April 30, 1992 - From the April, 1992 issue

Studio Expansions: What Are the Appropriate Regulatory Reactions?

Fox, Sony, Warner Hollywood, Disney, Warner Burbank — nearly every major studio in the Los Angeles area seems to be pursuing expansion plans. And with the recession dampening other development, the debates over the expansions of these facilities have become among the region’s most visible land-use battles.

To explore the planning and land-use issues surrounding studio expansion, The Planning Report this month convened a roundtable discussion with: William Delvac, Attorney and Principal of Historic Resources Group (a historic preservation consultant on the Fox Studio project); Robert B. Burke, senior partner of the law offices of Robert B. Burke (a consultant on land-use issues and historic presentation to Sony Studios); Jean Marie Gath of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates (architect and planner for the Warner Hollywood project); and Steven Somers of the Burbank Redevelopment Agency (project manager for the Disney Studios expansion).

What are the main planning and land-use issues raised by the expansion plans of studios around the region?

Delvac: Fox Studios, for example, has been in West Los Angeles for over 60 years. They moved there to build a complete, integrated sound motion picture production facility — the first such complex built anywhere in the world. The neighborhood has grown up around it, and the studio is now faced with needing to expand on-site, within its 54 acres, since there is no more land around it.

It has a couple of other goals: it wants to bring its successful Fox Television facility to its West Los Angeles facility, and it needs more office space and post-production space.

There is clearly neighborhood concern about traffic and about the expansion in general. The existing Century City South Specific Plan does not allow for any new studio construction, only residential construction. Obviously traffic and neighborhood impacts are critical. But with Fox you have to ask how much more or less traffic does this create than other, alternative uses such as condominiums.

Fox believes that if it can’t expand, it will have to relocate. From a land-use and historic preservation standpoint there’s a critical decision to be made by Los Angeles: does it choose to keep an operating studio there (albeit expanded), or have Fox move away and put the whole studio at risk? For historic preservation, it’s a clear choice.

Burke: The current issues for Sony Studios (which is the present incarnation of Columbia, Lorimar, and prior to that the MGM Studios) are very similar to those Bill described. The difference is that Sony Studios lies entirely within Culver City, which exists largely because it was the location of the first filmmaking efforts in Los Angeles. Essentially we have a film production entity that grew from an infant industry into a signature industry for Culver City. Throughout the region, what began as free-ranging operations are being made to perform as regular, corporate commercial enterprises. The owners of all of the studios — Sony, Fox, Paramount, Warner, etc. — maintain with a good degree of credibility that they need to do what they need to do to produce product — film and television. So you have two legitimate competing interests — adjoining property owners who want quiet enjoyment of their property and the preexisting property owners (the studios) who see expansion as necessary to their livelihood.

Gath: Warner Hollywood Studios is a little different from Fox and Sony in that the surrounding neighborhood (West Hollywood, East End) welcomes its expansion. The residents and businesses see it as an opportunity to revitalize this area of West Hollywood and to strengthen the neighborhood’s economic base. In recognition of the importance of the studio within the city, the city has designated a “Studio District” which is intended to promote studio and studio-related activities.

Warner does, however, face some on-site issues, particularly in historic preservation. Warner has committed to preserving and enhancing the entire Santa Monica Boulevard facade as well as relocating the Formosa Cafe. In exchange, it needs flexibility within the internal portions of the lot, including the ability to remove and replace some of the facilities that have been designated as potentially having historic value. Actually, probably the best and most historic architecture is found in the sets that come and go, not in the buildings themselves, which are just warehouses or places of assembly.

Somers: Burbank is different in that we have a high concentration of commercial development around our studios, with surrounding village-like retail in Toluca Lake. We’re processing a planned development application for Disney Studios’ master plan, roughly two million sq. ft. of development on their existing lot.

The issues there and with other studios are traffic impacts. The Disney studios had a recent expansion with a 330,000 sq. ft. office building which is their corporate headquarters. NBC looks like they’re in need of about 100,000 sq. ft. of office space. Warner Brothers has a 160,000 sq. ft. office building on the boards across from their studio campus and will likely develop a master plan.

Why do all of these major studios face expansion needs at the same time?

Gath: Studios tend to go through a recycling period. If one looks at the history of studio expansion in Los Angeles, one sees a great deal of expansion activity and growth in the early 1920s, more modest growth in the 1950s, and additional renovation in the 1970s.

Facilities tend to require renovation every 20 to 30 years to modernize and meet the needs of changing technology. Since the majority of studio facilities were built roughly during the same period, their updating and expansion tends to occur at roughly the same time.

Burke: At Sony Studios (and, I assume, others as well), money was taken out continually over the last 50 years, and very little was put back on improvements to the physical premises over the years, such as fire and safety systems, square footage requirements, and disabled access and handicapped standards. If Los Angeles studios are going to compete with new facilities in Florida or Vancouver, they need to modernize to the technology of 1992. The studios cannot afford the luxury of unused land around them: they need to maximize their land use.

