Welcome to Hollywood: residents clash as access to famed sign is blocked

Andrew Gumbel in Los Angeles
The Hollywood sign just got harder to reach. Photograph: Tim Hawley/Getty Images

When Ben Sheffner bought his house in the Hollywood hills seven years ago, he welcomed being just steps away from a trailhead leading directly to the Hollywood sign and the hills beyond.

Access was in fact one of the big selling points when the original suburb of Hollywoodland was built almost a century ago, and the sign – since transformed into one of America’s most famous landmarks – was erected as a giant advertising billboard to would-be homeowners.

In 1923, the miles of hiking and bridle trails around the sign were described in a promotional document as “beyond comparison”, and the thousands of Angelenos and out-of-town visitors who descend on the area every weekend think that’s still true.

Now, though, the gate that Sheffner and many of his fellow residents have been using to access those trails is about to shut for good, after a long-running fight between those who think that living in the shadow of a major tourist attraction is a blessing, and a noisy minority who not only see it as a curse but have filed a pair of lawsuits.

The decision to close the gate at the top of Beachwood Canyon has delighted the litigants, who hate seeing hikers driving or walking up their narrow winding streets each weekend and who worry about traffic jams, littering, urination, and unauthorized smoking in a fire hazard zone.

But it has also sparked widespread outrage, not least because the decision came entirely without warning.

Hikers and tourists will now be redirected to the next canyon over, where there are only intermittent partial views of the sign. Not only is the Bronson Canyon trail more arduous and more than a mile longer than the Beachwood access trail, but the gate closing risks shifting all the nuisance problems into someone else’s backyard.

The bad guys won. The bad guys who are rude and don’t care about anybody else

Kris Sullivan

“It’s very disappointing to me and to a lot of other people in the neighborhood,” Sheffner said. “Really, we should be making the park as porous as possible so we’re dealing with relatively small annoyances at a bunch of places, instead of huge annoyances at a few places.”

Kris Sullivan, a neighbor who has been fighting to maintain access to the park for more than 15 years, was much blunter: “The bad guys won. The bad guys who are rude and don’t care about anybody else. Here we were, trying to look out for the greater good, and we failed.”

That failure was triggered by a court ruling in February aimed at settling a suit brought by a privately owned horse ranch near the Beachwood Canyon gate. The ranch said that thousands of pedestrians coming on to its access road were interfering with its business, and the judge in the case sympathized.

Officials from the city parks department and the local city councilman’s office told residents that the ruling left them with no option but to close the gate. But that is where the story starts to take on unexpected Hollywood twists, because the judge did not order the city to close the gate. On the contrary, she upheld the public’s right to use the Beachwood access, saying only that the route had to be modified.

The discrepancy has led to recriminations, more anger, and accusations of lying that have flown in multiple directions. It appears that the city lawyers decided on their own to make a formal agreement with the riding stables to close the gate – essentially conceding the issue without a fight. The city attorney’s office said the decision had been made by the parks department, in consultation with the local city council office and the lawyers. But multiple sources in and out of city government said those offices had no idea what was going on and felt “blindsided”.

Now the fury is spreading to Bronson Canyon and a neighborhood known as the Oaks, where community leaders are aghast at having to deal with mass tourist traffic with no forewarning. “The city told us nothing. We found out from a former board member,” said Linda Othenin-Girard, president of the local homeowners association.

The gate closure, and the bad blood it is generating, risks upending two years of careful planning to craft a long-term solution that will give the hikers and tourists the access they want without choking the neighborhood in traffic, impeding the fire department’s ability to respond to emergencies, or other obvious negative side-effects.

David Ryu, the local councilman, has introduced resident permit parking on the weekends and worked with the police to enforce bans on large tourist buses. The city has also expanded a shuttle bus service into the park and is contemplating numerous schemes to pick up tourists from the heart of Hollywood and take them to a viewing point where they can snap photos of the sign.

The naysayers, however, have not been satisfied with these improvements. Indeed, a hard core is opposed to park access of any kind and seems to resent the Hollywood sign’s very existence. “Maybe they need to consider moving the sign, renting it out to Universal or Warner Brothers to put on their hillside,” a Beachwood resident, Christine O’Brien, told one interviewer recently. “Is getting close to that sign really an important thing?”

One thing that might have motivated the city attorney’s office is that the gate closure nullifies a second lawsuit brought by O’Brien’s fellow anti-access activists, thus solving all the legal issues at once.

Ending this round of litigation and ending the acrimony in the neighborhood are not the same thing, however. “There is no solution that will make everybody happy,” Ben Sheffner acknowledged, “including the solution that appears to have been imposed.”

  • This story was amended on 23 March 2017 to correct the number of years Ben Sheffner has owned his Hollywood Hills home. It was further amended 28 March 2017. A previous version stated that Christine O’Brien and others brought a second lawsuit against the city. To clarify, O’Brien is not a named plaintiff in the lawsuit. The plaintiff is Homeowners on Beachwood Drive United.
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