Will U’s plans turn into a Lost World?

The roar of dinosaurs and the pop of pyrotechnics stir up residents living next to Universal Studios Hollywood.

They’ve complained, though many have grown used to it.

But when U presented them with a general outline for its next big thing — a family amusement park, with an early scheme featuring dancing waters and a circus tent — they drew the line.

Feeling that the studio has gone overboard, residents are crying out — and their protest is a warning cry to other studios that recently have enjoyed a virtual blank check with their own expansion plans.

Leader of the pack

For years, Southern California’s largest movie studio, Universal Studios Hollywood, has gradually transformed its 415-acre property into a theme park. It started in the 1960s with a tram tour featuring the “Psycho” house and the “Leave It to Beaver” neighborhood, and has grown to an amusement attraction with tours, rides, and special-effects shows, and including adjoining hotels and restaurants, and, finally, a giant entertainment retail and theater complex called CityWalk.

But the studio is running into major roadblocks to completing its mission for the sprawling hillside property. Execs want to build a destination resort, with hotels and new attractions, a critical mass that would entice visitors to stay two or three nights, rather than flocking to Disneyland, about an hour’s drive to the south.

After other nearby studios in Burbank saw their ambitious expansion plans sail through government approvals and residents groups without major hitches, U’s case is turning out to be a different story.

Last week, two key lawmakers — one the president of the Los Angeles City Council, the other the chairman of the county board of supervisors — asked U to dramatically scale back its plans.

Residents riled

The politicos’ response came after months of hearings in which residents protested for hours about potential air pollution to crime to unpleasant shadows from new office buildings.

U is surrounded by powerful homeowners groups — including many workers in the entertainment business — which have been especially vocal about what is happening to the area. Among the leaders of the opposition: DJ Rick Dees. Roy Disney, who lives nearby, quietly expressed his displeasure to his homeowners group.

U is seeking a 25-year approval of its plans, which include studio and office space, along with the resort. Their goal is complicated by the fact that their property falls within both Los Angeles city and county territory. But approval of such a long-range plan would free them from having to go through a series of bureaucratic hurdles each time they wanted to put up a new soundstage.

That is part of the problem, critics say. In their opinion, the plan provides few specifics about building design or exact heights. None of the drawings of architect Rem Koolhaas has been unveiled. The plan includes dozens of alcoholic-beverage permits, but did not specify where the booze would be sold.

Secrecy criticized

“They have created a lot of mystery by not sharing a lot of their plans and detail about their property,” said Tony Lucente, president of the Studio City Residents Assn. “And when that happens, everyone normally thinks of the worst possible scenario.”

U helped coordinate a group of supportive residents organized under the name Universal City Tomorrow. Also gung-ho are business leaders and members of local chambers of commerce. “I don’t know how anyone can expect all of the details of a 25-year plan today,” said Bill Allen, president of the Valley Economic Alliance.

But even other studios are uneasy about the prospect of new traffic in an area that already is absorbing a dramatic growth in the entertainment business.

In the past five years, Disney, NBC, Warner Bros. and CBS got approvals for major expansions over the next 10 to 25 years.

NBC is about to build new soundstages. WB has constructed several office buildings, a studio museum and a parking ramp. CBS eliminated its “Gilligan’s Island” set to build production facilities at its Studio City lot. Disney is perhaps the most aggressive of the studio builders, with such constructions as an office building decorated with the Seven Dwarfs and an animation facility with a wing shape decorated like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice hat.

Just last week, it submitted plans to Burbank to build a 10-story office structure topped with the ABC logo — an indication that it is ready to move the web from its Century City headquarters.

Burbank has been willing to accommodate the studios, even luring them to the city. “We are very comfortable with handling all of the traffic,” said Bud Ovrom, Burbank’s city manager. “The studios have stepped up to the plate.”

Ovrom, bullish and often outspoken, launched a series of ads tantalizing DreamWorks to drop its troubled Playa Vista property and set up shop in Burbank. (“This is our niche in the marketplace,” he said.)

But Universal does not fall within Burbank’s limits. When U released its voluminous environmental impact report, there was no analysis of what the project would do to traffic at many Burbank intersections. The city sent U a response.

The difference with U’s plan is not the expansion of its studio, but the attempt to create a resort destination, a feat that would be unprecedented in L.A.’s urban history.

In a letter, Los Angeles City Council president John Ferraro and Zev Yaroslavsky, chairman of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, asked for a 40% cutback in plans, though they stressed their support of U’s plans to build production facilities, even recommending that they be built in a shorter time frame.

Other studios have drawn up plans for hotels and amusement attractions, only to scuttle them when it became apparent that they would be mired in wars with neighbors. WB, for instance, had plans to create a retail and entertainment complex on its property. Disney briefly flirted with the idea of its own entertainment center, only to incorporate its plans at Walt Disney World.

“If the choice is between a theme park and motion picture and TV production, it is not a race,” Yaroslavsky said. “We want to give Universal the ability to build all of the studio that they have applied for, all that they want, in the first phase of development. But this is just about the worst place in Los Angeles to consider a theme park. That area has the worst traffic congestion, and the freeway is jammed. This is just not the place for Disneyland or Universal City Orlando.”

Yaroslavsky pointed out that their proposal restores film and TV production, which provide higher paying jobs than in the tourist fields.

“It is what they came here for first,” he said.

The question will be whether U finds it financially feasible to embark on a scaled-back project, which still includes new hotel rooms and expansion of other venues under the two lawmakers’ proposals. Some estimates show the profit margin of a theme park can be as much as 10%. For movie production, it is more on the order of breaking even.

In the last decade, studios have tried to shore up their relations with local government. Warner Bros., for instance, hired Dan Garcia, former head of the Los Angeles Planning Commission, to head its real estate unit. Par’s chief local government affairs exec, Chris Essel, also chairs the L.A. Community Redevelopment Agency.

“Entertainment and studio development has in the past simply meant production and post-production facilities,” said William Fulton, an urban planner and author of the book “The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles.”

“Now the whole focus on how the studios use their property is completely different. And unlike Orlando, the studios are very landlocked. They have to be very careful of what they do.

“The studios have been empires unto themselves,” Fulton said. “It was sort of like the casinos in Las Vegas: You get what you want. Now they have to get really sophisticated about their real estate development in Los Angeles.”

U’s team, led by VP Helen McCann, has blanketed neighborhood groups and met with members of the media. They have pointed out supporters at public hearings, even provided transportation to ensure turnout at some hearings.

And they have been quick to point out the project’s potential to create new jobs, even doubling the 10,000 or so who work on the U lot during peak periods of the year.

“Our goal always has been to meet our business goals and at the same time address community concerns,” McCann said. “It is a challenge, and we accept that challenge. We recognize the need to achieve balance and address the issues raised in the public testimony.”

Backers of U’s project say that the situation might be different if Los Angeles were still in the throes of a recession. And they warn that times may be tougher in the years ahead. Last week, at a conference about what to do when thousands of residents come off the welfare rolls, some business leaders cautioned residents not to take minimum-wage-paying tourist jobs for granted.

“I can’t tell you how critical they are to the whole tourism business,” said Allen, who is a former CBS exec and president of MTM Television. “We have to understand the need for more jobs created. If that means a little traffic, it means a little traffic.”

U officials say they are studying the letter and preparing for a complete response on or before the next meeting of city and county planners on July 2. Many doubt that they will be able to keep their plans as is, given that U falls within Yaroslavsky’s and Ferraro’s districts.

And even with the politicians behind them, Lucente does not see their cause as the victor.

“This is far from over,” he said. “They are not going to just roll over and play dead.”

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