Universal Makes Big Compromises in Expansion Plan

Council member Tom LaBonge wins some concessions, and billboard lighting will be dimmed. The next step is a vote before the City Council.

Planners for Universal Studios—which had already scaled back from their NBC Universal Evolution Plan—agreed Thursday to new concessions and compromises at a City Planning Commission meeting.

And, after six years of revamping the plans, Universal got the Planning Commission to approve the $1.6 billion project of the movie studio that is celebrating its 100th year in the San Fernando Valley.

“This is an important day in Los Angeles, and an important project,” Director of Planning Michael H. LoGrande said at the beginning of the meeting.

An overflow crowd of hundreds attended the meeting, and 136 of them were allowed one minute to speak at the hearing held at the City Hall Annex building in Van Nuys.

The Universal team seemed to quell the concerns of many of the citizens, especially when it came to assistance with the traffic problems, a limit to digital billboards and a commitment to a bike path along the Los Angeles River.

“We are committed to establishing a bike path,” said attorney George J. Mihlsten who is representing the Universal project. He said the strip of road, known as Muddy Waters Road along the studio backlot, is on Los Angeles County property and is run by the Los Angeles County Flood Control District. There are some community groups that wanted to delay the project until an assurance of that bike path is in place, but he said, “That will happen in the long term” and it will eventually connect Burbank to Studio City.

Universal has proposed a 1.4-acre trail head park planned for its north-east border of the studio, that will be set aside as a public park and will be part of that bike path.

Los Angeles City Councilman Tom LaBonge has long championed a 25-mile bike path along the Los Angeles River, and one of the dead zones so far is along the studio’s grounds facing the river. Renee Weitzer, LaBonge’s chief of staff, explained that the council member was pleased with the compromises that the studios have made so far and asked for a bit more. 

“For Tom LaBonge, from the beginning, the bike path is a high priority and we feel NBC should fund the design of the bike path and signage,” Weitzer said.

She also ticked off a few donations to be made to local groups including: $50,000 to the Campo de Cahuenga historical site near the Metro station, $50,000 to Travel Town in Griffith Park and $50,000 to the Los Angeles Zoo, among others. The Universal officials agreed to the conditions.

“There should be absolutely no digital signage and an overall reduction in signage for the property,” Weitzer added, reflecting some of the concern by nearby homeowners. “Otherwise, Tom LaBonge fully supports the alternative No Residential proposal made by Universal.”

Studio City Neighborhood Council President John Walker took a more skeptical approach to the new revisions, but said he had a good meeting with the project engineers at Universal this week, and said that it seemed like they were cooperative. Walker was unable to read his full letter in the one-minute of allotted time to the commission, but he did manage to register his complaint that Studio City was left out of the planning process until just recently.

“Just a few days ago, I along with other board members present here today [Lisa Sarkin, Ron Taylor, Jeff Carter] were prepared to discuss the fact that our community, throughout this entire process, has been totally ignored.” The Planning Committee seemed surprised that Studio City is directly across the street from Universal at Lankershim Boulevard, and the community known as The Islands is only a block away.

Walker worked with City Councilman Paul Krekorian’s office to have Universal explain in detail their plan at the next Studio City Neighborhood Council meeting on Oct. 17 at the CBS Studio Center Lot (Radford Studios). He walked out of the meeting carrying four hard copies of the 700-page report along with exhibits so that the council can ask questions about the new plan.

After the meeting, Walker told Studio City Patch that he wasn’t quite ready to sign off on the project as other community groups representing the Cahuenga Pass, Hollywood and Toluca Lake have.

“I understand their concerns,” Walker said. “It is ludicrous to have a major entertainment complex and not be able to have signs up to advertise, but they seem willing to compromise.”

Lighting on the billboards will be dimmed and by 11 p.m. they will be turned off completely, according to one potential compromise.

Studio City Neighborhood Council vice president Lisa Sarkin also remains hesitant to fully endorse the Universal Evolution plans. She is concerned about the traffic—even with widened roads—and the steep hill walking up to the theme park. She also believes there should be a street linking Barham and Lankershim.

