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Saturday, Sep 30, 2023


By DANIEL TAUB Staff Reporter In early July, Universal Studios Inc. succumbed to pressure from homeowners and politicians and cut back on ambitious plans to turn its Universal City property into a massive tourist destination. For those homeowners, it seemed at the time like a total victory. The project was cut back by 44 percent, there would be no new theme parks, and the size of the resort hotels on the property would be drastically reduced. But last month, many of those living in the vicinity of the sometimes noisy, often congested Universal Studios made it clear that they’re still not happy with the expansion proposal. Leaders of local homeowners groups say they will ask city and county officials to require major new traffic improvements before approving the plan. While homeowners say Universal’s cutback was a move in the right direction, they contend that the enlarged theme park, new studios and an expansion of Universal’s complex of restaurants, stores, and movie theaters will dump too much traffic into neighboring communities. “The framework is in place for Universal to reach some kind of agreement with the community,” said Tony Lucente, president of the Studio City Residents Association. “However, the concerns that remain are substantive and require further conversation.” Lucente and others say the added traffic from the project requires a series of costly improvements including on-ramps and off-ramps linking Universal Studios to the southbound Hollywood (101) Freeway. Universal already has such connectors to the northbound Hollywood Freeway, but not to the southbound lanes. That means traffic will clog Cahuenga Boulevard, said Joan Luchs, chair of the development committee for the North Hollywood Residents Association. “We can no longer share the same space on Cahuenga Boulevard,” Luchs said. Traffic along the corridor that runs through the area and around Universal Studios the Barham-Cahuenga corridor is already heavy, and any expansion of Universal would only make it worse, agreed Krista Michaels, president of the Cahuenga Pass Property Owners Association. “I think the traffic takes a big hit in terms of our concerns because it prevents emergency vehicles from getting through,” Michaels said, noting that the hills where she lives are prone to fire. But Helen McCann, vice president of the master plan for Universal Studios, said the draft environmental impact report for the original, larger Universal expansion thoroughly addressed the traffic issues. “There is quite an extensive traffic study as part of that draft EIR,” McCann said, adding that the draft has been approved by both the city’s Department of Transportation and the county’s Department of Public Works. “It effectively mitigates all of the potential traffic impacts of both the original project and the scaled-back project.” Many business leaders, as well as some homeowners, say Universal has already conceded enough and should not be forced to make additional improvements. They see the expansion project as vital to establishing the Valley as a destination community which would help the area compete against Orange and San Diego counties for tourist dollars. Scaling back the project was “an incredibly generous gesture on Universal’s part,” said Brent Seltzer, a member of the Studio City Residents Association. He said the complaints of his neighbors are based on speculation about the expansion’s possible impact, rather than facts. “Their issues are pure perception and not based on reading through the material, talking to the people and going to the meetings,” Seltzer said. “The reach-out (by Universal) is incredible.” In early July, Universal cut the size of the project from 5.9 million square feet to 3.3 million square feet. The revised project still calls for nearly 1.2 million square feet of new office and studio office space, 450,000 square feet of new studio production space and a 388,000-square-foot expansion of the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park. Highrise hotels, however, were eliminated from the plan, and the number of hotel rooms was reduced from 3,400 to 1,200. New retail space, primarily on CityWalk, was reduced to 250,000 square feet from 358,000 square feet. The decision to scale back the project was made after Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Los Angeles City Councilman John Ferraro called for a 40 percent reduction in the size of the project, elimination of the new theme park, a reduced number of hotel rooms and other changes. The project is currently up for approval by the city and county planning commissions. The county’s Regional Planning Commission is scheduled to next meet on the project on Sept. 17. Pamela Holt, an assistant administrator with the county’s Department of Regional Planning, said that at the next meeting her staff will answer questions the commission had at its last hearing on the plan in early July. “There’s some concern about the uses allowed in the green area” between the studios and neighboring homes, Holt said. “And there’s always remaining concerns about noise and traffic.” Residents will also have the opportunity to air their concerns if and when the plan goes to the county Board of Supervisors for approval, when the city’s planning commission hears the plan, and if and when it goes to the L.A. City Council for approval. Just as the homeowners are waiting for more information on the revised project, so are Yaroslavsky and Ferraro’s offices. “There’s a lot of paperwork we’re expecting to get back that we haven’t seen yet,” said Joel Bellman, Yaroslavsky’s press deputy. Renee Weitzer, Ferraro’s planning deputy, said she is awaiting the county planning commission’s next hearing, and will review the scaled-back plan once that commission has made a decision.

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