The Burbank City Council is scheduled to vote tonight on a $600-million expansion of the Walt Disney Studios--probably the biggest land-use decision the council will make this year.
Because the city has recently lost several thousand aerospace jobs, the generally pro-development council is expected to approve some form of expansion to please entertainment companies, which are seen as central to the city’s future.
But the council may try to amend the plan to make it more palatable to neighbors.
“I feel pretty confident that we will approve some expansion,” Councilman George Battey said. “It’s pretty critical for Burbank. It’s a council goal to revitalize this economic base of our community.”
The proposed expansion will add an estimated 1.9 million square feet of facilities, including offices, sound stages, studios, warehouses, cafeterias and a child-care center.
All of the new construction would be within the boundaries of Disney’s 44-acre lot, bordered by Alameda Avenue on the north, Buena Vista Street on the west, the Ventura Freeway on the south and Keystone Street on the east.
Since 1984, Disney’s staff has quadrupled, noted Alan Epstein, vice president of Disney Development Corp. With the expansion, Disney’s Burbank facility, which now accommodates 2,700 people, would grow to 8,800, including employees and subcontractors.
The expansion, to be completed in two phases by 2017, would consolidate current Disney operations throughout the Los Angeles area and other parts of Burbank as well with new facilities designed to accommodate projected growth.
For its part, the studio has gone out of its way to court the favor of neighbors and other Burbank residents, organizing meetings and parties for supporters.
At recent public hearings before the Burbank Planning Board, a large majority of the audience appeared to support the plan, cheering on pro-Disney speakers. Many supporters sported buttons saying, “I’m animated about Disney’s master plan.”
“I think the negatives are by far offset by the positives,” said neighbor Ivan Cregger, 71, who has lived near the studio since 1957.
“When they build, there is noise. That’s just a fact that can’t be helped,” he said. “Disney has been real responsive to complaints. I think opponents in the neighborhood are overreacting.”
Wooing supporters is just part of doing business, Epstein said. When a neighbor complained that he was awakened at 2:30 a.m. by a construction worker driving a truck across the facility, Epstein took immediate action.
“I let the subcontractor know that that employee wasn’t welcome here anymore,” Epstein said. “They had no business on that side of the campus at that time.”
The hours of construction have been controversial. The Burbank Planning Board approved Disney’s plan on Sept. 21 but asked the studio to limit construction to the hours between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and to drop plans for a heliport. Disney had originally sought permission to have construction done between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
The Disney property is adjacent to the Rancho, a residential neighborhood of single-family homes where residents are allowed to stable horses.
Residents of the area fear increased traffic on nearby streets, especially Riverside Drive. Disney has offered to pay $125,000 of the cost of proposed traffic improvements on Riverside Drive, which eventually may include horse trails alongside the street.
Despite the overtures, some Disney neighbors are not animated.
“They go about their heavy-handed politics in a nice, professional way,” said one homeowner who lives across the street from Disney. Like several other neighbors opposed to the project, he asked not to be quoted by name.
“I mean, they’re Disney, so they’re really slick about it.”
But most opponents are resigned to the project’s approval.
“I wish they had expanded somewhere else. I think it’s going to hurt the neighborhood, but there’s really nothing we can do about it,” said Conrad Gonzalez, 43, who has lived about a block from the studio for six years. “There’s no way you can fight all that money.”
Gonzalez and some other opponents even concede that the studio “acted real respectably.”
“I don’t think they sprinkled any fairy dust but they sent out information and held lots of meetings,” he said.
The scope of the construction has frightened some neighbors who have seen other parts of Burbank develop rapidly in the 1980s, changing the city’s small-town character.
The proposed expansion would involve the construction of 10 buildings, including two 15-story high-rises, two 12-story buildings and an underground parking complex. More than 30 buildings, most of which are smaller warehouses and storage facilities, would be demolished to make room for the new construction.
Studios are an increasingly important part of the city’s economy, especially since several thousand aerospace jobs have been lost in the past two years. The city, which is also considering an expansion proposal by Warner Bros. Studios, recently invited executives at 20th Century Fox to consider relocating their West Los Angeles and Hollywood facilities to Burbank.
After Lockheed Aerospace Corp. closed most of its Burbank facilities, and Zero Corp., Weber Aircraft and several other employers left, city officials have said they simply cannot afford to lose Disney, a company that earned $6.2 billion in revenues last fiscal year.
Many Burbank residents, including some in the Rancho, agree.
“Disney is one of the few companies doing well in this recession. All around us we see businesses dropping like flies,” said James Foy, 61, who has lived in the Rancho for 18 years. “Some people think that Riverside Drive will be swollen with traffic and thousands of innocent people would die--it’s just silly.”
Besides, said Foy, Burbank residents need to look at the Disney development in national perspective.
“It’s not an oil refinery. It’s not a hog farm. It’s not a copper smelter,” Foy said. “I can imagine economic development commissions and chambers of commerce around the country drooling over the prospect of getting Disney to relocate.”
Foy, a Cleveland native, added, “I think the Cleveland City Council would ride here on bicycles and offer to hand-carry the luggage of Disney employees to get them to move.”