Bernard Zyscovich is the Miami-based urban designer who has the unenviable task of crafting a modern, architecturally vibrant downtown Hollywood. Thanks to the Hollywood City Commission's habit of preempting his plan by green-lighting huge condo projects, Zyscovich must hit a moving target.
I talked with Zyscovich last month in connection with a "mini-series" of posts this week coinciding with the city's approval on Wednesday of zoning changes that would allow for the construction of Young Circle tallest condo tower yet -- the 25-story Hollywood Circle.
On Tuesday I posted the arguments by some of those who are supporters of the project, while yesterday I let some critics tackle the issue. I saved Zyscovich for the end, only because he seems like an appropriate tie-breaker: an expert largely un-beholden to special interests who can focus narrowly on Hollywood development.
Last month, Zyscovich presented a draft to the commission. "What we're looking for is a unified plan for the city, and now we have an idea how it works together," Zyscovich told me. "We've given (commissioners) a toolkit with which to evaluate projects on their own."
But commissioners are caught between that toolkit and the persuasions of lobbyist Alan Koslow, who would have them believe that the slightest concession to a Zyscovich rule might ruin his developer clients' big plans for Hollywood.
Before we get into that conflict, a bit of background. Zyscovich started his mission with the city in 2004, crafting a plan that would guide future development. But that plan was never made an ordinance -- in large part due to the fear it might alienate Hollywood developers. "And in the meantime," explains Zyscovich, "the city has made development agreements around Young Circle."
In short, a feeding frenzy of developers who want to gain "planned development" (PD) status that allows them freedom to build without care for city guidelines. "Everybody has been coming in under PD, where they could propose literally anything they wanted," says Zyscovich. "When that happens, the developers end up creating their own value." For example, building right to the property line rather than a setback that would make the structure less imposing from the ground. Or building it higher, with the idea that a developer can fit more units in his space. Maximizing profit at the expense of all else.
Amid this chaos, says Zyscovich, "neighbors have no idea what's coming in next door." Whoever bought the penthouse in the 14-story Radius a few years ago, for instance, probably isn't thrilled about the prospect of the 25-story Hollywood Circle directly across the street, obstructing his ocean view. Zyscovich sums it up in this way: "The intention is to create what's good for Young Circle, but it has turned into a case of what's best for the individual project itself."
In the years since he presented the 2004 plan, developers and the politicians who would please them have sought Zyscovich's endorsement as a way to mollify critics of controversial projects. The most regrettable episode involved the ArtsPark Village, a hulking 22-story condo south of Young Circle designed to be shoe-horned into an awkwardly shaped parcel. To the exasperation of supportive commissioners, Zyscovich told the city that this building did not fit his vision for downtown. That, combined with the misgivings of City Manager Cameron Benson and Planning Director Jaye Epstein, made the project a tough sell politically, and it was narrowly approved.
The lesson for the city, perhaps, was that it shouldn't defy its staff and urban design expert; but it seems to have come to a different conclusion: that when it comes to huge, downtown-altering projects, Zyscovich should keep his expert opinions to himself.
For Zyscovich, it's just as well. He seems inclined to stay out of the political realm, and he declined to offer his take on the 25-story Hollywood Circle. "We've determined not to be involved in specific projects any longer," says Zyscovich, speaking of his design staff. "It's up to the city whether we are to evaluate projects."
It seems the passengers are free to try landing the plane.
Then again, maybe it's a moot point. In this economy, no monstrous condos are going to be built anytime soon. And if developers lose their financing, the condos may not be built for a long time, if at all. Which is why Zyscovich is probably right to design his plan according to his current hypothetical: "We're coming at it from the perspective that the development agreements become null and void," he says.
At a public forum in Hollywood March 10, Zyscovich gave this 97-page presentation of his plan for the city's downtown.