May 21, 2007 - From the May, 2007 issue

Four Big Ideas Define Vision For Building Out Universal City

NBC Universal recently released a 25-year master plan for its studio lot in Universal City, which represents one of the most ambitious development projects in Southern California. Deviating from the studio's traditional pursuits, the project hopes to complement the studio and serve as a model for multiuse and TOD planning by integrating residential, retail, and theme park developments into existing mass-transit infrastructure. In order to flesh out the vision of this ambitious project, TPR was pleased to speak with Tom Smith, Sr. VP of Real Estate at NBC Universal.

Tom Smith

What is GE's and NBC Universal's vision for developing Universal City?

The vision includes four big ideas. On the business side it's really about enhancing both our studio (television and motion picture production), and entertainment operations. Tourism is of course a big part of the L.A. economy, and the tourism and entertainment business is all about keeping things fresh so people will continue to come back. So for CityWalk and the theme park we're looking to get the permissions to change some of the entertainment venues and, as they get older, replace them with some new attractions. We're also looking at adding some additional retail and dining to CityWalk itself.

On the studio side, we're interested in adding some new production and post-production facilities, which would include offices, stages, editing areas, and other production areas used in making movies. Between the hilltop portion of CityWalk and the entertainment side we're looking at adding something on the order of 1.5 million new square feet. Incorporated into that plan is some demolition that would occur over the 25-year life of the development agreement, so where we end up ultimately depends on how we phase in the development and the demolition.

The exciting thing is that we are looking at moving some of the assets that currently reside on the back lot closer to the core of the studio, and we saw a very compelling opportunity to put a residential plan on a portion of the existing back lot. And I do want to emphasize that it's only a portion of the back lot; if this plan develops as it's planned now, we will still have the largest back lot in Hollywood.

In March of last year we announced that we had brought in Thomas Properties Group and Rios Clementi Hale studios to act as advisors on the project, specifically with the intention of helping us design the residential plan and determine if it is viable. We are well into that process now; we've actually rolled out the applications for the overall vision planning with the city. We have a great opportunity to do something smart and fresh for Los Angeles. That is the third of the four big ideas with the vision plan.

Lastly, the Universal City Red Line station is across the street from us. NBC Universal holds a right of first offer on that property because we used to own a portion of it and then sold it to the MTA. That parcel sits at the gateway to our property, and we thought that there was a very compelling opportunity to somewhat guide the destiny of that site. While we're not developing that site ourselves, we envision extending some of our production capacity from this side of the street to the other side of Lankershim. We entered into discussion with Thomas Properties Group to explore whether they would develop that site, and then we would become an anchor tenant.

How much of Universal City's new square footage is business-serving, and how much residential?

The 1.1 million is the business-serving. None of the residential is included in that number. On the residential side, the plan right now calls for 2,937 units. We arrived at that number purely by figuring the density we could support on the developable areas that we have. Thomas Properties Group, working with the architectural firm Moore Ruble Yudell, is just now putting together some design guidelines, so we don't have specific floor plans for any of the housing product back there.

That product ranges from two- to probably six-story townhomes and lofts, plus some apartments and some eight- to twelve-story residential buildings. We're still playing with the product mix, and we haven't even begun to do the floorplans, but they'll average probably 1200–1300 square feet. So that's about another 3.6 million square feet of residential. We're around 5.1 million square feet total between the residential and business-supporting areas and there are also a hotel and neighborhood-serving retail not included in that figure.

No infill project in Los Angeles, especially one as high profile as Universal, can avoid public scrutiny, especially regarding traffic. How has Universal responded to the development challenge?

Traffic is a problem everywhere in Los Angeles. Part of the problem, in my mind, is that there isn't a compelling reason or a way to fund the projects that would improve the situation. The vision plan represents a huge opportunity to get some of that funding in place to make some of these long-needed improvements viable. We hope to be a catalyst working with L.A. DOT, Caltrans, and reaching out on a local and regional basis.

