Kicking off what is sure to become a contentious debate over plans to double development at Universal City, the county released a draft environmental impact report Tuesday that says the massive project is "consistent with . . . plans for . . . development within major centers."
The report, which was more than a year in the making and encompasses thousands of pages of analysis, is intended to be used for informational purposes, but will play a key role in determining what restrictions and conditions will be imposed on MCA's future development.
Helen McCann, vice president of master plan for MCA, called the media giant's plan "a very well-thought-out, well-crafted proposal for the next 25 years. This report shows that we have done our job."
But the document, which was made public along with MCA's preliminary specific plan for the project, is certain to be dissected and debated in upcoming public hearings.
Critics are concerned that the project will snarl traffic on surrounding streets, despite any attempts to mitigate the impact of new development. They also fear that the project would increase noise and lighting levels, and create a greater potential for crime.
MCA hopes to build $3 billion worth of office buildings, hotels, shops, restaurants, themed attractions and sound stages to its existing movie studio, offices, Universal Studios Tour, CityWalk development and amphitheater.
The project would add 5.9 million square feet of new building space to the existing 5.4 million square feet at the 415-acre hilltop site. New parking facilities would also be added.
The company says the development will create 13,000 new jobs, add $1.6 billion annually to the local economy and generate $25 million a year in new city and county tax revenues.
The county took the lead in preparing the document, because 70% of MCA's land is in an unincorporated part of the county. But the city of Los Angeles, where the rest of Universal City and surrounding neighborhoods lie, must also sign off on MCA's proposal.
The release of the draft environmental impact report "doesn't mean at this point in time that we have bought into the project," said Robert H. Sutton, deputy director of the Los Angeles City Planning Department.
"I think there's a lot of benefit to the project. But whether we accept the project as it stands, it's too early to say."
MCA has already changed certain aspects of its proposed development to address potential problems identified in the environmental review process, including reducing the maximum height of new buildings. Landscaping and green "buffer zones" are also included in the plan as a means of shielding nearby residents from activities at Universal City.
Geoffrey Taylor, administrator of regional planning for Los Angeles County, said that in assessing the environmental impact of the project "we were particularly concerned about access."
A Metro Rail station that is being built on Lankershim Boulevard next to Universal City will help ease congestion, Taylor said.
But McCann acknowledged that some potential traffic issues are not resolved. A new onramp to the northbound Hollywood Freeway near the MTA station, for example, could become overloaded with traffic.
"If someone can help figure it out, we'll take a look at it," she said. "We will do everything that's responsible and everything that's feasible and everything that's economically viable."
Some nearby homeowners, who say they are already living with congested roadways, say they will carefully scrutinize the draft EIR.
"Our concern is, how do they get the traffic out of Universal and away from here without running into the already F-level intersections in Studio City," said Polly Ward, vice president of the Studio City Residents Assn.
An F-level designation is the worst possible rating of traffic, indicating that an intersection is prone to backups, restricted approaches and tremendous delays. The draft EIR identifies four intersections near Universal City as rated F.
"All the traffic problems are solvable, but they are going to take some improvements," Taylor said. "We think that it can be done."
Many residents say they will voice their objections during the public comment period that began Tuesday and ends Dec. 20. Public hearings will begin either late this year or in early 1997.
Some opponents of the project say they will also press for more details about exactly what MCA would build, and where. They worry that if MCA's plan is approved, any specific development proposed by the company in the next 25 years will receive a green light without undergoing a serious review.
"That development agreement would basically give them the right to do whatever they want for the next 25 years," said Joan Luchs, a real estate agent and homeowner in the Cahuenga Pass area south of Universal City.
"That's a real concern for many of us who don't feel that anybody knows 10 or 15 years out what it's going to be like."
McCann countered that MCA is currently seeking a rezoning of its property and a right to redevelop it over time--not a permit for a specific building. If the company wins approval, any future development would be "in a very limited, tightly regulated framework."
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The draft environmental impact report on the MCA proposal to more than double development at its Universal City property was released on Tuesday, detailing the company's plans to add $3 billion worth of offices, hotels, shops, restaurants, themed attractions and production facilities to its existing studio and theme park over the next 25 years.