U plan foes, fans pack public sesh

Supporters and opponents of Universal’s plans to vastly expand its lot offered differing pictures of the project Tuesday, characterizing it as a well-thought-out boon to the region’s economy or a theme park that will create a traffic nightmare.

An estimated 600 people filled seats at the Universal Hilton for the second public hearing on the studio’s 25-year plan, although a large portion of the crowd departed as the hearing dragged on. Supporters wore “Yes” stickers and “Universal City Tomorrow” badges.

But the presence of a substantial number of opponents of the project was also clear, including a few who objected that sandwiches were provided to supporters but not opponents.

“What the community is trying to say is simply this: We don’t want another Disneyland in our back yard,” Gerald Silver of Encino said.

Brent Seltzer, a supporter of the project, said, “They are not buying property. They are simply completing the development on real estate they acquired 80 years ago.”

Members of the county Regional Planning Commission and officials from the city Planning Dept. have been holding a series of hearings on the project, which would transform the lot into an overnight tourist destination, with five or six new hotels, as well as new production facilities, office buildings, an expanded CityWalk and a new family theme park.

That is in contrast to other studios, such as Warner Bros. and Disney. They also have farsighted master plans in the works, but the development is largely to build up their production and administrative operations.

The plans for the expansion come as the region’s economy begins to recover, boosted by the entertainment and tourist industries. Universal, along with many city business leaders, see the project as a big boost to job creation, especially following the loss of jobs from the aerospace industry. “As go the fortunes of Universal, so do the fortunes of the entire east Valley,” Seltzer said.

One immediate job need: Thousands of people are expected to come off the welfare rolls with the recently enacted welfare reform bill.

“This project will give them thousands of entry-level positions to give them that first chance,” said Lee Harrington, president of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

Yet opponents say that the development is simply too great in scope in an area that already is struggling with traffic and noise. And they doubt U’s projections of the project’s impact over the next 25 years, saying that the development should be more closely monitored during that time frame.

“Do you really want to give carte blanche to Universal?” Silver asked. “… We’re not comfortable with a large work force (coming in) that is engaged in selling hot dogs and burgers to a worldwide tourist population.”

City and county planners have offered little of their opinions on the project, vowing to listen to testimony before making up their minds. But they have broached the idea that Universal do the project in phases, where government officials may have greater oversight as the studio embarks on each leg of its plans.

And Tony Lucente, president of the Studio City Residents Assn., cautioned that not all opponents are against the project, just its scope. “What we want is a much more balanced expansion.”

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