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Sony Plans Get Final Clearance : Development: Council votes 4-to-1 to approve the long-awaited studio expansion. Officials hope the project will pump new life into the 'Heart of Screenland.'


CULVER CITY — Sweating every detail from helicopters to landscaping, the Culver City Council last week finally approved a 1-million-square-foot expansion and renovation plan at Sony Pictures Studios, ending a three-year approval process and pumping new blood into the self-proclaimed "Heart of Screenland."

"Ladies and gentlemen, we have a development agreement," Mayor Mike Balkman proclaimed late Wednesday night, after the council voted 4-to-1 in favor of the project.

Councilman Jim Boulgarides, who had asked for separate votes on key components of the plan, dissented.

Although Sony's plans never seemed in serious peril since they were submitted to the city three years ago, the council had recently become mired in technical details, prompting criticism that it was dragging its feet on a project deemed vital to the economy and movie-making heritage of the city.

"The process works. Our long municipal nightmare is over!" exclaimed a relieved Steven Rose, president of the Culver City Chamber of Commerce. "It took them longer to approve it than it probably will to get it built."

Not exactly. Sony--so confident of winning city approval that it began renovation work soon after it moved to the aging 44.8-acre site on Washington Boulevard in 1990--plans to phase in the expansion over the next 20 years.

Studio officials say the improvements will allow them to consolidate operations so the company can compete in a tough global market.

"This is the culmination of three years of hard work and close communication between Sony and our Culver City neighbors," said Kenneth Williams, senior vice president for Sony. "We have had a lot of support from the community all along and the council last night reflected that support."

But that support came grudgingly from council member Steven Gourley, and in the case of Boulgarides, it didn't come at all. Both men, concerned about overdevelopment in the city, spent most of the evening peppering city staff with questions about topics ranging from traffic count methodologies to a proposed restriction on the square footage of office space.

A mostly pro-Sony audience sighed repeatedly with exasperation, prompting a lengthy rebuke from Boulgarides, who defended his deliberative style.

Eliciting groans from the thinning crowd, he described the plan as full of "grave mistakes," accused Sony of using "propaganda" to build community support and suggested that public pressure to pass the plan as quickly as possible indicated a "a panic mentality."

"This community would have gone on with or without Sony," Boulgarides said.

Not everyone was so sure. Except for relatively minor neighborhood concerns, testimony at public hearings ran overwhelmingly in Sony's favor. Many residents and business people linked the success of the movie-making giant to the well-being of Culver City, and the studio was glad to supply data to bolster their point.

According to Sony officials, local revenues generated by the expansion will run about $2.5 million a year. The company also estimates that it spends $11 million a year locally.

Sony will also pay for $4.5 million in street improvements to increase capacity on Culver Boulevard and other nearby arteries.

Yet despite the widespread popularity of the proposal, many of the concerns raised by Boulgarides and Gourley were at least partially reflected in the plan approved by the council. Most significantly, the studio had originally asked to erect two 11-story buildings and 12 other structures that would have exceeded a four-story height limit on new construction approved by voters in 1990.

Due in part to concerns raised by Gourley and Boulgarides, the project was ultimately scaled back so that only four of the proposed buildings--each planned for eight stories--will be permitted.

The council also shot down Sony's hopes of shuttling stars, executives and other VIPS to the site via helicopter. Heeding residents fears about noise and safety, the council banned helicopter flights to the studio except in emergencies, and added a clause to the pact to block Sony from landing helicopters within 1,000 feet of city boundaries.

But it didn't completely slam the door on the idea. It concluded that Sony may apply for a conditional use permit to land helicopters in the future if it can establish that helicopter technology has improved by that time.

Until then, Sony will remain focused on the ground, cleaning up a lot that, prior to Sony's purchase, had passed from MGM to Lorimar to Warner Bros., and was showing signs of 25 years of neglect.

Among other things, the corporation has refurbished the historic Thalberg Building, razed outdated buildings and spruced up perimeter landscaping--gambling that the city would ultimately approve the expansion.

It did, and now Culver City must wait until well into the next century to see if it did the right thing.

"We know there will be holes in this agreement that Sony can drive a Buick through, assuming there are Buicks then." Balkman said. But, he added, "This is the best we can do at this time."

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