December 20, 2007 - From the Nov./Dec., 2007 issue

Studio City Chamber Rescinds Support for NBC Development

When NBC Universal released its master plan for its studio lot in Universal City, the massive development had the support of local community and business groups. Yet, the plan's expanding scale has caused some concerns among local organizations, even prompting the Studio City Chamber of Commerce to rescind its support of the plan. In the following interview, Chamber President Bruce Neckels calls for greater transparency in the planning process.


Bruce Neckels

The Studio City Chamber of Commerce recently withdrew its support for the planned development by NBC/Universal in Universal City. Describe the background of the relationship between the chamber and this development. What led to the chamber's decision to withdraw its support?

We had an interview with Thomas Properties on May 2, 2007 at one of our regular board meetings. They presented their project to us, and at the time, it consisted of two 20-story buildings around Campo de Cahuenga along with a 2,800-unit residential site on the Universal property itself, just below Barham Boulevard. We are a chamber of commerce, and we represent the business community. To us, it sounded very, very good, so we approved the plan at our June 6 Board meeting.

In August, we got a letter of support, written by Thomas Properties, asking us for a signature endorsing their plan, which I signed based on our 16-0 vote in June. But what they forgot to tell us was that in the ensuing months, the project had really increased in its size and scope-there was also a 32-story hotel going up and a 10-story NBC West Coast News building. Suddenly, it had grown a lot bigger.

Before we knew it, in November, we received a communication from two Neighborhood Council members telling us they'd just seen our public endorsement of the Universal project in a beautiful brochure. Well, that was news to us. We hadn't seen it, nor did Thomas Properties tell us they were going to do a written, public endorsement. One of our board directors who had originally made the motion to endorse the project is also on the neighborhood council, and he was taking a lot of flak. I said, "When we have our meeting in November, we can reevaluate what we voted last June. If you want, you can make the motion to rescind, and we'll talk about it."

We discussed how the project was much bigger than we had originally been told, and so we went around the table for about an hour-and-a-half, and everybody had their chance to give input. By a vote of 16-2, we rescinded the motion to publicly endorse the plan.

That's not to say that we're against it. In principle, the Studio City Chamber of Commerce supports that Vision Plan, and we recognize the potential benefits the project will bring to the business community. What we realized is that we had to recognize the impact that a project of this magnitude would have on the surrounding communities, and after considering the new information, we had to rescind.

Thomas Properties should have contacted us with the larger scope of the Vision Plan before going public with our endorsement. Even though we support the "vision" of the project, we need more involvement with the "plan." That includes access to concrete information like environmental impact, traffic mitigation, density, and infrastructure. At the meeting in May, our board members were very concerned about traffic mitigation, but the scale was so much smaller.

Other business groups have argued that any opposition to new development is anti-business. What, if anything, makes Studio City's negative reaction to scale of the project being proposed unusual? What makes the proposed project tolerable or intolerable? How does the chamber, with its interest in the growth of the business economy in the area, weigh project scale?

We hadn't really discussed that line of "tolerability" as of November 7 because we still didn't have the newest and most accurate information as to size and scope. I learned how much bigger it was the following evening, when I attended a Universal/MTA Project Community Working Group meeting in Toluca Lake, and saw a table model. It was much more gigantic in scope.

I think the chamber's board members would like to see the project happen. I think they feel it will bring more business to Studio City, including its restaurants; if that 32 story building is going to be a hotel, then that will bring a lot of tourist dollars our way. Likewise with the 10-story NBC building sending their employees into Studio City.

The reason I went to that meeting on the night of November 8, was because Roy Disney invited me. They were concerned about our decision to support this project, not realizing that we had rescinded our vote the night before. I went anyway, and told them what happened. Then they invited us to stay because Thomas Properties was going to be there, showing their table model of what the whole thing was going to look like.

I wanted to stay, as did our incoming president, Melody Dosch, and our executive director, Esther Walker. Plus, it gave me a chance to approach two of the people from Thomas Properties and give them a reprimand for not contacting us first and giving us the updated size of the project. They apologized for putting us in that awkward position. It also gave me the opportunity to tell them that, from now on, the Studio City Chamber wanted to be informed about their "Vision Plan."

But I saw the project, and I was so impressed with it, I said to the people at the working group, "If you could wave a magic wand, and all of a sudden, there it is, it would be absolutely spectacular. It would be the landmark of the Valley." But, unfortunately, you can't do that. You've got to consider what it's going to take to get it there, and how it may need to be downsized.

