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Hearing on Fox Project Promising for Studio : Expansion: Planning commissioners express support for the renovation while opponents criticize potential congestion and dispute the developer's claim of job creation.


CENTURY CITY — In the struggle to win approval for its controversial expansion plans, Fox Studios has won a sympathetic response from the Los Angeles Planning Commission.

Arguing that Los Angeles cannot afford to miss out on the new jobs the expansion would bring, Fox officials pleaded with the five-member panel last week not to allow opponents to block its planned $200-million renovation and expansion of the venerable Century City studio.

"We're a 1990s company trying to operate out of a 1940s facility," Fox Vice President David Handelman said.

Handelman said the studio's plans to add 771,000 square feet of office and production space on its 53-acre parcel would create 1,600 jobs at a time when the local economy is in serious trouble.

The studio, owned by media baron Rupert Murdoch, wants to consolidate its movie and television operations, including 20th Century-Fox Film Corp. and KTTV-TV--now located in Hollywood--at the Century City site, creating a 1.9-million-square-foot entertainment facility.

Fox needs the city's approval to pursue the plan and to extricate itself from a commitment to build condominiums on part of the property.

Although the commission is not scheduled to vote on the matter until March 18, comments by commissioners on Thursday left little doubt that the panel is eager to give its blessing to the studio's proposal.

At one point during the five-hour session, Commissioner Fernando Torres-Gil apologized for the three years of public scrutiny the studio has already endured.

"I think the fact that it has taken three years could be seen by any reasonable person as unfair," the commissioner said, adding that "victory (appears to be) within your grasp."

After clearing the Planning Commission, the project still faces scrutiny from the City Council's Planning and Land Use Management Committee. The fate of the proposal ultimately will rest with the full City Council.

Thursday's hearing in the City Hall council chambers was attended by about 250 people, with Fox supporters slightly outnumbering opponents of the project.

Opponents, including residents who live near the studio, renewed their argument that the project is too big, saying that the increased traffic it would generate would inundate neighborhoods already choking with congestion.

If approved, traffic flowing from the studio's gates would more than double, an especially frightening prospect for people who live in Cheviot Hills south of the studio, where residents of Motor Avenue already complain of being unable to back out of their driveways much of the time.

"This project seems to have collided with reality," said Val Cole, president of the California Country Club Homes Assn. "It's riddled with mine fields for the Westside."

Opponents also disputed Fox's claims about job creation, and, as they have in the past, accused the studio of using scare tactics to win approval for the project.

Fox has threatened to pull up stakes and move elsewhere if it does not get what it wants.

City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents the area and has considerable power to determine the outcome, supports the expansion, provided surrounding neighborhoods are protected from excess traffic and other detrimental effects.

Yaroslavsky would have the project spread over three stages of development, with the production space built first and traffic mitigation measures put into effect immediately.

To keep the studio honest, he supports traffic monitoring and fines, and would prohibit Fox from going forward with the next phase of construction if its traffic projections were not borne out.

The studio has resisted the phasing concept, but on Thursday Fox officials, who have been engaged in intense negotiations with Yaroslavsky for weeks, said they had accepted the phasing concept in principle.

However, both the councilman and studio officials remain far apart on specifics. Indeed, the Planning Commission's decision to wait until next month before voting on the matter was largely to allow more time for Yaroslavsky and the studio to narrow their differences.

Although the Fox plan has been the focus of heated debate since it was announced three years ago, Thursday's session marked only the second official public hearing on the project.

In his report to the Planning Commission, the staff member who presided at the first such hearing last month expressed strong doubts about a development agreement the studio wants from the city along with approval of the project.

Development agreements are often sought by developers as an assurance against any future zoning changes that might affect a project, something lenders often require.

Yaroslavsky has stated his opposition to the development agreement proposed by Fox.

And, in unusually blunt language, Charles J. Rausch Jr., of the planning commission staff, acknowledged that the agreement, as presented by Fox, would give the city "absolutely nothing" in return.

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