Los Angeles has a great opportunity, but it will require action.
On Wednesday, NBC Universal's plan for a major expansion will go before the City Council for final approval. The plan, thanks in part to effective agitating by Los Angeles River advocates, bicycle riders and neighborhood activists, represents a fine civic bargain, but there is also an opportunity to accomplish much, much more.
For those who live in Los Angeles, there is a lot at stake in this deal. NBC Universal and its corporate masters — currently Comcast, the largest cable operator in the United States — have been trying to expand Universal's footprint since 2006. The company's wish list for its 391 acres includes adding nearly 2 million feet of office and studio space, building two 500-room hotels and creating new attractions for the company's theme park, including a new Wizarding World of Harry Potter ride.
In the company's original proposal, the Los Angeles River — which runs parallel to the studio for a mile in a box channel, separated from Universal by a privatized service road owned by Los Angeles County — received only modest upgrading: a 1.5-acre riverfront park along the studio's northern boundary.
But architect Bill Roschen, president of the city of Los Angeles' Planning Commission, saw a larger opportunity. In his view, he told me, any deal the city struck with Universal "had to be an example of good planning and establish consistent policy on the river, an example subsequent agreements will have to adhere to." The commission plays only an advisory role to the City Council, but he was determined to make that count.
At first, a mutually beneficial deal for river improvements seemed out of reach. The old Technicolor building on the Universal lot blocked access to the river, as did the Island Apartments just upstream. But after long negotiations, agreement on a deal was announced, and it was very good for the river.
In exchange for a development agreement, Universal agreed to donate $3 million to the L.A. County Department of Public Works to build a mile-long bike path on the service road between the studio and the river. Universal agreed to give the county half a million dollars to do a feasibility analysis and preliminary design for a riverfront bikeway extension from the 101 Freeway in Studio City to Griffith Park, currently the northern end point of a bike path that starts in the Atwater Village neighborhood. Universal also committed $375,000 to the Department of Transportation for bike lane work on streets around the studio.
One of the best things about the deal is that it points the way for future negotiations with riverfront businesses. There are at least four other conglomerates along the river's "studio stretch." CBS Studio Center is upstream from Universal. Warner Bros., ABC Disney and DreamWorks are all downstream. All either face away from the river as if in embarrassment, or, in the case of CBS and Warner Bros., straddle it. Universal will provide an example of ways that studios and the river can interact.
So why isn't it time to rejoice? Because, while the bike path addition and feasibility study contained in the deal bring the city closer to a commuter bike path from Union Station to the San Fernando Valley, they don't finish the job.
The deal worked out between Universal and the planning commission includes a "goody bag" of nearly $1.5 million for a laundry list of civic pet projects. There is $50,000 for the zoo and $50,000 for Travel Town. There are hundreds of thousands of dollars for traffic mitigation and street beautification in neighborhoods surrounding the studio. These are undoubtedly all worthy things.
But what would make a far bigger difference for Los Angeles residents — including those who work at Universal Studios — is completion of the long-stalled commuter bike path extension south from Atwater Village to Union Station.
With Universal poised to add a crucial piece of the bike path, we need to find a way to finish the job. A first step would be to redirect the money in Universal's goody bag toward that end. Then, as other businesses along the river ask for permission to expand or rebuild, they too should be asked to kick in. In terms of regional significance, no better use of a goody bag can even come close.
Lewis MacAdams is the president of Friends of the Los Angeles River.