By Aaron Blevins, 5/03/2012
Vine Street Store Stays in the Family
It was supposed to be a fight to the finish, with David, a mom and pop retailer, standing its ground to Goliath, the W Hotel and its developers, over a sliver of the project’s 61,500 square feet. Yet, five years later, David remains, largely undaunted.
Such was the story of Bernard’s Luggage, a family-owned shop in Hollywood that fought Legacy Partners, the developers of the W Hotel. The company had attempted to use eminent domain to force the sale of the luggage store in the name of economic development.
But it wasn’t to be. The Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles (CRA/LA), Legacy Partners and store owner Bob Blue eventually settled amidst a media frenzy, political pressure, legal threats and community complaints.
“It was like the perfect storm,” Blue said this week from Combo’s N.Y. Pizzeria, a block from the Herman Building. “It all played a factor.”
Yet, five years after waging war with eminent domain, the reconstructed building sits empty. It’s Spanish Colonial Revival architecture contrasts sharply with the modern aesthetics of the W Hotel and its block-long offerings. To Ziggy Kruse, the store’s former manager, the structure is “really cute.”
“It’s a reminder of David and Goliath,” she said. “With the right business in it, it will actually complement the rest of it.”
Blue is seeking to lease the space to a restaurant this year, though nothing official has been secured thus far. He said he would like the eatery to complement Hollywood’s history — something like the Brown Derby Restaurant, which closed in the 1980s.
“I think that would be the most interesting [option],” Blue added.
Though he is actively pursuing a future tenant, he said it has been difficult to make time and resources available for the building he fought so hard to protect. For one, as a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power plant engineer, he’s involved in the large-scale rebuilding project for the Haynes Generating Station in Long Beach. He sometimes works six or seven days per week.
The battle to save Bernard’s Luggage was also quite taxing, Blue said. His mother, Betty, died in late 2005, as the developers were targeting the business and 31 others near it. His mother had worked in the store for years after quitting her job as a registered nurse, shortly before marrying Blue’s father, who died in 2002. Blue said that before her death, his mother would contact him and ask, “Are we keeping Hollywood?”
“She couldn’t believe they could do that,” Blue said. “She was actually pretty nervous about it.”
The family had owned the business since 1946, and it was originally located at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, where Dillon’s Irish Pub is now. Bernard’s Luggage moved to its current location, the Herman Building, in the 1950s, and were tenants for 20 years before purchasing it.
Betty owned and operated the store after her husband’s death. Blue took over as her health declined. He had been a staple in the store since his youth, working there during his high school and college years.
“All my childhood, I’d been going to the store,” Blue said. “And I thought, ‘Why should we be kicked out?’”
He said he first learned of the proposed W Hotel project from a nearby shop owner. Originally, Blue was of the impression that eminent domain was only for public use projects, such as schools, parks and jails.
As he was preparing for his legal battle, a woman on the other side of the country, Susette Kelo, was waging an eminent domain war with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which was seeking to raze her home for a development in Connecticut. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled against her, 5-4, thrusting the issue of eminent domain into the national spotlight.
The news migrated to Southern California, where journalists reached out to newly-hired Kruse for a comment about the decision. She was no stranger to eminent domain; her former employer, Hollywood Star Lane, was razed to accommodate for an elementary school. Her response — “It sucks” — was broadcast just about every hour for a day on KNX 1070, she said.
At the W Hotel project’s Resolution of Necessity Hearing, Blue learned how many businesses were actually going to be affected. Fittingly, a billboard he and Kruse created that mimicked a movie advertisement — “Murder on Vine Street: Eminent Domain Kills Small Business” — went up the same day. It helped the media snowball continue to roll downhill, catching the attention of several property rights activists.
“A lot of big names who fight for the little people came down,” Blue said. He also hired an attorney at the time.
Legacy Partners, Blue and CRA/LA then settled, with help from Councilman Eric Garcetti, 13th District. Blue was able to retain his family business, the W Hotel would be built around it and the store would be reconstructed so that developers could install subterranean parking.
Today, Kruse and Blue still seem slightly awestruck by what transpired. Yet, they’ve breathed a collective sight of relief and are ready to move on. They still speak out against redevelopment and eminent domain, and they celebrated the Community Redevelopment Agency’s demise late last year.
“They should bury it and put salt around it,” Kruse said.
However, unanswered questions remain, and Blue is striving to oblige those who are still curious about the state of Bernard’s Luggage. He’s aiming for the restaurant and has applied for a liquor license, but he would like to resurrect the luggage retailer if and when the economy improves.
“There will be a very good ending to it,” Kruse said assuredly.
Representatives with Starwood Hotels & Resorts, the company that owns the W Hotel, did not return multiple requests for comment by deadline.