Lawmakers opposed to new U park

Two key lawmakers have urged Universal Studios to scale back expansion plans by as much as 40% and eliminate plans for a new theme park.

Zev Yaroslavsky, chairman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and John Ferraro, president of the Los Angeles City Council, say the area is just too congested to support major new tourist venues and convention hotels.

The two lawmakers issued a letter to the Regional Planning Commission, which in the past few months has been taking public comment on the studio’s proposals, which call for transforming its 415 acres into a resort destination, with five or six additional hotels, a new theme park, additional office and studio space and an expansion of CityWalk.

U is asking for an overall increase in size of 5.8 million square feet of office, retail and resort space over the next 25 years. The lawmakers want the project to be limited to 2.5 million square feet, and phased in over a 15-year period.

“Because traffic patterns already are heavy in the surrounding area, we believe it is essential that the plan limit proposed tourist venues generating additional traffic, and instead emphasize and encourage film and television production and related uses,” the letter said.

Tale of two districts

The letter was considered significant not only because it was issued jointly by a county and a city official, but because Universal lies in both of the authors’ districts.

Foes of the expansion, which include some powerful homeowners groups, consider the letter an important step in their attempt to scale back the project. But other observers say it is just the latest twist in a protracted negotiation over the project, part of the bargaining involved in such a massive development.

Universal will respond to Yaroslavsky and Ferraro’s recommendation on July 2 — the next time the plan comes before the planning board.

“The real important thing here is the need to achieve balance,” said Helen McCann, vice president for U’s master plan. “We must balance our business goals with the community concerns.

“What we have here is a tremendously complex proposal, a tremendously complex property with lots of variables and lots of people,” she added. “So it is important to understand what the issues are, to look at the total mix all together and the total package.”

Clogged streets

Part of the controversy over the project has centered on U’s contribution to upgrading the traffic-choked Barham Boulevard and Cahuenga Pass. Among the proposals is one to extend Forest Lawn Drive along the Los Angeles River and to the Hollywood Freeway (101), through the U property. U opposes this plan.

In fact, U has long contended that they are two separate issues and should be treated that way. Ferraro and Yaroslavsky seemed to agree. They said in their letter that a study of what to do about the corridor “is a separate project” and “is not part of the Universal project.”

“Although the results of this study will be important, Universal must mitigate their project with ‘stand alone’ mitigations,” they said.

They propose to have the studio:

  • Eliminate a new family-oriented theme park.

  • Cut hotel rooms to no more than 1,200, from the 2,200 now on the drawing boards. No convention hotels would be built.

  • Beef up a buffer between the surrounding neighborhoods with a widened greenscape district.

  • Reduce the heights of future buildings to eliminate shade on surrounding homes.

  • Comply with new noise controls, including those on its existing Waterworld show.

  • Eliminate alcohol beverage permits from their plan. Rather, U would have to apply for permits on a case-by-case basis.

  • Take a lead role in landscaping the Los Angeles river.

  • Eliminate its plans for additional heliports.

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