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Disney Dazzled Burbank With Its Vision for Backlot : City Officials Back Into Future With Disputed Blend of Fantasy, Reality

August 06, 1987|GREG BRAXTON | Times Staff Writer

Signs of strain shadowed the faces of the officials in the Burbank City Hall conference room. The city's 12-year dream of having a major shopping center in downtown Burbank was crumbling around them, and they were powerless to stop it.

It was early evening Jan. 7. Executives of Ernest W. Hahn Inc., the developer trying to build the $158-million Towncenter mall, explained to the Burbank City Council during the closed session that they were unsuccessful in finding a fourth major department store they needed for the project.

With no solutions in sight, council members and other officials began tossing ideas back and forth in an effort to salvage the shopping mall.

"Why don't we let Disney dream a dream for Burbank?" said Councilman Robert R. Bowne.

Weeks later, Burbank lost the Towncenter. In its place, however, the city gained a proposal from Burbank-based Walt Disney Co. that would revolutionize mall shopping.

A New Direction

The evolution of the Disney deal reveals how a councilman's off-the-cuff suggestion eventually routed the bedroom community made famous by Johnny Carson away from the path of failure toward an unlikely alliance with the aggressive new knights of the Magic Kingdom.

But it has not been an easy road. Along the way, Burbank city officials grappled with indecision, anger, political maneuvering and frequently frantic board-room discussions.

The result was a controversial, tentative partnership between the dream factory of Disney and a city grudgingly willing to change its small-town image to become an international destination. The partnership soon brought two lawsuits from a neighboring entertainment firm, a Disney rival.

Disney artists and architects are working on formal blueprints and designs for the office, entertainment and retail complex, to cost an estimated $150 million to $300 million, on the 40-acre former Towncenter property. By November, they must present the plans to Burbank council members, who voted in May to give the Disney company an exclusive opportunity to develop the land.

If it receives final council approval, the project is expected to generate $1 million to $3 million annually in taxes and other sources of income for the city.

The project, called the "The Disney-MGM Studio Backlot," also would represent another significant step toward establishing the credibility of a new management team at Disney that has heightened the success of the company by new business ventures and R-rated movies while maintaining traditional Disney middle-American, family-entertainment values.

But even preliminary approval of the proposal did not come easy for some Burbank City Council members, who felt overwhelmed by the Disney vision. They were worried about how some elements of the project, such as a man-made lake, a fantasy hotel and restaurants that change decor with the season, would blend into the community.

The real controversy hanging over the project is the negotiated sale price. The council awarded Disney an option to purchase the property for the bargain price of $1 million.

Critics note that some competing developers may have paid as much as $50 million for what they call one of the last prime pieces of downtown acreage in the country.

But in the end, the harsh reality of impending failure prompted city officials to accept the fantastic.

"Burbank just can't stand still anymore," said Councilwoman Mary Lou Howard, 49, often viewed as the highest-profile civic leader in Burbank.

"There needs to be progress," Howard said. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This won't come a second time, and it would be very foolish not to go with it."

Although Bowne, 42, a lawyer, was the first to suggest Disney's possible involvement in the development of the 40 acres, it was Howard who contacted Disney chairman and chief executive officer Michael Eisner a few days later. She did so without telling Bowne or the rest of the City Council.

"No one else followed up on what Bob said, so I thought I might as well go ahead," Howard said. "Someone has to be the leader."

Howard, who had been mayor of Burbank twice, already had the connections, having met Eisner two or three times at social functions.

Bowne Angered

Nevertheless, her maneuver angered Bowne, who said he often feels left out of actions by a council that has passed over him three times for mayor and vice mayor, even though he is second only to Howard in seniority.

"She was interested in seeking some sense of ownership," he said. "I don't understand why I wasn't included in those initial discussions. I should have been, just as a matter of courtesy, since it was my idea."

"It's not good when one of us goes off and does something behind our backs," said Mary Kelsey, 70, another council member. "Usually it causes problems."

Because city officials at that time were still concerned with saving the Towncenter, Howard had asked Eisner whether Disney would be interested in participating in that project. Eisner said he would look into it, Howard said.

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