By SHELLY GARCIA Staff Reporter At first blush, Universal City seems a perfect spot to locate a business. It lies between North Hollywood and Burbank, where the major entertainment studios and related production houses can provide plenty of customer traffic at lunchtime. It’s adjacent to the affluent residential community of Toluca Lake. And each year the thousands of tourists visiting Universal Studios cut a path right through the surrounding streets lined with independent retailers and restaurants. But business is tough for those Universal City merchants. A number of businesses have closed, and many of those that remain are struggling to hold on, hoping that the Metro Rail station set to open on Lankershim Boulevard next spring will revive the ailing community. “It’s a state of transition for a lot of these businesses,” said Larry Applebaum, president of the Universal City-North Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. “My personal feeling is, when the Metro Rail station opens and all the repairs are done to Lankershim, the traffic flow will be much more conducive to business. Until that time, it’s a struggle.” The Metro Rail construction that began almost three years ago has blocked traffic along Lankershim Boulevard, preventing access to many of the businesses there, and the heavy truck traffic has created potholes that have made the road difficult to negotiate even now that a lot of the construction has been completed. Drivers who can’t avoid the area pass through without stopping. At the same time, the promise of added business from the thousands of tourists who visit Universal Studios has not panned out. With the opening of CityWalk, most visitors stay within the confines of the Universal Studios Inc. complex instead of venturing out to neighboring restaurants and shops. “Everything goes up the hill now,” said George Laczko, proprietor of the Universal Bar & Grill, a fixture on Lankershim for 30 years. “CityWalk took a tremendous portion of our walk-in business, especially from the employees of the studios.” Until the opening of CityWalk, an open-air mall of restaurants and shops, the area bordered by the Ventura (134) and Hollywood (101) freeways, Lankershim and Barham boulevards, had been a neighborhood enclave for residents from North Hollywood and Toluca Lake, with several thriving independent restaurants. “Years ago, there was a triangle,” said Frank Micelli, the owner of Micelli’s Restaurant on Lankershim. Three restaurants Micelli’s, Rubin’s and Le’Express created what Micelli calls a “mini restaurant row.” Patrons could dine late at Micelli’s, go dancing at Rubin’s and stop into Le’Express for a night cap. “Now it’s a mini fast-food restaurant row,” Micelli said. Carl’s Jr., Panda Express and In-and-Out Burger recently opened along the strip, transforming the neighborhood atmosphere. Micelli’s, with a 50-year-old Hollywood location and 20-year-old Universal City location, has managed to keep up a steady stream of regular customers for its Italian food and singing waiters, Micelli said. Just up Cahuenga Boulevard, Ca’ del Sole Ristorante also reports that business is good. “We’re happy,” said Rodolfo Costella, who opened the restaurant about five years ago, attracted by the proximity of the studios and the neighboring residential communities. His only complaint is about the confusion that comes from the way Lankershim intersects with Cahuenga at two different places. “I get at least 50 calls a day to explain to people how to get here,” said Costella. “The good thing is, once someone comes here they never forget, with how complicated it is.” But for many more shopkeepers, prosperity is far more elusive. Membership at the Chamber of Commerce has dropped to about 350 members, down 40 percent from the early 1990s, said Applebaum. While part of the problem lies in the chamber, which like many, is seeking ways to make its services more relevant to today’s business community, the membership drop-off also reflects the general business climate. “My personal business has been growing slowly, and I think that’s what the face of business is right now,” Applebaum said. “While businesses are enjoying stable economic times, I don’t think there’s a lot of robust economics. It’s not like someone turned a light switch on.” Some think the opening of the Metro Rail station, slated for June 2000, will boost business. “No. 1, the traffic will be better,” said Joe Tran, owner of Vendome Wine & Spirits. “It will bring more people up here. You don’t want to have a business in the desert, so the more people around, the better.” But others wonder whether Metro Rail passengers will simply make a beeline for their cars or the station without stopping off at any of the local businesses. “Those people will not walk around the area to look for neighborhood service businesses like mine,” said Laczko. “They will go to Universal Studios or they will go home.” Laczko is one of many area business owners who believe that the planned expansion at Universal Studios is certain to hurt their businesses even more. Universal’s plans to add hotels, restaurants, offices and sound stages stalled at the end of last year when the company said it needed time to reevaluate the controversial plan. No date has been set for resuming work on the plan, which was still in the hearing stage when Universal Studios put the brakes on. If the expansion does go forward, it is certain to bring many more people into the Universal City area, but merchants say that the added traffic wouldn’t necessarily translate to more business for those at the bottom of the hill. Rona Newman, owner of The Steak Joint, said that while hotel guests may venture down along neighboring streets seeking restaurants, most of the other tourists and studio workers are likely to remain on the Universal Studios premises if there are more options for eating and shopping. “I think it’s going to hurt me,” Newman said. “Their expansion is projected to be so huge that the more they have on or adjacent to CityWalk, the more it is going to leave people up there.” Universal City Year Founded: 1915 Origins: Ranch and farmland through the late 1800s, the area now known as Universal City was transformed when Carl Laemmle purchased the land for a new movie studio. Business Profile: Dominated by Universal Studios, the area also houses a number of entertainment-related offices and is peppered with small independent businesses, including many restaurants.