MCA Inc., the entertainment giant that owns Universal Studios, is pressing county transportation officials to relocate a proposed subway station to a site more convenient to Universal’s amusement park, transportation officials said Wednesday.
And because of a little-known provision of state law, MCA has a big bargaining chip--the power to withhold $6 million from the subway builders.
Over the past month, MCA executives have quietly met several times with Metropolitan Transportation Authority representatives to discuss moving the proposed Metro Rail station to within walking distance of Universal CityWalk, a popular new promenade of restaurants and shops next to the park.
The Universal City station is currently planned to open in the year 2000 on Lankershim Boulevard near the front entrance of Universal Studios, but half a mile downhill from most of the park’s major attractions.
While county transportation officials call the idea “intriguing,” they say altering the plans this late in the project’s schedule would mean renegotiating construction and design contracts and federal grant agreements, delaying completion of the station by at least a year.
“Final design is going on right now,” said David Meiger, an MTA project manager who oversees the San Fernando Valley section of the subway. “Something like changing the station is by any means a difficult thing to do.”
Charles Stark, a project manager for the MTA’s construction division, agreed, adding that station construction is scheduled to begin next year. “It’s rather late to make changes,” he said. “But, of course, it’s never impossible.”
But MCA has unique influence over the transportation authority, which the company has hinted it may wield if necessary.
Under a 10-year-old state law, MCA can, with a simple signature, withhold from the MTA nearly $6 million in property assessment fees that the agency is depending on to build the station.
The law grants property owners the right to vote on whether to reject such assessments, and as owner of 70% of the assessment district established around the proposed station, MCA alone could swing the election.
If it withheld its fees, MCA could also block an additional $2 million that other property owners would pay in assessment fees and perhaps derail the perception that there is solid private-sector support for the project.
In a statement issued Wednesday, MCA spokeswoman Christine Hanson said: “MCA has been having ongoing discussions with MTA regarding the current design and location of the Lankershim-Universal City Red Line Station.
“These discussions have included a range of solutions and alternatives to the current design,” she said. “MCA has hired consultants to study alternatives that will lead to an beneficial solution for the homeowners, businesses and commuting public.”
Hanson declined to elaborate.
Meiger, who has attended some meetings with MCA officials, said the proposal has so far remained fairly general, with no specific details provided in writing. He said that if MCA provides a detailed proposal for the relocation, he will pass it on to the entire transportation authority for consideration.
Transportation officials are in the process of purchasing land near the original site for the 840 parking spaces needed for the station. Meiger said MCA officials have not yet offered to provide the property needed for parking if the station is moved to Universal Studios.
By relocating the Universal City subway station, MCA would bring subway riders within strolling distance of CityWalk, the $100-million promenade that opened in June and is expected to attract at least 1 million visitors annually. The entire theme park drew 4.8 million visitors last year.
Under current MTA plans, subway riders arriving at the Lankershim Boulevard station would have to hike uphill for nearly half a mile to reach CityWalk and venues such as the Universal Amphitheatre and the Cineplex Odeon Theaters.
Because Universal Studios tour shuttles do not legally qualify to operate on city streets, MCA would need a tramway or people-mover system to bring subway riders up the hill to the park, transportation officials said.
Talk of relocating the station was quickly praised by a group of nearby condominium owners who say the seven-year construction of the station at the current site would not only ruin their neighborhood, but make their homes impossible to sell if they wanted to leave.
“We are elated by this news,” said Ronnie Rice, spokeswoman for the 60 owners of the Terrace in the Park and Universal Park condominiums, located across Bluffside Drive from the planned station site.
“This would save our neighborhood. It’s a win-win-win situation for everybody,” she said.
But the president of the Cahuenga Pass Property Owners Assn. questioned MCA’s motives for the proposed relocation.
“I want to know what’s driving the location of this station,” said Michael Wester. “This is for the city of L.A. and for the community--it’s not just for MCA.”
He called on both parties to include the public in their talks.
“It’s imperative that before these negotiations go any further that the community be brought into the loop and told what is going on,” Wester said.
Finally, he warned that transportation officials should not be swayed by the power MCA holds in paying for the station.
“I hope they’re not going to be influenced into making a bad policy decision because of MCA’s bargaining power,” he said.
Renee Weitzer, planning deputy to City Councilman John Ferraro, whose district encompasses Universal City, said she was approached last week by MCA officials with plans to move the station. She said Ferraro neither supported nor rejected the proposal, saying he would wait to see what MTA officials thought of the plan.
“I don’t know whether it’s a good idea or it’s bad idea,” Weitzer said. “But I do think now is the time to explore all the options.”
A spokesman for County Supervisor Ed Edelman, who represents the area that includes Universal City--which is unincorporated county territory--said the supervisor was unaware of the issue.
Hugo Martin is a Times staff writer and Scott Glover is a special correspondent.
Suggested Move MCA Inc. has been meeting with transportation officials to discuss moving the proposed Lankershim Boulevard Red Line Metro Station to a location within the theme park, within walking distance of CityWalk.