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Academy Museum of Motion Pictures clears environmental review

Academy Museum's environmental review certified, clearing a key step for the $300-million project

Hollywood usually adores plot twists, but a thriller was the last thing planners of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures wanted Thursday as they sought a vital stamp of approval needed to push forward with their $300-million project.

As it turned out, the Los Angeles City Planning Commission showed no inclination to turn the proceedings into a cliffhanger. Commissioners voted 6-0 to certify the lengthy Environmental Impact Report that outlines how the gigantic film museum will be run and how it will affect traffic, noise and the neighbors.

The City Council will have the final say next month over the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' plan to start building this summer, aiming for an opening in late 2017. But the unanimous imprimatur from the commission and a lack of any staunch public criticism is likely to carry Kong-like weight with council members.

Forty supporters and just one opponent addressed commissioners at a hearing at City Hall. Kicking off the public love fest was Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose district includes the museum site on the campus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

"Somebody is going to go into that building and be inspired to do something special," said LaBonge. The academy, which confers the Oscars, has dreamed for more than 50 years of opening a museum dedicated to the art, history, technology and craftsmanship of the movies, and it's now on the verge of fruition.

"An Academy Museum in Los Angeles is essential to the mission of our city," planning commissioner Renee Dake Wilson said moments before the vote. The result drew applause and cheers from a crowd of more than 100 well-wishers. Besides movie industry observers, speakers extolling the museum included owners of neighboring office buildings and homes, representatives from construction trade unions, and the Miracle Mile and Hollywood Chambers of Commerce.

"I was very moved by the show of support," said Dawn Hudson, the academy's chief executive officer.

The academy didn't try to dazzle the Planning Commission with Hollywood star power. Actor Ed Begley Jr. was the only celebrity who addressed it, each speaker allotted one minute. After a long struggle for the museum, "the reality is in sight," Begley testified.

Bill Kramer, managing director of the museum project, said that more than $225 million has been raised toward the $300-milllion goal, with additional major gifts expected to come in.

The academy paid LACMA $36.1 million for a 110-year lease on the former May Co. department store at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue. The EIR requirements include refurbishing the building, which has city historic monument status, to its original 1939 glory, and carrying through on promised measures to minimize its most serious effects on the neighborhood: traffic and sign glare.

The lease with LACMA gives the Academy Museum the right to share the art museum's parking lots; Kramer said it also has reached agreements with owners of neighboring buildings — including the Petersen Automotive Museum directly across the street — that will give it an additional 800 spaces when there's overflow from sold-out exhibitions or film premieres and other special events at a 1,000-seat glass-domed cinema it will build next to the May Co. building.

The museum will total 290,000 square feet, including the cinema, exhibition galleries, collection storage and an outdoor plaza in the shadow of the 130-foot-high dome. The EIR allows for midnight screenings ending by 3 a.m., limited to four per month.

Kramer said the film museum expects to draw 860,000 visitors a year, with attendance of about 5,000 on peak days. In an interview during a break in the two-hour hearing, he said that plans call for being open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. One previously unannounced feature that emerged from the hearing will be ongoing exhibits in the museum's lobby, where the public will be able to stroll for free before deciding whether to buy a ticket.

"It will be a taste of what's to come in the museum," Kramer said.

The EIR indicated the museum expects to have about 150 employees. One condition the planning commissioners added before certifying the EIR was a prohibition on street closings for special events.

Kramer said the museum hopes to mount a large Oscar statuette in front of the tall gold-leaf decorative column that is the May Co. building's most distinctive feature. But that will depend on finding a way to hang it without damaging or changing the vintage column, which must stay intact because of the building's historic status.

The environmental report notes that the five-story May Co. building's exterior will be restored to the way it looked in 1939, a year that also saw the opening of classic movies such as "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz."

When LACMA was using it during the late 1990s and 2000s, the former department store housed its children's gallery as well as occasional blockbuster art shows, including an array of 70 paintings by Vincent Van Gogh in 1998 and a 2005 exhibition of artifacts from the tomb of King Tut.

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures reactivated the May Co. building as-is for its first exhibition, "Hollywood Costume," which drew 78,000 paid visitors in a five-month run that ended March 2.

Twitter: @boehmm

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