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NBCUniversal eliminates housing plans for backlot

Revised 20-year plan expands theme park, studio lot

NBCUniversal has decided not to get into the home-building business after all.

The company said Monday that after months of gathering feedback from residents and local officials to its 20-year-plan to update the 391-acre property in Universal City, NBCU will not move forward with a proposed housing project that would have involved the construction of nearly 3,000 homes around the studio backlot.

Instead, the company has revised its Final Environmental Impact Report to grow its studio facilities from 1.24 million square feet to 1.45 million square feet. It also has requested more entitlements from the city to build new rides, attractions and parking facilities at its Universal Studios Hollywood theme park, as well as addtitional retail outlets at Universal CityWalk, and two new 500-room hotels, rather than just one, as was first envisioned.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter park already was factored into existing plans. But the requeste 327,000 square feet at the park — up from 134,000 square feet — gives NBU greater flexibility in revamping Universal Studios Hollywood’s existing offerings without changing the footprint of the park.

NBCU initially intended to build a 2,937-unit residential neighborhood that would have included 35 acres of new open space, when the conglom’s Evolution Plan was first announced in December 2006.

Ron Meyer, president and chief operating officer of Universal Studios, told reporters in October that the studio had “400 acres on this lot and 200 of them are still not developed.”

“Los Angeles has been the home of Universal for nearly 100 years and the Evolution Plan is our commitment to our community, to our neighbors and to our businesses,” said Meyer. “We have gathered feedback from thousands of members of our community, including our elected officials. And, after taking a hard look at the project, the current real estate market, our business needs and the needs of our surrounding communities, we believe it’s best to ask the city and county to focus on our 20-year plan without any residential development and to retain our backlot for production.”

“This is the right time in the process to make this decision and it will enable us to concentrate and invest in our core businesses, television and film production, Universal Studios Hollywood Theme Park and CityWalk. Planning for our future in a way that is responsive to the community has always been a priority of the Evolution Plan. Today marks the next step in making this important project a reality.”

The decision was music to the ears of local politicians who have opposed the housing plan.

New plan is expected to involve a $1.6 billion investment from NBCU parent Comcast that will create more than 30,000 jobs during construction and operations, company said.

In a January letter to Meyer, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky worried that the residential project “has considerable downside to Universal and to our local economy,” with tourism expected to be affected and “motion picture and television production jobs that are currently provided there will be outsourced elsewhere. … I am fully committed to a plan that ensures that Universal remains a viable and functioning motion picture and television production campus.”

In a separate letter, Los Angeles City councilman Tom LaBonge wanted NBCU to delete the housing portion and focus on expanding its studio operations.

“As we look to the future, I would much rather see jobs — jobs in production and tourist-related activity,” LaBonge said.

And Colin Maynard, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp also approved of NBCU’s move, saying on Monday that NBCUniversal “is investing in the entertainment business here in Southern California at a time when our world-leading film and television production sector faces an existential threat from other states and nations actively pursuing, enticing, and poaching these productions out of our own backyard — and with them, many millions of dollars in lost economic activity, wages, local spending and tax revenue as well. Right now, there is great demand and need for additional production and soundstage spaces, which during peak production periods can have vacancies near 1%.

“Consequently, we must encourage long-term investments in studio infrastructure by building and or upgrading production facilities to support and strengthen Los Angeles County’s overall entertainment industry.”

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