January 30, 1997 - From the January, 1997 issue

MCA/Universal vs. Studio City Residents At Issue: Studio Expansion or New Theme Park?

Los Angeles is the haven for entertainment studios. The movie and television industry was expected to grow when MCA/Universal announced plans for a major expansion at its 450 acre site. However, the 25-year Master Plan reveals that the studio hopes to expand its theme park. Tony Lucente, President of Studio City Residents' Assocation, picks the Master Plan apart.

“Unfortunately, instead of expanding the studio production that creates the type of jobs that fuel our economy, MCA’s 25-year Master Plan actually reveals plans for a greatly expanded theme park."

Disney, Warner Brothers, Universal Studios… these names conjure up images of an exciting world of entertainment for millions around the world. Indeed, L.A.’s position as the entertainment capital of the world is not only a major source of pride for Los Angelenos, it is increasingly the economic backbone of our city. Entertainment, primarily through high paying, skilled studio production, supports the quality of life that many of us enjoy today. 

For nearly 100 years, L.A. residents, have grown up with the movie and television industry, with major studios virtually right next door. The impacts of studio production do exist but, when properly mitigated, are easily offset by tremendous benefits. No one—and I mean virtually not one single person—objects to expansion of studio production provided that noise, light, traffic and other impacts are reasonably mitigated. 

And so, residents had much to hope for when entertainment powerhouse MCA/Universal announced plans for a major expansion at its 450 acre site. Unfortunately, instead of expanding the studio production that creates the type of jobs that fuel our economy, MCA's 25-year Master Plan actually reveals plans for a greatly expanded theme park. Of the additional development planned, less than 28% is studio-related while over 72% is theme park related. 

The transformation of Universal Studios to a mega theme park akin to Disney World does not come without cost. And that's where MCA's Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) comes in. This massive 10 volume document is a flood of facts and figures that just don't add up. Amazingly, the EIR concludes that the impacts of building a theme park bordered on nearly all sides of fully developed residential areas are fully mitigatable. We know that the existing level of development at Universal has already overwhelmed our infrastructure—from the Ventura Freeway to Barham and Ventura Blvds. Yet this multi-year analysis has concluded that we can absorb a doubling of attendance, more than double the current level of development and dramatically shift from primary studio production to theme-park style entertainment? Go figure.

Take for example the EIR’s evaluation of peak hour traffic. The EIR uses the standard AM/PM peak hour definition as its basis for evaluation. Sounds logical, until you learn that Universal creates its own unique peak hours that begin around noon when tour visitors arrive and then peak again at 7 and 11 p.m. when visitors leave. The EIR doesn't evaluate traffic under this paradigm and therefore doesn't propose additional traffic mitigations to handle this extended peak hour traffic. In fact, MCA's current plans would make it much easier to get into Universal but would still dump thousands and thousands of exiting vehicles onto local streets every day. 

And what about employment? MCA proudly boasts that its plan will generate over 13,000 new jobs, a claim that at first glance is impressive. But a closer look reveals that many of the new jobs, over 3,700 will be part-time with only 1,393 or about 10% relating to traditionally high paying studio production activities. Is this profile of job growth consistent with L.A. 's "backbone" entertainment industry?


Yet for all the thousands of pages MCA's battery of consultants has produced, this EIR raises more questions than it answers. In this way, it fails to meet one of the document's key stated objectives to provide a "high level of certainty about future developments." Yes. MCA gets certainty because the Specific Plan would allow facilities for an astonishing list of proposed uses to be constructed anywhere in Universal City. And, in lieu of discretionary review, the plan calls for a severely limited ministerial procedure called Project Plan Compliance which would effectively give MCA pre-approval of all future development along with countless additional alcohol permits for the next 24 years! Finally, no checkpoints are provided to ensure that the infrastructure or mitigations are in place before additional development proceeds, unlike conditions for other major studio expansion projects, like Warner Brothers and Sony. 

What about certainty for the rest of us? Yes, we're willing to grant MCA some certainty for future development but only in exchange for certainty about what is planned. But what certainty can be found in a document that provides no details of the height or location of any proposed structure? Not even one single design by the noted architect Rem Koolhaas—who has never done a project in the U.S.—has been made public. Just what is this place going to look like? The only thing certain about this Plan is that, as currently proposed, MCA can build almost anything and everything they want, when they want, with an anxious community watching on. 

The issue of Universal's Master Plan is of special importance to the adjacent communities like Studio City. Even without poring through the EIR minutiae, residents know that doubling the size of the Universal entertainment complex represents nothing short of a nightmare. 

L.A. has learned to live with studios nearby, but by planning to build the nation's only giant theme park located in the heart of a residential area instead of building on a rich tradition of studio production. MCA's ambitious plan strikes at the very heart of what has made L.A. a success. 

MCA needs to think again and propose a detailed plan that provides quality job growth while maintaining Universal Studios as an attractive destination serving tourists and the community alike. Then, we can proceed with an open and vigorous debate that will result in a plan that allows Universal Studios to grow in a manner that enhances the economy without sacrificing the surrounding communities.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.