Global Warfare 

Planet Hollywood needs a spin doctor

Planet Hollywood needs a spin doctor

If, like me, you’re part of the aging-boomer generation, you may remember the I Love Lucy episode called “Hollywood at Last.” It’s the episode in which the Ricardos and the Mertzes arrive in Tinseltown. Right away, Lucy is ready to take the gang out hunting for movie stars. Bald and pudgy Fred enters the Ricardos’ hotel suite dressed in shades, a Cecil B. DeMille beret, and a shirt with a print as mind-boggling as a TV test-pattern. In response to the derisive laughter of his comrades, Fred explains, “I’ve seen pictures of how they dress in Hollywood. I want to fit in. I don’t want to be conspicuous.”

Nashville’s Planet Hollywood is the architectural equivalent of Fred Mertz in Tinseltown. It’s a plain-speaking, mid-19th-century building dressed up with a loud paint job, a hot-pink-and-emerald awning, darkened windows, and a gargantuan globe. But Nashville isn’t laughing, derisively or otherwise. Nashville is standing on the sidewalk, gawking. Nashville has gone Hollywood too.

Unlike Fred Mertz, Planet Hollywood intends for its rehab to be “conspicuous.” “Conspicuous” is what the Planet Hollywood building is all about. It’s a study in pushing the outer edge of a zoning envelope that’s already stretched out of shape. The Planet building is a 3-D testament to Nashville’s willingness to prostitute its architecture for a one-night stand with some movie bigwigs on a paid-to-be-viewed junket.

Metro Nashville’s Public Works Department truncated the pole of a signal light—albeit at Planet Hollywood’s expense—so that the globe logo could expand out over a public right-of-way. The Metro Board of Fire and Building Code Appeals granted the globe a variance so that the sign could extend closer to the curb line. Our Codes Department allowed the globe to spin on opening night, even though nobody had issued a sign permit. A permit-less homeowner gets a stop-work when he tries to build a deck; Planet Hollywood hangs out a Mercury-sized globe and gets block-long red carpet.

The Metro Historical Commission urged that the city fathers “Just Say No” to a mega-sphere. But city officials ignored the recommendations. Instead, Metro government lay on its back and said “Yes, yes, yes.” The local media served up the kind of coverage other cities would reserve for nothing less than a papal visit. As a result, Metro Nashville looks about as cosmopolitan as a small town with chain-o-mania panting for a Wal-Mart.

The most criminal aspect of Planet Hollywood’s attack on the old Alamo Building is the blockage of the windows. The floor levels of the building have been raised to cut directly across the glass, blinding the windows permanently. The only restitution now possible is to re-gut the entire structure, which won’t happen in our lifetimes or even in the lifetime of the building.

Urban architecture provides windows so that the inside folks can see out and so that the outside folks can see in. This visual dialogue establishes a necessary component of urbanity. The Planet Hollywood building relates to the street in the same way that decorated sheds of a suburban strip mall relate to a highway.

The restaurant’s exterior paint job has been another source of controversy. Defenders of the California color scheme point out, correctly, that Broadway has a honky-tonk ambience that distinguishes it from Second Avenue. They point out that Tootsie’s is an Orchid Lounge, after all.

Ann Reynolds, executive director of the Metro Historical Commission, says that when historic brick buildings have to be painted—to cover inferior or decomposing brick or to disguise window and door openings that don’t match—the Department of Interior standards demand a color as close to brick as possible. The Historical Commission staff lobbied Planet Hollywood to tone down the original hot pink of the exterior to a shade that was closer to terra cotta. Planet Hollywood has agreed to repaint the yellow building that houses the restaurant’s merchandise outlet next door.

Quibbling about color, however, is almost beside the point. The unfortunate thing is that the Alamo Building has been painted at all. In an early stage of the makeover, the brick was cleaned, and the mortar re-pointed. The old Alamo looked nice, like a formerly shabby vagrant who had been treated to a shave and a haircut and was ready to rejoin civilization. Not anymore. Now the building looks like a punk who’s ingested some bad chemicals.

The globe sign now spins within its hefty and disfiguring girder. When it was first installed, it rotated as fast as a laundromat dryer, but even before that, the globe had phones ringing all over town. As the huge sphere was wheeled down Broadway on its very own flatbed truck, and then again when it was suspended at the corner of the building, the globe had Nashville abuzz—not because of the sign’s design, but just because it is so, well, huge.

According to Rick Shepherd of Metro Codes, the globe’s dimensions are “probably legal.” Shepherd admits, however, that the sign was hung without a permit. “Metro Council has to pass a resolution approving all signs that project over a public right-of-way,” he explains, “and they haven’t done that yet.” When asked why Codes did not issue a stop-work order until such a resolution was on the books, Shepherd said that such orders are usually issued only if an inspector happens to pass by a construction site and happens to notice that work is being done without a permit—or if a neighbor complains. On June 21, Shepherd said, “We didn’t know anything was happening until this morning. Then the phone started ringing off the hook.” Members of the Codes staff were apparently the only people in Nashville who were unaware that the globe had arrived.

The size of the globe itself may be legal, but Codes is ignoring the fact that the entire Planet Hollywood building is essentially one big sign. The purpose of signage is to attract attention—to say, “Here we are; come on in.” Gaudy color applied in space-age patterns, a zebra-striped awning, and a window of fractured geometry grab for recognition just as effectively as does a sign touting the name of the company. The folks at Planet Hollywood have shrewdly exploited the reality that our sign ordinance ignores.

