'Hollywood' Sign Property Up for Sale

The ridge line next to the famed "Hollywood" sign in Los Angeles is up for sale, with a price tag of $22 million. One L.A. city council member has launched a personal crusade to stop the developers.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

That famous Hollywood sign may be about to get some company. For years, the sign has been a giant marquee for the film industry, standing alone on a mountain top in Griffith Park in Los Angeles. The land around it has been considered too difficult to develop but now it's for sale, and many people in L.A. are worried that an important part of the local landscape will soon change.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates took a hike with the local official who's become the guardian of Griffith Park.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: It's still dark when L.A. councilman Tom LaBonge begins to do what he's done every day for 30 years. Dressed in sweats and hefting a football like the former varsity star he is, the husky LaBonge is hiking Mount Hollywood. He knows most people by name and can greet them in more than one language. In this case, it's Korean.

Mr. TOM LABONGE (L.A. Councilman): (Foreign Language Spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign Language Spoken)

Mr. LABONGE: (Foreign Language Spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign Language Spoken)

Mr. LABONGE: Good morning.

BATES: Welcome to Mr. LaBonge's neighborhood. Griffith Park, all 4,000 plus acres is part of it. The Hollywood sign is nestled in the park's hills. Each leaning white letter stands 50 feet tall and 35 feet wide. And while it started as an advertisement for the houses that were built below it, the sign eventually morphed into something else, the signature symbol of the City of Angels. Ever since the announcement that Cahuenga Peak, the ridge next to the Hollywood Sign is up for sale, people have been talking about it, like the guy who just stopped to speak to LaBonge as we start up the hill.

That's one of the first thing he asked you, what's happening over here with this…

Mr. LABONGE: Right.

BATES: … with this Hollywood sign.

Mr. LABONGE: Is everybody...

BATES: What are you going to do about that?

Mr. LABONGE: Everybody said, well, we got to buy it.

BATES: All it takes is lots of money. Cahuenga Peak was bought from Howard Hughes decades ago and left undeveloped. LaBonge says the city didn't know that the land had changed hands. Now, a Chicago financial company has bought it and plans to flip it for many millions more than the purchase price. LaBonge is hoping to negotiate a lower price with public-private money and preserve the now empty mountaintop for the public.

Mr. LABONGE: There's the Hollywood sign. Where the H stops in the Hollywood Sign, that's where the private property begins.

BATES: If another buyer beats him to it, though, it's possible new mansions or one huge estate will be built right next to the sign. It's Tom LaBonge's personal crusade to make sure that never happens. So this morning he's making sure everybody tells me how important it is to keep the space undeveloped.

Mr. LABONGE: This is National Public Radio. We're talking about the fight to save Cahuenga Peak.

BATES: One of the hikers LaBonge calls over is filmmaker, Theo van de Sande, who says the park's open space is crucial.

Mr. THEO VAN DE SANDE (Filmmaker): It belongs to the city. You don't realize when you're down in the city how huge this park is and how much rest it gives in the middle of the city.

BATES: Van de Sande believes the open trails, the wide panoramas of sky and sea provide important psychological, as well as physical relief in densely populated L.A. And it's not just two-legged hikers who appreciate the space.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

BATES: Simon(ph) and Mont(ph), their leashes dragging behind them, come up with social worker, Jen Quiry(ph) every morning.

Ms. JEN QUIRY (Social Worker): Simon likes to hike and Mont likes to hike. We come here, actually, every morning for an hour before I go to work at our county hospital.

BATES: By now, I've gotten the picture but Tom LaBonge is relentless. He promises a reward if I can just drag myself a little higher.

Mr. LABONGE: Here we go. There it is right there. There it is.

GRIGSBY BATES: Wow, here we are.

Mr. LABONGE: Now, that mountain - everything you see right now is pure, and just think if it was harmed by someone placing a house.

BATES: Even an exquisite one. Finally, we arrive at the very top of Mount Hollywood with a stunning view of the big sign. LaBonge counts off the peaks.

Mr. LABONGE: Well, this is Mount Hollywood, that's Mount Lee and there's Cahuenga Peak.

BATES: Where nothing will be built if he's successful. Now, it's time to leave. I follow tradition and touch the Mount Hollywood pole.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

BATES: And we prepare to descend. Tom LaBonge says the Hollywood sign is a globally recognized icon that shouldn't be spoiled by clutter - even expensive clutter.

Mr. LABONGE: When you talk of Los Angeles, you know, in the world, you talk of Paris, the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben in London, the Opera House in Sydney, all of these places and this is our one spot really that has it.

BATES: And Tom LaBonge is determined to keep that spot free and clear for years to come.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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