A plan to permanently close a major offramp from the Hollywood Freeway to make way for an expansion of Universal Studios is fueling outrage from residents who say it will cut off their community.
The southbound Barham Boulevard exit ramp near Universal City will be shut down — probably in the coming year — as part of NBCUniversal's $1.6-billion project that includes the building of a Harry Potter-themed attraction.
"It's an abomination; a developer was able to confiscate an exit on a state-funded highway for their own personal use," said John Strozdas, a Hollywood Hills resident whose family uses the ramp to get home from the San Fernando Valley.
Neighbors say the closure of the 101 Freeway offramp is just asking too much. The closure will keep drivers on the freeway longer, they say, and lengthen the commutes of thousands who live and work nearby.
With the ramp closed, southbound drivers trying to get off the 101 will have to exit north of Barham at Lankershim Boulevard or drive two miles south to the next offramp at Highland Avenue, a major artery for the Hollywood Bowl that backs up during performances.
NBCUniversal executives insist the planned freeway changes will actually relieve congestion and benefit the neighborhood because guests will be routed in and out of the park and onto the freeway so they don't clog up roadways.
As part of the NBCUniversal Evolution plan — which was approved by both the city and county — a new southbound 101 Freeway onramp would be built on Universal Studios Boulevard, allowing departing park guests to get directly onto the freeway, bypassing the neighborhood.
The California Department of Transportation determined that the Barham offramp had to close. Otherwise cars accelerating from the new onramp and those decelerating to make the Barham exit would create a dangerous stretch of "weaving and merging," according to the project's environmental impact report.
Corinne Verdery, NBCUniversal's chief real estate development officer, said that the Barham offramp closure was an "unfortunate trade-off" and that the studio is funding a third-party study to review alternatives.
"From our company's standpoint, we'd like as many ramps as possible," she said. "We did not want to see the offramp closed."
The new Universal Studios Boulevard onramp is now under construction and expected to open by early 2016, Verdery said. The Barham offramp will close before the new ramp opens. The Barham Boulevard onramp to the southbound 101 Freeway will remain open.
The 25-year expansion plan for the property includes hotels and nearly 2 million square feet of office and production space, as well as a "Fast and Furious" movie-themed ride and "The Simpsons Springfield U.S.A.," a re-creation of the fictional town.
But the biggest draw is expected to be "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter," which will feature a replica of the Hogwarts Castle and other locations from the books and movies. The attraction, which is under construction, is expected to open in 2016.
NBCUniversal executives declined to say how many new visitors are expected. But the company has agreed to spend $100 million in transit and road improvements, including building a new southbound offramp near Campo de Cahuenga, widening Barham Boulevard and widening the Lankershim onramp.
But residents and merchants remain unconvinced that traffic will improve.
"They're just making it more convenient to get to Universal," said Sam Hov, an Allstate insurance agent who works in a strip mall where shop windows are plastered with red-letter signs protesting the closure of the nearby Barham offramp.
Hov said he didn't buy NBCUniversal's argument that removing their visitors from local streets would ease traffic because so many other people drive through the area during rush hour. He still sits in terrible early-morning traffic when commuting from North Hollywood even before the theme park is open, he said.
Next door, at the 161st Street Pizzeria, manager Natalia Gonzalez said she worries her delivery drivers are going to get stuck on the freeway, making them late with orders.
More than 1,500 people have signed an online petition protesting the offramp's closure.
"Isn't it bad enough that after Harry Potter opens, we will have thousands more cars daily to deal with?" one signer wrote.
Still, others who work in the area say something had to be done before the crush of new tourists arrives.
John Gallogly, executive director of Theatre West near the Barham ramps, said traffic on Cahuenga Boulevard during peak theme park hours is "virtually unnavigable."
"It's an impossible situation, and this could be a very good solution," Gallogly said. "It is inconvenient to have to go an extra several blocks to an exit, but by the same token, it would have taken at least that long on busier local roads."