What new land-use controls are appropriate to handle these studio expansions?

Somers: In Burbank, after six years of discussion, the city adopted the Media District Specific Plan. It’s a comprehensive growth control ordinance that effectively puts a cap on development in the district at an FAR of 1.1: 1.

The community had been facing unprecedented office growth in the area — 32-story office buildings. The studios at that point weren’t busting at the seam: now they’re looking at this expansionary cycle and they have to work within the Specific Plan.

Delvac: Fox is proposing something new for the City of Los Angeles: a new zone designation called a Studio Zone. It’s designed to answer the question of how the neighborhood can be sure that this isn’t merely more commercial development disguised as a studio. Fox in the proposed amendment to the Specific Plan is proposing a Studio Zone, which would allow only studio-related uses.

The second thing Fox is doing, which is unique for a property owner in L.A., is proposing a plan for historic preservation. There are buildings being analyzed for demolition in the EIR, but under the Specific Plan no other buildings would be demolished and the buildings retained would be rehabilitated in accordance with a plan for appropriate rehabilitation.

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New buildings would be in keeping with the scale, color, and massing of the historic studio. This plan deals with the studio as a whole in terms of its historic identity — seeing the site as a historic resource.

Are all of the studios lining up behind the Studio Zone proposal, or are there differences among them?

Burke: All of the studios that I’m aware of are supportive of the efforts of the other studios. They see the worthiness of a separate S, or Studio Zone, but they also need the ability to continue to operate — and that’s a function of having the land use and legislative options available to keep these economically viable facilities going.

Several years ago, Paramount Studios and some of the smaller studios in Hollywood were having difficult problems with the City of Los Angeles — less with land use than with other codes. We formed with the assistance of Councilman Michael Woo a Studio Planning Group that has now become part of the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). Its function is to lobby the city, county and state to recognize the special needs of studio production facilities, recognizing that a studio should be treated differently from an office building, shopping mall, or strip center.

What’s the best argument against a special Studio Zone?

Delvac: I’m going to give the theoretical answer and knock it down. Generally we all believe that special restrictions on land use makes it more difficult to market or use. But with Fox the only believable use for historic sound stages is studio use. If we want to have historic studios, then a studio zone makes a lot of sense.

Some communities complain that their studios, as closed, campus-like settings, are islands in their cities that don’t relate to their urban settings or contribute to their vitality. How, from an urban design standpoint, can the second generation of these studios open themselves up?

Gath: This is an interesting issue — one that we’ve dealt with extensively on the Warner Hollywood lot. On the one hand, security (both visual and physical) is essentia1 to the operations of the studio — hence the fortress-like wall along Santa Monica Boulevard. On the other hand, people are intrigued by the studio and want some exposure to it and its activities.

In our meetings with community residents this “opening up” of the studios was an extremely important issue, one that we’ve addressed in several ways. First, we’ve created a new gateway into the studios at Formosa Avenue which helps create a real presence for the studio on the street.

Secondly, we’ve established an entire urban design program for Santa Monica Boulevard. This program consists of creating visual openings in the Santa Monica Boulevard wall with “wrought iron windows”; creating “Howard Hughes Court” (a small visual pocket park recognizing Hughes’ private studio entrance); visitor exhibit areas; a studio imagery wall displaying current and historic movie posters; and a “studio walk” consisting of brass insets in the sidewalk.

Delvac: Studios are certainly not an economic island from the community: they are a bridge to economic growth. The multiplier effect of studios is well-documented. As for urban design issues, I’ve always been able to catch a glimpse onto the Fox studio lot; they do hold public events at appropriate times. But they’re places of business, and appropriately so.

If this special Studio Zone were to be adopted in Los Angeles, what precedential value might it have for the region?

Burke: Culver City does have a special Studio Zone and Culver Studios and Sony Studios are included within it. The reasoning behind it was that the movie-making industry has special needs in land-use and municipal services that do not work with commercial, manufacturing, or some other bastardized form of another zone. So it was decided to create a cleaner, more self-directed one.

Delvac: I don’t know of another industry as unique in Southern California. But if there were one, maybe it’s a positive precedent to match its critical indigenous industries with zoning and land use that allows them to thrive. Maybe that’s OK, especially when it doesn’t mean exemption from environmental laws and building codes.

What region-wide impacts will we see from these localized land-use battles over studio expansions?

Gath: I think all of the cities in the region have to realize the studios’ importance in maintaining the region’s economic base. So much of the region depends on the studios — not only for direct employment but also for entertainment and tourist-related employment.

The studios recognize the need to mitigate their impacts and are going to great lengths to do so, but on issues such as traffic they can’t do it alone. Many of the issues are regional, and have to be addressed on a regional level, not project by project.

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