The Building the City Yearns For But the Owner’s Not Selling, Again
Hollywood, where money is no object and power players can make anything happen, Sheila Irani envisions the one thing missing in the heart of the world’s entertainment capital: a definitive visitor’s center.
In fact, Irani, president of the Lake Hollywood Homeowners Assoc. and erstwhile staffer for former Los Angeles City Councilmember Tom LaBonge, has identified an ideal site for it—Florentine Gardens, the venerable Gordon Kaufmann-designed nightclub.
The long, horizontal white building—resembling a Moorish palace on three lots at 5951 Hollywood Blvd.—has an unobstructed view of the iconic Hollywood Sign in Griffith Park.
Hollywood remains underserved regarding a proper tourism center, according to Irani, who said the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board operates modest visitor centers out of two “huts”—one in the back of the Hollywood and Highland Center and another within downtown’s Union Station.
Irani faults a lack of ambition and imagination among municipal players as the reason why a formidable visitor’s center has yet to materialize.
“Everybody is so non-visionary, in all honesty. They want to do the minimum and it doesn’t solve the problem,” she said.
Across two years, Irani has attempted to reach Florentine Gardens owner Kenneth MacKenzie with no success.
MacKenzie could not be reached for comment.
Currently an 18-and-older Latino-frequented nightclub, the once-glamorous Florentine Gardens opened in December 1938. Businessman and founding owner Frank Bruni’s destination was popular with celebrities during its 1940s heyday. Marilyn Monroe wed first husband Jim Dougherty there in 1942.
Irani’s vision for Florentine Gardens is an extension of her political promises when the Hollywood Hills resident led an unsuccessful 2015 City Council campaign to represent LaBonge’s former district.
That year, when the empty building, which had been an adult movie theater, adjacent to Florentine Gardens, hit the market for $5 million, Irani brokered a meeting with the building’s realtor and Starline Tours. Her thinking then was it wasn’t Florentine Gardens, but it could, as well, serve as a visitor’s center. Starline was poised to purchase the property, and the building’s owner was also enthusiastic.
However, the easement for the building’s driveway was owned by MacKenzie, and Starline could not buy the building without negotiating with him.
“[Starline] saw the value in it but there was definitely egress issues so it died,” Irani said.
Instead, MacKenzie bought the building, bringing all four lots under one landlord.
“I tried other sources to get a hold of him. Nobody had any luck,” Irani said.
Armed with the support of various Hollywood officials, Irani visited Florentine Gardens. The closest she got to reaching MacKenzie was the nightclub’s manager—whom Irani said she believes is MacKenzie’s niece, in her 60s. Irani left her contact.
“She said, ‘I’ll see if he’s interested, he’ll call you.’ I never got a call,” Irani said.
On a separate 2016 mission to find affordable housing property, Irani met the manager of a building for sale: the Tropicana Inn Motel at 5444 Fountain Avenue nearby.
“Lo and behold, it was the same niece,” said Irani, who revived the Florentine Gardens idea but, according to her, the niece said MacKenzie was uninterested in selling.
“Until you hear a figure, nobody is interested in anything,” Irani said.
MacKenzie also opted to not sell the property in 2005 to the city which had hoped to rebuild a fire station there.
That same year, the Los Angeles Times reported of a mounting eminent domain battle leading to a Los Angeles City Council vote on acquiring the property by couching its pursuit in historic preservation purposes. At that time, MacKenzie had estimated Florentine Gardens’ worth at $29 million while the county assessor, according to public records, placed a $5.4-million valuation on the property.
Ultimately, the fire station moved to its present 5769 Hollywood Blvd. address.
According to the Times article, MacKenzie, who came to Los Angeles from his native Peru in 1961, purchased Florentine Gardens for nearly $700,000 in 1979 and reopened the dormant nightclub a year later.
The issue of a possible visitor’s center is a hot-topic currently as one of many possible solutions to help stem the influx of tourists into residential areas to get near the Hollywood Sign.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti proposed an aerial gondola to the Hollywood Sign in May. However, a couple weeks later, George Kivork, Garcetti’s press secretary, softened the mayor’s commitment to such a tram.
“Mayor Garcetti is open to exploring ideas that ease congestion and encourages creative thinking when looking at ways to give Angelenos and tourists better access to the Hollywood Sign,” Kivork said.
Additionally, the idea of an tramway to the Griffith Observatory was floated in a high controversial 2005 Griffith Park Master Plan, a blueprint for the park has since been scrapped.
Whatever the concept, Irani said it’s time for Garcetti to knuckle down on devising a viable plan to address Los Angeles’s tourism industry, which, according to the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board was over 47 million in 2016.
“The mayor’s office needs to meet with the community [with a plan]. They will get opposition but you can’t let that stop you if you wish to be a progressive city,” Irani said.
Previously, representatives for city councilmembers David Ryu and Mitch O’Farrell have indicated their respective councilmembers are eager to establish a sign viewing center.
“It’s not something that will happen overnight, but it’s something we’ll continue to work on to achieve over time,” said Ryu spokesman Estevan Montemayor.