Robert Nudelman: A Tireless Defender
Several hours after I heard Robert Nudelman had died at the age of 52 at his father’s home in Tucson, Arizona, I was driving on El Centro Avenue, heading north towards Sunset Boulevard and the Hollywood sign. In front of me, I could see the Palladium and the old CBS TV-and-radio complex—two important buildings that contributed to Los Angeles’s historic culture and funky architecture. I looked at these landmarks and thought of Robert, the now-former director of preservation issues at Hollywood Heritage.
Robert often worked with developers on the restoration of old Hollywood buildings, and the Palladium, the famed rock venue and former ballroom, was one of them. He would supply photographs and historical facts to developers, and expect them to refurbish their properties with accuracy and taste. It was his way to keep an eye on a project. As I drove past the Palladium, I couldn’t help but wonder if the money men, with Robert no longer around to keep them honest, were now going to switch gears and rebuild on the cheap.
At the old CBS complex, also known as Columbia Square, a huge development project had been proposed for the site, which included a 40-story condo tower and a 14-story office building. Robert had been working with developers Molasky Pacific and Apollo Real Estate Advisors to save the historic buildings at the front of the property on Sunset Boulevard. The money men apparently agreed, but Robert was still trying to keep them from demolishing the two studios on the lot, where many old TV shows had been taped for broadcast, and incorporate them into the larger project. The developers weren’t so thrilled with that idea, but Robert kept talking with them.
Robert also told the developers that the 40-story building was a violation of the Hollywood Redevelopment Plan, a document that sets the ground rules for how the money men can build in certain parts of Hollywood. Robert cited a line from the plan that essentially says a new project can not overwhelm existing neighborhoods. Since a historic neighborhood of early 20th century bungalows stood directly east of Columbia Square, Robert came to the reasonable conclusion that a skyscraper was not exactly neighborhood-friendly. The developers’ reaction to this news, Robert told me, was the usual: their lawyers were handling it. As I drove past the site, I once again wondered if Robert’s death would now clear a path for the money men to do whatever they wanted, even if it meant bending, or breaking, the law.
The death of Robert Nudelman will have a major impact on the future face of Hollywood and, as a result, Los Angeles. In fact, years from now, his passing may be seen as a turning point, when developers and accommodating politicians finally got the upper-hand over community activists in the never-ending battle to demolish much of old Hollywood in favor of a bulkier, more dense, and architecturally-uninspired new Hollywood, with huge traffic problems to boot. In other words, quality of life will be dramatically altered, and not necessarily for the best, especially for the regular folk who won’t live in the luxury condos largely being proposed for the area. Those people will be screwed. It was this kind of fight Robert had been engaged in for the past three decades by filing lawsuits, writing letters to various city agencies, and attending and speaking at numerous city department hearings and meetings.
I first met Robert in 1998, when I took over the Hollywood beat as a young reporter for the Los Angeles Independent newspaper chain. Among some people, Robert had the reputation as a naysayer and a troublemaker, and they warned me about him. I think we first seriously talked at a media event that trumpeted a deal to save the Cinerama Dome. Robert was instrumental in saving this landmark.
When we chatted, everything he said to me made sense. Robert wasn’t looking to condemn the entire project, which included the new theaters, shops, and garage that were eventually built around the Dome. He just wanted to save a true historic treasure that gave Sunset Boulevard character. Can you imagine what Sunset would look like without the Cinerama Dome? It would be just another street in Los Angeles.
Not only that, it was a great place to see a movie. The sound was phenomenal, the screen was humungous, and the overall movie experience was unique and special. It still is unique and special, and people still love going to the Cinerama Dome. Robert, who was also cinephile, saved this experience for the rest of us.
There are many other historical buildings Robert helped save through his work with Hollywood Heritage, a local group of dedicated preservationists. I wrote about some of them, and Robert was the person who patiently guided me through all of the complexities—he worked long days and nights to understand all of the legal nuances, and just before his death, he told me he was keeping watch over 57 different projects. Sometimes Robert and I talked for two, three, four hours straight, with me often asking the same question but in a different way. He never begged out or grew impatient with me. Robert stayed on the line until everything was answered. Then I wrote the piece and looked smart and informed, but it was really Robert’s vast knowledge of the inner workings of City Hall that made me appear that way.
I very much enjoyed talking with Robert for those long stretches of time. He was very smart, very witty, and very funny. I often thought he spent his nights thinking up one liners before journalists would call him the next day. His quotes were that good, that polished. They were not only filled with truth and intelligence, but they were also very funny.
The last time I talked with Robert, for example, was for an article I wrote about the 40-story skyscraper at Columbia Square. http://www.laweekly.com/news/news/doomscraper-here-comes-hollywoods-first-ever-mega-skyscraper/18790/ We chatted for over two hours on a Sunday, and he was really flowing with the perfect quotes. I couldn’t write them down fast enough. We then talked about traffic on Sunset Boulevard, and City Council President Eric Garcetti’s high hopes for buses and subways to ease congestion—Garcetti represents much of Hollywood. Robert said to me, with his dry, nasal delivery, “If you put up something as big as Columbia Square, it’s going to be catastrophic. And no one is going to use the subway. People who own condos don’t take public transit. They drive cars.” He paused for a comedic beat and said, “And they probably own two of them.” It was pure gold. Everything made perfect sense, with a funny zinger at the end.
Speaking of Garcetti, it was very kind of the City Council President to mention Robert’s passing on his blog http://lacityorgcd13.blogspot.com/2008/05/farewell-robert-nudelman.html. But I also noticed Garcetti described Robert as a “friend.” City News Service also picked up on that comment and mentioned it in the wire’s obit of Robert. Now it’s probably zooming around the Internet. But if I were able to interview Robert right now, and ask him if Garcetti was his friend, I’m pretty sure he would chuckle and give me one of his great one liners, which would probably rework the old chestnut, “If I have friends like that, who needs enemies.”
Now, they probably weren’t enemies, but I do know that Robert was frustrated with Garcetti’s hard push for high density projects. I also know Robert was frustrated with Garcetti for other things. And I’m sure Robert would wonder if Garcetti, through his blog posting, was trying to make a subtle political move by aligning himself with a leading preservationist in Los Angeles, who was now deceased and couldn’t contradict the City Council President. Garcetti, after all, hasn’t been a favorite these days among many community activists who fear old Hollywood will soon be demolished beyond recognition. Overall, Garcetti’s tribute to Robert is undoubtedly sincere, but Robert would still be wondering if a touch of politicking was going on, and he wouldn’t have been afraid to ask that question through the press.
That’s the last thing I want to mention about Robert. He understood the power of the press, and he understood you needed to rock some boats to grab the attention of big money developers and local politicians. It was the only way to level the playing field. He understood that speaking up gave him and his cause power—developers and politicians hate controversial headlines, and will do a lot of things to avoid them, even if it means negotiating with people like Robert. Too many citizens, though, don’t understand that. They stay quiet and get rolled over by big money interests and politicians every time. Robert never let that happen. He was a fighter to the end. I’m going to miss talking with him, learning from him, eating lunch with him, and seeing him on the streets of Hollywood very much.