September 30, 1997 - From the September, 1997 issue

MCA/Universal Studios Expansion: A TPR Point/Counterpoint


Tony Lucente

"Too many questions remain unanswered, too many details remain elusive—purportedly stashed away in the desk drawers at Latham & Watkins—and too many substantive issues remain unresolved."

By Tony Lucente, President, Studio City Residents’ Association

Much has been written about Universal Studios' quest for a massive expansion, which, according to the most recent draft of their Specific Plan, "builds upon Universal City's historical strengths to create and provide a full range of family entertainment..." A flurry of activity involving opponents, proponents and the media coincided with the plan's introduction.

Political leaders Zev Yaroslavsky and John Ferraro, in whose jurisdictions the Universal project lies, were pressed for their opinions, but hesitated to jump to any conclusions publicly. Instead, they and their highly experienced staffs, carefully watched and listened as the project was debated.

Then, in a bold move that surprised both sides, Yaroslavsky and Ferraro made an announcement designed to quell the storm of public opposition to the project and move the lingering process forward. "No New Theme Park," the headlines proclaimed. At the same time, a list of the politicians' requests was released: reduce the project by 40%, reduce the plan period from 25 to l5 years, mitigate all impacts prior to proceeding with Phase Il of the project, and don't build a new theme park. Universal and their principal planners at Latham & Watkins immediately set about drafting a revised project plan.

The result? Universal's revised Specific Plan presents a smaller, more balanced project that provides a framework that could lead to ultimate project approval. In fact, Universal touts their revised Plan as a pretty sweet deal overall. So why is this project still being vigorously debated? The devil is in the details. And upon closer examination of the Specific Plan, one can easily find more than a few "devils" that need attention.

First, the revised Plan is disturbingly similar to the original Plan, minus a children's theme park and convention hotel space, and fails to address some key concerns identified in the first phase of project review.

Despite requests for "No New Theme Park," Universal 's revised plan still adds 388,000 s.f. to its "old" theme park, while eliminating plans for a "new" children's theme park. And, because the plan allows Universal flexibility to "trade" entertainment square footage for other uses through a proposed "equivalency matrix," Universal could expand the existing theme park by as much as 1.2 million s.f.—too much "new" theme park. Universal's equivalency matrix reminds one of a Trojan Horse—you're never really sure what's in it or when something's going to jump out!

Then there's traffic. Universal's traffic mitigation plans have one serious omission—no direct access to the southbound Hollywood Freeway. Universal's newly-built freeway-adjacent entrance proves that they can find ways to move traffic off the freeway and into the Park. Certainly they can find a way to get vehicles out of the Park without putting all the cars onto our local streets. The Plan also appears to use tour buses to reach Universal's ride-sharing goals, creating few incentives or requirements for Universal City's studio or office employees to reduce vehicle trips.

Regarding noise, Universal should drop their complex noise monitoring schemes and agree to measure and mitigate all noise from the source, including production noise currently exempted from monitoring under the revised Plan. Simply put, if you can hear noise from adjacent neighborhoods, it's too loud and should be mitigated.

In addition, Universal still has not specified the size or design of any building in its Plan and, unlike other comparable specific plans, it still has no ongoing public involvement in overseeing the Plan or even monitoring its proposed mitigations. Other important issues also remain unresolved, including height limitations and limitation of uses in specific residential-adjacent areas.

The Studio City Residents Association (SCRA), joins project supporters in congratulating Universal Studios for reducing the size and scope of their proposed expansion. Indeed, these changes are a big step in the right direction towards gaining approval of this project that all agree can significantly increase Universal's economic contribution to Los Angeles. But it would be premature to simply declare victory now. Too many questions remain unanswered, too many details remain elusive—purportedly stashed away in the desk drawers at Latham & Watkins—and too many substantive issues remain unresolved.

As we move forward in the public process, SCRA commits to work to resolve the remaining issues with full acknowledgment of the steps Universal has already taken to improve the feasibility of their project. But we can't do it alone. Universal must also commit to come to the table and discuss the project in an open and forthright manner. Therein lies the possibility, not just for full public support of the Universal Studios expansion, but active endorsement as well!

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By Gloria Gold, Co-chair, Universal City Tomorrow

One of my interests in Universal City is its rich history and its plans for the future. Carl Laemmle discovered [settled] the 230-acre Taylor Ranch, site of wheat fields and a chicken ranch, in 1915. He renamed it Universal City and created the only city in the world built exclusively for producing motion pictures.

My family discovered the Wright wood Estates neighborhood in Studio City in 1979, and we have enjoyed the excitement of living next door to Universal City for almost 19 years. Though we feel as though we're living in the country, we also benefit from easy access to all parts of the city.

While there are some community members who oppose Universal's plan for the future, there are thousands who support it. It's so easy to say "no" to development. But what would our area be like today if civic leaders, pressured by local residents, had said "no" to Carl Laemmle in 1915? There would be no Hollywood, Los Angeles or San Fernando Valley as we know them today. 

I serve as co-chair of Universal City Tomorrow, a group of more than 3,000 supporters, because I believe the plan for Universal City is good for the Valley and good for Los Angeles. Universal City Tomorrow represents the many elements of our community, including local residents, business people and community leaders, all of whom share my enthusiasm for Universal's plan for the future.

We all support the responsible development Universal Studios is proposing with their 15 year plan for Universal City. The plan allows Universal to expand its motion picture, television, music and family entertainment businesses. At the same time, the plan provides protections for the community including: extensive transportation improvements; strict noise regulations to control outdoor music and sound effects; more landscaping and open space; and a public bike path along the Los Angeles River. Universal has listened carefully to the concerns and suggestions of its neighbors during the planning process and has responded by incorporating many of their suggestions into the plan.

Universal dramatically scaled back its initial proposal by 40%. Two hotels are planned for the project, with a maximum of 600 rooms each. The proposed new theme park for children has been eliminated, and plans for City Walk expansion have been reduced by 30%. This smaller project also reduces any potential environmental impacts. However, Universal is sticking by its original commitment to mitigate traffic and all other environmental impacts based on the larger project, even though the plan is now 40% smaller. That's a commitment we neighbors should appreciate.

I'm not a fortune teller, but I'm convinced that the new development will benefit our community by creating thousands of jobs for local residents and giving us an improved quality of life by creating additional tax revenue to pay for vital public services. I also believe that our property values will continue to increase as new jobs and businesses are created in the entertainment industry right here in the Valley. In addition to the new employment at Universal City, jobs also will be created in the thousands of support businesses that depend on Universal and the other studios for their very existence.

Universal has listened to the community and responded with a balanced plan. But they have done much more! Universal is making a major investment in the Los Angeles River adjacent to their property by creating a beautiful new bike and pedestrian path that will be open and accessible to the public. It will feature extensive landscaping and a River Interpretive Center for visitors. I'm especially excited about the center, which will be a valuable resource for the entire region. Visitors will learn about early California and how history was made in our area in 1847, when John Fremont and Andres Pico signed the peace treaty at Campo de Cahuenga ending the war with Mexico in California. Universal City is building on its rich history with the promise of a very exciting future. I say yes to their plan and our future together!

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