“I can’t say anything because I haven’t had the time to review it,” said Sarkin, who was part of the volunteer team that gave a detailed analysis of the previous Universal Evolution Environmental Impact Reports.

Corinne Verdery, Universal’s chief real estate development and planning officer, said, “This is a major milestone for Universal, and it’s an integral part of L.A.” She received applause and a standing ovation from the union workers dressed in orange in the audience when saying, “It will all be constructed with union work.”

Greg Bashem, of Teamsters Local 986, made a sign expressing his support for the project. “We need work like this,” he told Patch. “It will bring us lots of jobs and these days we need them.”

Robbie Hunter, representing the unions in the Los Angeles Building Trades Council, said, “This is a project that we need. We have 140,000 people who have lost jobs, some have lost homes and we need this project. We have been with Universal for 100 years and want to continue to be.”

Some of the plans include:

  • 330,000 square feet of office space
  • Two 500-room hotels, one in county property, one in city property, where the former Fung-Lum’s restaurant was
  • A re-vamp of the Technicolor building for administrative offices, and 125,000 square feet of offices.
  • New soundstage and TV production facilities

Universal said the project would bring 30,000 jobs to the area, and pump $2.7 billion into the area during construction and another $2 billion during operations. Universal will be spending $1.6 billion, and $100 million alone in the revamping of the freeway intersections.

Bob Hale, the architect of the project, said the transportation projects will be fixed before the buildings are added.

Some of the same people who testified at a previous hearing spoke about their neighborhood concerns. The Mayor’s office expressed approval for the project and the new Harry Potter project that is planned for Universal.

a corporate director in the entertainment industry who recently ran for Neighborhood Council, spoke and said, “I know how important this studio is to the area and I care deeply about my community” and spoke in favor of the project.

But, attorney Fred Haines spoke on behalf of residents who live close to Universal who he said, “live in houses that are shaking with explosions every day from the park, and now have six weeks of blood-curdling screams [from the Halloween Horror Nights].”

The city planning associate Mariana Salazar recommended that the commission reject a proposal that would allow Universal to have more digital billboards. The studio was asking for an exemption to the Mulholland Scenic Parkway Corridor plan that limits billboards.

That would mean moving back the billboard on the corner of Barham Boulevard and Buddy Holly Drive, on the corner of Universal property, and dimming the lights on digital billboards.

The Universal team said they were fine with that plan. The next step is for the entire City Council to approve of the project. 

Specifics about the signs will be ironed out in another meeting on Oct. 25.

 “We are happy with all the community input,” Verdery said. “We are ready to go with this project whenever you want.”




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Scott Killeen September 28, 2012 at 12:56 PM
It's a good sign that Studio City was included into the planning process. If this was Sherman Oaks, the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association probably would have threaten to sue all builders involved and blocked any further projects through the LA planning commission. The Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council (SONC) probably would have had a couple thousand community meeting votes after 20 years to achieve the same out come.
Arthur Rochester September 28, 2012 at 04:04 PM
It is a shame that the residents of "The Island" have been largely left out of development discussions. There are already traffic and parking problems in this tight residential area. With only one road in and out of this community and with heavy construction around the area, there will be emergency access challenges. The noise and heavy traffic, at least during construction, will be loud and incessant. BTW, I arrived late to this over packed City Council meeting and stood outside until I realized it would be impossible for me to participate.
Lisa Sarkin September 28, 2012 at 09:56 PM
Even though the Studio City Neighborhood Council and for the most part the Studio City Residents Association, were not included in the communities meetings with NBCUniversal so far, the Island Neighborhood did have communications with NBCUniversal through their homeowner group. To be clear about what the SCNC or for that matter, the SONC can do...these organizations are part of the city and cannot sue the city. We can meet and come to terms with developers and city departments, which the SCNC has done on numerous issues. We will have our say about Evolution in the coming weeks.
irma glutz September 29, 2012 at 01:54 AM
Studio City was always included in the process... Sometimes you just get more bees with honey, that you do with vinegar...
irma glutz September 30, 2012 at 02:55 AM
You can thank the SCNC and SCRA for not keeping you informed


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