So I invited the Thomas Properties people to come to an open Chamber of Commerce meeting in January, where it's not a board directors meeting consisting of 21 members-it will be the entire Chamber of Commerce, which is about 300 members right now. We'll have a big room where everyone can be there, walk around the table, look at the plan, ask questions, and interchange the moveable building pieces. We'll give them a questionnaire, asking them if they support the project and how they feel about the kind of business the project would bring to Studio City. Then, we should do a real, fair vote. Instead of just the board directors having their vote, I really want to get the entire membership of the SCCC involved in that decision.

Also, Thomas Properties still didn't have their traffic mitigation plan in order. They claim it will be ready in January. That's a very important aspect of the plan to us, because I heard that it would take 500 dump trucks a day for one year just to get the dirt out before they can start building. No one argued with that so I assume it was an accurate estimation.

In an interview with The Planning Report last month, County Supervisor Yaroslavsky also expressed his ambivalence regarding the plan. He mentioned that moving the NBC studios made sense as a land use/planning move, but that the residential aspect would put too much pressure on Red Line infrastructure. Are you coordinating with the supervisor and Thomas Properties regarding the development plan?

We haven't yet, but that's a good question. Maybe Zev would like to attend that night and give his input. We really want to give Thomas Properties the night. I don't want any opposition showing up with their boards and plans. I want them to be there to listen and ask questions.

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As far as how it's going to be work with the Red Line, I think what we have to do is re-program the people to use that transit system. This is L.A., and it's so spread out. Where are all of these thousands of people going to be coming in from when they go to work? Is there a station nearby where they can park and ride? People love the freedom that they get from thier cars in Los Angeles.

Talk about the interface that exists between the project stakeholders, the chamber, the Studio City Residents Association, the Planning Department, Thomas Properties, and the neighborhood council. How well are you working together on this project?

We really weren't. The community working group consisted of 14 different associations, councils, and business organizations-it also included the Campo de Cahuenga Historical Memorial Association. They've been working together with Thomas Properties for one year. We weren't even called or contacted about being part of this group until they read about our vote, and then, all of a sudden, we seemed to matter.

I appreciated Roy Disney emailing me and asking me to attend, because I hope we won't be excluded again. From now on, whatever happens as far as addressing the concerns raised by the community about Thomas Properties, we are going to be involved.

However, I don't want neighborhood councils to try to turn the Chamber of Commerce into an extension of a neighborhood council. We are working to better the business relationships in our community and to help our community grow stronger through the strength of its business and its merchants. If this project at Universal will help, which I think it can, that's what we need to do.

Summarize Thomas Properties' and NBC/Universal's public outreach before and during the planning of the project. What did their public outreach consist of, and how can they improve their effort?

From what I saw at that meeting in November, I think NBC/Universal and Thomas Properties are doing a wonderful job of communicating with local organizations and the neighborhood council groups. But they need to really listen a little bit more, because they continue to present one plan after another without satisfactorily addressing the concerns raised by the community.

Each revised plan seems to be increasing in size and scope, and they need to start concentrating more on downsizing, on providing a traffic mitigation plan and a bus system. They need to give the organizations a good answer about why they can't move NBC Studios onto the Universal lot instead of putting it by Campo de Cahuenga. Do they need 2,800 residential units up there, or can they get rid of half of those and put up the NBC building instead? These aren't all going to be single-family residential dwellings, and there will be 2-4 member families in these units. That's several thousand people, and they won't all be confined to jobs on the Universal lot. What will the traffic situation be like for them? For us?

You're a writer in the entertainment industry. How important is this development project to the entertainment community and to Studio City?

A large percentage of talent will be living in this area. And if you care about titles and recognition, with NBC-Universal, along with CBS-KCAL 9 in Studio city; Disney, Warner's, ABC in Burbank, we could legitimately be called the "Multi-Media Capitol of the Planet." That could take in a lot of tourist and local merchant dollars. I take a lot of pride in saying I'm from Studio City.

Is this development at NBC/Universal like any other project that has come before the chamber, or is this unique?

CBS brought its Channel 2-KCAL 9 facilities to CBS-Radford, but they brought it right onto the lot. They weren't building outside of the lot and interrupting so much of the traffic and housing and the surrounding area.

So, yes, the NBC/Universal project is unique; it's just so massive in its scope. And yes, The NBC/Universal Project would take much longer to complete than the CBS-Radford project, but in the end, it would bring a lot of business to Studio City, Toluca Lake, Valley Village, No-Ho, and Universal City.

NBC/Universal have a chance to showcase the historical sight of Campo De Cahuenga, which very few people even know about-and they need to protect Weddington Park. And with No-Ho getting ready to put up three 27-story buildings, this area will become a very high-density corridor, so the traffic situation will be critical.

I hope that somehow the NBC/Universal project can be scaled down to make it happen. But not at the expense of driving the surrounding small businesses out of business or forcing homeowners out of their homes.

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