The Metro Development and Housing Agency is the agency that called the shots as to what Planet Hollywood could and could not do to the exterior of its building. The Alamo Building falls under MDHA’s jurisdiction because it lies within the Capitol Mall Redevelopment District, which is MDHA turf.

The building that houses Planet Hollywood is part of the Broadway Historic District. That means it is listed on the National Register. Any exterior alterations to the building are to be governed by the national and generalized standards of the Secretary of the Interior. Such standards are open to interpretation, but their intention is to treat historic building façades with the respect they deserve. It should be obvious to anyone with a working eyeball that Nashville has had more respect for Planet Hollywood than it has for its own architecture.

Defenders of the building say that one person’s vulgar is another person’s hip, that the question is a subjective one, that it all boils down to taste. I beg to disagree. Whether Nashville’s Planet Hollywood is vulgar or hip is irrelevant. What the blinded windows, the tie-dyed paint job, and the megasphere tell us is that the Planet planners have learned their lessons along the neon strip of Las Vegas. They have transformed a building that was once part of an ensemble into a stand-alone shed that could mesmerize drivers hurtling by on an interstate.

It didn’t have to be this way. Other cities have looked at Planet Hollywood with a cooler eye. The New Orleans Board of Zoning Adjustments made Planet Hollywood downsize its original signage request before a plan was approved. Says Marc Cooper, the Vieux Carré Commission’s director, “We’re trying to preserve New Orleans, not Hollywood. What’s appropriate there—a blatantly Hollywood look—is what we tried to get away from.”

In Washington, D.C., Planet Hollywood went into a building on Pennsylvania Avenue. That building, too, is listed on the National Register. According to architect David Maloney, Planet Hollywood’s plans for its D.C. outlet had to pass through two other review boards before they arrived at his agency, the Washington, D.C., Historic Preservation Division. “The Planet Hollywood people were pretty much beaten down by the time they got to us. They kept the windows operable and they didn’t paint the exterior. Their signage consists of an awning with some lettering and a small globe—roughly two-and-a-half-feet in diameter—over the entrance.”

The difference between the New Orleans and Washington Planet Hollywoods and Nashville’s version is that their versions exist in areas where there is historic zoning. Our building isn’t that lucky. As David Maloney explains, D.C.’s guidelines are “fairly strict. Planet Hollywood didn’t try anything that bad, because they knew they’d be hounded out of town if they had.”

The goal of historic zoning for The District would be not to hound people out of town but to integrate them into the town. Such zoning preserves a building’s exterior in the context of the surrounding exteriors. On Broadway that context includes an orchid-colored Tootsie’s, but it also includes the well-restored façades of The Merchants restaurant, TomKats, and Gruhn Guitars. The mixture has a certain balance. Dropping Planet Hollywood into the blend is like adding too much hot sauce to a soup.

It is important to note that historic zoning does not have anything to say about interiors. The decor inside Planet Hollywood is over the top, and that’s OK. It’s fun, even if it’s not particularly conducive to digestion. By comparison, the Hard Rock Cafe interior, even with all its memorabilia, is rather dull. And that’s OK too. Each place makes its own choices. Historic zoning concerns itself with the collective impact on public spaces. Planet Hollywood’s exterior packs a wallop that all of us, willingly or unwillingly, must take—right in the face.

Planet Hollywood’s intrusion on the public space of Broadway may be perfectly legal, but it intensifies an erosion dynamic that will extend beyond this individual project. Already, the head of O’Charley’s Inc., which has a restaurant on Second Avenue, is complaining: “Their sign is bigger than our sign.” Metro has allowed Hard Rock to block streetside windows, attach a branch-bank-like addition, and spray a giant mural across its façade. For our laxity, we got Planet Hollywood, and the NASCAR Cafe is on the way.

These enterprises undoubtedly contribute to our local economy, but it is difficult to imagine that they would be less successful in less outrageous garb. Advertising is competitive. When one business raises the stakes, it serves as a Pavlovian stimulus to others. Lowering the stakes into a set of legal guidelines, such as those provided by a historic zoning overlay, replaces a laissez-faire Darwinian survival of the biggest, brashest, and tackiest with a level and stable playing field.

Historic zoning has had no success in downtown Nashville. In 1987, an ordinance protecting Second Avenue reached the public hearing stage, but it was shot down by some well-connected property owners on the Avenue. They claimed that one more government overlay wouldn’t help solve the economic problems of the street.

Last fall, Mayor Bredesen promised the Tennessee Historical Commission that he would “actively seek a historic zoning overlay” for Second Avenue. He feared that the success the area was experiencing could kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Since then, the Metro Historical Commission has drafted guidelines for such a zoning overlay, and there—two years after the arrival of Hard Rock and with success engulfing Broadway—the whole issue rests.

The case of Planet Hollywood should give Metro officials ample encouragement to proceed with historic zoning for The District. If that isn’t enough, however, they might consider the advice of Ethel Mertz. When gone-Hollywood Fred saunters through the door, Ethel tells him to change his clothes, that she won’t be seen on the street with him in a “flowered nightshirt.” In the next scene, he’s wearing a suit and tie.

Nashville, on the other hand, is apparently eager to sacrifice one of its most important streets to a project that is essentially a tarted-up Burger King. The real class act would be a Nashville that recognizes its own integrity, sets up standards to enforce that integrity, and then sticks to them. Where is Ethel Mertz when we need her?

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