To save CBS Television City, L.A. might have to allow development around the landmark
For generations, CBS Television City has served as a stage for some of TV’s most legendary moments. “The Jack Benny Program,” The Carol Burnett Show” and “The Price Is Right” were filmed there, and such stars as Elvis Presley, Bob Hope and Jack Benny performed.
But for all of that Hollywood history, Television City’s future remains in flux in a city where property values are skyrocketing and the need for more housing is so acute.
The sprawling complex, with its sound stages, midcentury offices and lush gardens, is located at one of the most desirable properties in Los Angeles: the corner of Beverly Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue not far from the Grove, Farmers Market, LACMA and the Beverly Center.
Earlier this year, talk of possibly selling the valuable land for development sparked a debate about the merits of preserving Television City. In a compromise hailed by many, a deal was crafted by CBS and the nonprofit Los Angeles Conservancy that would allow for some of the site — including the landmark main building — to be preserved but leaves the door open for development on other parts of the property.
To some, Television City offers a look at the increasingly difficult land-use decisions L.A. is facing as it desperately tries to provide more high-density housing to meet demand. The preservation plan, its backers say, respects history while acknowledging that some of the land at Television City can be used for development. They say it’s far better than simply tearing down the studio and starting from scratch, a fate they point out has befallen dozens of other landmarks over the years including the Ambassador Hotel, the Richfield Tower downtown and the Brown Derby restaurant.
To some, CBS Television City offers a chance to take a different road: Preserving what makes the property special while allowing development around it.
“L.A. has many faults, and one of those is that it has not respected its historical buildings over the years. It’s been a hit-and-miss,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, a former county supervisor and current lecturer at UCLA. “L.A. views itself as new, and anything old needs to be replaced. It’s turned its back on its architectural history. It’s part of who we are. There was a city here before us, and as the city develops and grows we need to integrate historic buildings into new development.”
But the proposal is also generating opposition from two very different sides. Some question whether the CBS site really deserves historic designation and if it might be better for the property to be redeveloped as a massive housing and business complex. Other critics have the opposite concern, questioning whether the already-congested area can handle even more traffic and if more development would fundamentally change the character of Television City.
Proposals to develop luxury apartment complexes and residential apartments at sites near Television City are already in the works, including a 26-story complex across the street from Farmers Market on 3rd Street. Resident Keith Nakata said development could further strain the area.
“We want to make sure infrastructure can handle what’s being planned,” he said.
Designed by prolific architects William Pereira, Charles Luckman and Gin Wong, Television City opened in 1952 at the height of Los Angeles’ identity as a TV production factory.
The rectangular building’s midcentury design was made exclusively for television production and contains sound stages, editing rooms, studios and rehearsal halls. The iconic CBS logo etched in large print on the front of the structure is a familiar sight for residents who can see it blocks away.
But despite its size, the facility doesn’t impose its grandiose character onto the neighborhood.
Tall green shrubbery is nestled in front of the sprawling black-and-white complex, with much of the rest of the site tucked away from public view.
“It’s the way you want to see a major facility built that complemented the neighborhood,” Yaroslavsky said.
For decades, many of CBS’ most popular shows were filmed there.
“This was very much a pioneering site. It put television on the map in L.A., and having a facility built for television production was a major milestone for both television and L.A. itself,” said Ken Bernstein of Los Angeles’ Cultural Heritage Commission.
In 2008, CBS moved much of where its shows are produced to Radford Avenue in Studio City.
Since then, the company has been more of a landlord at the complex, leasing sound stages and studio space to companies such as Netflix and to non-CBS shows such as ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” and HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher.” Now, only one program owned by CBS remains at Television City: “The Late, Late Show With James Corden.”
CBS began flirting with the idea of selling the property after receiving unsolicited offers for the 25-acre complex last year.
A team at the nonprofit Los Angeles Conservancy sprang into action.
Spearheaded by director of advocacy Adrian Scott Fine, the group filed an application recommending the city designate Television City as a historic-cultural monument so that future landlords could not redevelop the site without preserving the buildings.
“It could have gone really good or really bad in terms of new buyers not having the same sense of stewardship and appreciation of the place,” Fine said. “It’s a large site in an area that is growing quickly, and we wanted to make clear that there is something historic and meaningful there.”
The Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission approved an amended application from the L.A. Conservancy group in May, but it still needs approval from the Los Angeles City Council.
At first, the L.A. Conservancy recommended the entire complex for historical designation, which CBS said would prevent the facility from operating as a modern TV studio.
After negotiating for two months, the conservancy and CBS agreed to limit its recommended designation to the exterior of the main building, including a walkway over a bridge that has a sign that reads “Television City.”
“As the entertainment industry’s need for such studios has evolved, it’s been vibrantly reused in new ways,” Bernstein said. “That’s a good example of how historic designation of a studio can preserve what’s important and what is significant while allowing for evolution and adaptation.”
Chris Ender, a spokesman for CBS, said the corporation supports the plan because it mixes preservation with the ability to modernize the site.
But some residents and real estate brokers say the city’s process in determining what constitutes a potentially historic site is too broad and leaves developers unable to do their job at a time when housing is in high demand.
“I don’t like it when the city or other entities sway power over property and don’t allow you to develop it in the best way forward,” said real estate broker Mark Tarczynski of Colliers International.
“They stopped any real future development,” he said. “It prevents the sale of property to real estate developers who have a better idea of how to maximize the use of the land.”
One of the challenges, Tarcyznski said, is how historical designation infringes on their rights as property owners, leaves little flexibility as to how they develop property and hampers economic growth in that area.
“When I heard they wanted to designate it as historical I thought, ‘God they ruined that,’ ” Tarczynski said.
“A vast amount of land there is underutilized,” he added. “It’s very spread out, and a lot of density could be added to that property, such as hotels, creative office spaces or multifamily housing.”
Nick Solish, a board member of the Mid City West Community Council, agreed.
“I do think historic preservation is a weapon used to stop new development. It’s done so that people don’t have to deal with construction nearby,” Solish said.
“There is value to historical designations, but people use it to stop development from happening.”
Despite offers to buy Television City, production studios in Los Angeles remain in great demand. The nonprofit Film LA estimated a 96% occupancy rate for sound stages in Los Angeles.
City officials said the consistent need for such space suggests television production continues to remain a strong economic force in Los Angeles and that preservation of Television City matters.
City Councilman David Ryu, who represents the Fairfax area, said the quest to help preserve the site not only will retain jobs in the television production industry but will keep an important piece of Los Angeles’ identity alive.
“The amount of property to develop is still there, but actual development would not disrupt the historical property,” said Nicholas Greif, Ryu’s director of policy and legislation.
“It’s important to L.A.’s economy, and from a studio point of view profitable in a city consistently needing studio space,” he said. “It’s a job driver no matter what happens”
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