Studio cuts satisfy pols

Universal Studios will dramatically scale back its plans to create a destination resort on its sprawling hillside property in Universal City, eliminating a family-oriented theme park, slicing the number of hotels and even agreeing to close its existing Waterworld attraction if necessary to comply with noise guidelines.

The changes appear to meet the recommendations of two key lawmakers, who last month asked the studio to scale back the project by 40%. U’s revised plan cuts square footage from a total of 5.9 million square feet to 3.3 million square feet.

The revisions come after months of hearings in which residents living near the studio voiced their protest to the proposed expansion, saying that it went too far and would add even more headaches to a traffic bottleneck.

“Our goal is the create a project with a balance,” said Helen McCann, vice president of the master plan for U. “This was not an easy decision.”

U had proposed a massive complex that included a new family entertainment theme park, as many as five or six resort hotels and a new high-rise, business-oriented hotel in addition to expansion of office and studio space.

The goal was to create an entertainment tourist destination that could draw crowds for overnight visits. Guests would stay in hotels overnight, lured by the chance to lodge alongside working studio production.

But U faced opposition from residents in a long series of hearings before county and city planners. In fact, it became apparent to U officials that changes would have to made to the project at the first hearing in January. When U unveiled its original proposal, a commissioner responded by warning the studio that a “balance has to be struck.”

“We believe this will be extraordinarily responsive to every issue raised,” McCann said. “This is a big deal. This is going more than the extra mile.”

The big blow to those plans came last month, when Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Councilman John Ferraro, whose districts cover the area, released a letter calling on U to scale back their plans by 40%.

Political victory

“Essentially, they have accepted our proposals, which is very gratifying,” Yaroslavsky said. “As long as there is no theme park in the mix, it ensures that it (the project) will pick up momentum.”

The new plan retains much of the new studio and office space and still allows for the construction of new resort hotels. But they will be smaller in size, no more than 600 rooms each and with 40,000 square feet of meeting space per hotel.

U officials still believe that the scaled-back project will continue to be an overnight tourist draw.

“We think it makes good economic sense,” McCann said.

U also says that it will impose additional noise regulations for outdoor amplified entertainment sound, or noise that comes from speakers. The studio’s Waterworld attraction does not currently meet the regulations, and will be closed if it is found that changes cannot be made so it complies with the guidelines.

The other changes include:

Building the project in two phases over a period of 15 years, rather than over 25 years.

Elimination of a family-entertainment venue.

Cutting the number of hotel rooms from 3,425 to 1,200.

Cutting the size of a proposed expansion of CityWalk from 358,000 square feet to 250,000 square feet.

Creating the Universal Studios River Plan, with bike trails and walking paths along a greenscaped riverfront.

Eliminating plans for a new heliport.

Agreeing to apply for new alcoholic beverage permits on a case-by-case basis.

Reducing the height limits on buildings to reduce shading. Gone is a hotel on the scale of the Sheraton Universal.

Widening the greenscape that serves as a buffer between the studio and surrounding neighborhood.

Under the revised plan, the first phase of the project will include 800,000 square feet of office and studio space, 450,000 square feet of studio production space, 500,000 square feet of hotel space, 250,000 square feet in the expansion of Universal Studios Hollywood and 100,000 square feet of entertainment retail space at CityWalk.

The second phase will include 369,000 square feet of office and studio space, 500,000 square feet of hotel space, 138,000 square feet of new U Studios Hollywood attractions and 150,000 square feet of retail space at CityWalk.

Nature friendly

U will build a trail along its studio at the Los Angeles River, including a trailhead and park and a nature center. Greening the rim of the concrete river has long been a goal of residents in the area. The hope is also that other studios along the river will take to the project as well, and green their properties to extend the trail even farther along.

Although the project faces many more months of hearings, commissioner Sadie Clark expressed her enthusiasm at Wednesday’s hearing: “Are you sure we’re discussing the same Universal project we discussed in January?” she said. “You have done a wonderful job.”

Patrick Garner, a spokesman for 11 resident and homeowners groups, was guarded in his response.

“My general reaction would be that the strategy that Universal employed, where they asked for the moon and provided as few details as possible, didn’t pan out,” he said. “Now they have to give specific details related to the scaled-down plan. We didn’t have any details and we don’t have any details now.

“Certainly it is a step in the right direction,” he added. “There is no question about that.”

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