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The Real Mastermind Behind CityWalk

Jim Nelson is co-founder and chief executive officer of Mother Co., a real estate consulting, planning and development firm based in Hollywood

The letter to the editor from William Stout you published on April 16 (“CityWalk Talk”) about Nicolai Ouroussoff’s April 9 article on Universal CityWalk (“Fantasies of a City High on a Hill”) requires a statement of the facts.

As the former director of planning and development for Universal Studio’s commercial development group, I was responsible for the 1988 master plan, all of the first phase of CityWalk and the basic planning of the second phase that just opened. Not only am I familiar with every detail of the project, I came to spend enough time with Jon Jerde to see the deep pool of imagination and experience that he draws upon.

Accordingly, I have the credibility and insight to “set the record straight” relative to Stout’s misleading and inaccurate letter:

1. Stout had no influence on the design vision of CityWalk.

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2. Stout’s implication that Jerde’s CityWalk designs were in any way influenced by Stout’s work with Walt Disney Imagineering is baseless and false.

In 1987, we at Universal decided to create a new master plan. Dean Richard Weinstein of UCLA’s architecture school suggested Jerde as the architect to develop it. Not only was Jerde’s recently completed Horton Plaza in San Diego the right mix of fun and functionality, but his approach as the planner for the 1984 Olympics had been to create a diverse team of designers, and I knew that I wanted a project that felt “real,” which would require a co-creative process.

We hired him to do a master plan for all of Universal City with a central pedestrian spine (CityWalk) that would tie the existing and future elements together.

Jerde completed that plan in June 1989. At that point, the preliminary sketch of CityWalk had many of the same elements that had made Horton Plaza so successful (see the illustration above that I submitted to prove my point). It did not contain any of the elements that Stout claims Jerde saw in one of his presentations, i.e., “a nostalgic pop culture mix of neon, billboards and mismatched architectural styles.”

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Subsequent to the master plan, work began on CityWalk’s detailed design. The plan that emerged in 1990 was a result of a collaborative design process between Jerde, his project architect, Richard Orne, and myself.

Stout’s idea has nothing in common with what we created: CityWalk is not a collection of “mismatched architectural styles”; rather, it is a distillation of the unique architecture of Los Angeles, with each element having its own separate language and role in the larger composition. Over that architectural base, multiple layers of signage, landscaping and graphics create a rich texture that makes CityWalk’s design unique.

Any designer who has not lived under a rock knows that Jerde has been testing the edges of the design envelope his entire career. The very idea that he and his firm need to take ideas from others is laughable.

Sadly, Stout is not the first person to pop up claiming credit for some part of CityWalk. As with any hit movie, there always are people who claim to have had the same idea, done a similar treatment or whatever.

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Hopefully, bickering over credits and false claims will not be allowed to ruin the celebration of the completion of a new and vital public place for Los Angeles. Thank you, Jon Jerde, and all the other people who continue to make CityWalk successful, unique and enjoyed by millions of people every year.


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