”
If that’s really the goal, the Castle Coalition has the perfect solution: Don’t use eminent domain for private development.
UPDATE: September 28, 2006
Robert Blue refused to sit idly and let his property be taken by greedy politicians and land-hungry developers. He fought back by getting active in his community, using many of the tips advocated by the Castle Coalition.
Bob attended the Castle Coalition’s regional eminent domain conference in Newport Beach, Calif. The conference was one of a number organized by the Castle Coalition to provide attendees with an opportunity to learn the strategies available to property owners to stop eminent domain abuse from occurring in their own backyards.
Bob’s dedication, passion, and hard work have paid off. After many months of fighting, Bob will get to keep his precious Bernard Luggage Building. The developers will simply build around the historic building.
Bob’s persistence and victory prove that property owners throughout the nation can fight and win. His story also proves that developers can most certainly finish their projects without resorting to eminent domain. The Castle Coalition is confident that property owners facing eminent domain abuse can follow our tips and strategies, just as Bob did—and they can win, too.