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Friday, Aug 19, 2022
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Commentary

TONY LUCENTE As the Universal Studios expansion project winds its way through the L.A. county/city planning process, some Universal supporters are maintaining that community leaders oppose the project outright, that we’re dead set against any change at Universal and that we’re slowing down the process. As this project nears a critical decision point, it’s time to set the record straight in the hope that the community can enter into a meaningful dialogue with Universal Studios that will lead to faster approval of a well-balanced Universal City plan. The facts speak for themselves. The Studio City Residents Association (SCRA) and Studio City itself are inextricably linked to Universal and the entertainment industry. Many of our members work in the industry and have watched Studio City rebound from the depths of recession due in large part to a resurgent entertainment-driven economy. Consequently, business is booming and property values are up. So, of course, we’re going to be there to support Universal’s project. In fact, we want it to be a huge success. After all, our quality of life depends on it. But we’re also neighbors, and as such, we have the dual perspectives of residents and business people. It’s only logical that we seek a balanced project that will minimize negative neighborhood impacts while maximizing economic benefits for the community as a whole. Everyone agrees that the current process for any project approval is challenging. So it’s not surprising that Universal’s experience has also been long and cumbersome. But, while some attribute these delays to a few loud-mouthed naysayers, upon closer look there are several factors that have contributed to the difficulties Universal has encountered in its quest for project approval. First, one must consider the sheer size and scope of the Universal expansion proposal. With millions of square feet of growth proposed over 15 years with numerous uses, it is no wonder that this complex project has challenged the best that the county and city have to offer. Second, one must factor in the geographic location of Universal. Not only is the property on city and unincorporated county land, it is situated at the confluence of two major freeways and nestled smack dab in the middle of high-density, largely affluent and organized communities. Neighbors literally see and hear nearly everything that goes on at Universal. But by far the most important factor slowing the Universal project approval process has been Universal itself. By releasing an environmental impact report (EIR) long on words but woefully short on details, Universal left itself open to questions, scrutiny and conjecture. It raised concerns among neighbors already tired of noise and traffic in the area. And regrettably, by resorting to indirect or minimally substantive communications with the community, Universal reinforced neighborhood concerns and raised the specter of a Disneyland-type entertainment behemoth in our backyard. Ironically, by failing to fully disclose its plans and open a meaningful dialogue, Universal left it up to county and city planners, politicians and the community to help structure a mitigation plan that allows Universal to grow while maintaining a high neighborhood quality of life. Several major mitigations are now included in the Specific Plan that have partially assuaged community concerns about traffic, noise and height impacts. Yet, issues still remain about project phasing, the mix of theme-park entertainment vs. more traditional studio production uses, the timing and lack of guarantees for certain mitigations and ongoing community oversight. Regarding oversight, unlike other L.A. County and city specific plans, the Universal City Specific Plan contains only minimal provisions for ongoing community involvement with few if any real teeth to ensure that mitigations will do what they say they’ll do. Such an omission is increasingly unusual for specific plans. The city of L.A.’s Ventura Boulevard Specific Plan, for example, includes a 13-member Plan Review Board that helps oversee implementation of the plan. Similarly, the Warner Center Specific Plan was divided into four phases of development. At the end of each phase, a Plan Review Committee is convened to review the plan’s implementation, and development can only proceed from one phase to another if all mitigations and traffic-related targets are met in the preceding phase. A similar mechanism is needed at Universal. The Studio City Residents Association, with 2,000 member households, remains committed to the success of Universal Studios as a solid part of the economic backbone of Studio City and the east San Fernando Valley. Likewise, we have requested additional mitigations that we believe are critical to ensuring that the community will share equally in the success of Universal’s expansion. We remain hopeful that, with additional willingness to listen to community concerns, Universal may ultimately propose a specific plan that SCRA can fully support. Tony Lucente is president of the Studio City Residents Association.

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