We have approached it by reaching out to the communities. We tried to be mindful of the discussions that occurred in the past. In digging into some of the traffic mitigations, we discovered that there was a great body of knowledge of proposed traffic mitigations that were looked at in the past. We also reached out to the city of Burbank to see what their ideas were in terms of regional and traffic improvements.

A couple of things have risen to the list of strong needs for the city of Los Angeles, the county, and the surrounding community. A few things we are specifically looking at include a new southbound 101 ramp and widening and lengthening the Barham Bridge. An integral part of the residential plan that we envision is a new street that runs north to south through the back lot. The key to the success here is to move that new traffic somewhere else. If you just put it back out onto Barham Blvd. then you haven't really accomplished anything.

Across the street, closer to the MTA station, Thomas Properties Group is talking about completing an additional on- and off-ramp on what is a single-point urban interchange today, missing the two legs on and off the southbound 101. In addition to that, we have developed a traffic model that reaches out five to eight miles in various directions. We are studying the traffic on a localized, intersection-by-intersection basis. One of the things that we think will come out of our plan is improvement to numerous intersections throughout the surrounding area. The goal is not only to get traffic going in and out of our property, but also to improve the traffic flow on a regional basis.

Can we call this project transit-oriented development?



The connection to transit is an opportunity to put new residential in the heart of a labor-intensive district and also a major transit hub. We have not only the benefit of providing additional business-related capacity on our site to promote our business and the entertainment industry but also the opportunity to put a new residential community at the back door of a major job center that is connected to transit in a meaningful way. My hope is that a lot of the people who work at this studio and others in the area will live in our residential community and pull traffic off the streets.

How have Los Angeles city and county officials reacted to the plan that you have released?

They are excited that we have the opportunity to create a model of new housing in L.A. Thus far we've had a great working relationship at both the city and county because I think everyone realized that opportunities like this don't come along often, and if you can take advantage of them and use them in a way that demonstrates what smart urban growth and infill planning can be, then it can become the model for the future.

One can't talk about infill development without also talking about the greening of cities and climate change. How have you, DMJM, and other members of your team incorporated "green" into Universal's development plans?

From a traffic standpoint, we realized it was important to provide better connectivity between the residential component and the surrounding transit corridors. We're also looking at putting in shuttles not only to pick up our employees but also to move residents to the Red Line station. We're also discussing with the city of Burbank opportunities to provide shuttle transportation to Burbank. That's all about helping the environment from a traffic and air quality standpoint.

Then we're looking at building sustainability into the design itself. We have 35 acres of open space in the residential master plan, and that's a pretty significant portion of the total 124 acres that we're developing. We're also looking at minimizing stormwater discharge, and as part of the EIR process we're going to have to pay close attention to things like noise and glare. We've also submitted an application for this to be a pilot project for LEED for Neighborhood Development certification.

How useful are LEED standards, as presently drawn, for the challenges of this master plan? Do we need an updated "LEED 3.0" to encourage more sustainable development?

I'm not sure I could answer that. I think part of becoming the pilot program will include demonstrating whether the current standards are the right ones. That's what we're trying to validate.

What is Universal's timeline for development?

One of the complexities on this project is that we're located in both the city and the county. When filing the EIR we have to first go through the city approval process and then the county approval process. We filed with the city in February, and our goal is to get city certification in late 2008 and then county approvals by the second quarter of 2009. Then depending on the reaction from surrounding communities there's going to be period to work out some of the requirements to get the complete go-ahead for the development. Our goal is that sometime in the mid- to late-2010 we'll be through the entitlement process and have lots ready to sell.

What firms have you retained for that development team?

On the external team there's a cadre of 15–18 consultants. We're using Latham and Watkins as our land use attorneys; Psomas is doing some of our entitlement planning; Thomas Properties Group brings a wealth of experience as well as design knowledge, and they are working with both DMJM on the MTA proposal as well as Moore Ruble Yudell for the design guidelines; we're also working with Bob Hale of Rios Clementi Hale as our overall architectural advisor; and then there's a host of other consultants. We have the first class talent, and coupled with our talent and passion internally, I'm confident that we can do something very special.


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