A cast of thousands of homes

Times Staff Writers

Universal City, already the world's largest movie studio lot, would also become a major office and residential hub as part of a $3-billion development plan unveiled Wednesday by owner NBC Universal.

Under the proposal, the historic studio would add a neighborhood with 2,900 homes and apartment units -- creating a new community at a time when large parcels of land for new housing are virtually unavailable within the urban core.

The housing would be served by a new north-south street, an attempt to ease additional congestion within an area already plagued by heavy visitor and commuter traffic.

The 25-year plan also calls for new production facilities, restaurants, stores, a hotel and improvements to both the studio tour and the Universal CityWalk retail and entertainment center. Universal would continue to operate its theme park and make movies and television shows.

Those additions would transform the 391-acre property and adjacent land into a more urban center, to the alarm of some nearby residents who voiced concerns Wednesday that more traffic might choke the area.

"Just because something is possible to build and makes sense from a corporate standpoint doesn't mean it's going to be good for all," said Daniel Savage, president of the Hollywood Knolls Community Club residents association. The group's members "are still extremely concerned about the potential negative impact on the community," he said.

The plan conforms to current urban planning trends that favor dense development around public transportation nodes. Universal is adjacent to a Metro Rail subway stop and near two freeways. New parking facilities also would be added near the subway terminal.

"This is really a chance for us to take Universal into the new century," studio President Ron Meyer said. "The plan makes sense for the community too."

Universal officials intend to file development applications with the city and county of Los Angeles early next year and begin an approval process that could take more than two years.

The project would create 17,000 construction jobs and add 11,000 permanent jobs to the 10,000 full- and part-time positions already at the studio, said NBC Universal, which is owned by General Electric Co.

The rolling land in the Cahuenga Pass is considered one of the region's prime pieces of property -- and one of its most underdeveloped.

Plans by previous owners came to nothing amid vociferous opposition from neighbors and community leaders concerned about increased traffic congestion.

This time the studio reached out to public officials and homeowner groups in an effort to build support, although some groups were still waiting for more details before taking a stand.

Civic and business leaders voiced support for the project Wednesday.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the project would be good for the city because it would create housing and jobs for the region's growing population.

"This is a blockbuster, a transformative project, a city-making project, and it will ensure Los Angeles remains the entertainment capital of the world.... This represents the single largest investment in the history of the San Fernando Valley," he said.

Acknowledging that there would be criticism, Villaraigosa said the entertainment company would have to be responsive to residents and business owners.

Bruce Ackerman, president of the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley, said, "The big story is the creation of a new community in the middle of a metropolitan area, with the ultimate in smart growth and intelligent design concepts."

The Universal lot includes its core studio, where movies and TV shows are made; its back lot, which doubles as a filming backdrop and tourist attraction; its entertainment center, including CityWalk and the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park; and its business district with offices and hotels. The back lot includes several acres of raw land.

The most urgent need for the studio is more production facilities because it often operates at 95% of capacity, studio president Meyer said.

Plans call for a new studio and office campus, to be built by Los Angeles developer Thomas Properties Group across Lankershim Boulevard on parking lots around the subway station. New parking structures on the site would create more commuter parking than is there now.

The proposed campus comes as many other entertainment companies are experiencing a shortage of office space, with vacancies having fallen to record lows in Burbank and Hollywood, real estate brokers say.

Room for the housing project, to be located on the back lot, would be created by moving some tour attractions, such as Colonial Street, European Street, the Bates Motel and "Psycho" house, and the "War of the Worlds" disaster scene.

The units would include apartments, town houses, lofts and condominiums. The taller residential buildings -- some as high as 12 stories -- would be on the lowest grade of the back lot's sloping hillside.

It would be one of the largest "in-fill" residential developments in Los Angeles history, although it would be less than half the size of the massive Playa Vista project south of Marina del Rey.

The project is intended to be environmentally sensitive and to meet nationally recognized measures of "green" development, NBC Universal said.

Housing would be along a new four-lane public street connecting Forest Lawn and Coral drives, and a shuttle would transport residents and studio employees to the subway and bus stops.

Other traffic mitigation measures involve freeway access improvements, including a possible southbound entrance to the Hollywood Freeway and an interchange near Campo de Cahuenga. Barham Boulevard enhancements include widening its bridge over the Los Angeles River.

"When people talk about this, their concerns are traffic, traffic, traffic," said Jim Thomas, president of Thomas Properties.

The same three-word alarm was raised by nearby homeowner Miriam Palacio, who was unconvinced that there could be enough improvements to keep an often-bad driving situation from getting worse.

"They didn't provide us with any viable solutions I could see," said Palacio, who times her trips to avoid events at the Gibson Amphitheatre.

But Michael George, vice president of the Cahuenga Pass Neighborhood Assn., said he supported the studio's efforts to create a community where people could live and work in the same place.

"They've got to start somewhere," he said of the proposal. "If it's not perfect, we have to refine it."




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