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Studio Expansion Plan Receives Mixed Reviews

Hearing: More than 300 people turn out to pan or praise Universal's request to double in size over 25 years.

January 22, 1997|BARRY STAVRO and MARTHA WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

UNIVERSAL CITY — Homeowners and business executives took turns praising and condemning Universal Studios' proposed 25-year, $2-billion expansion plan before a standing-room-only crowd Tuesday night in a sometimes raucous hearing before the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission.

"We don't want another Disneyland in our backyard," said Gerald Silver, president of Homeowners of Encino. "We don't want a large work force of hot dog and hamburger salesmen [attracted by] a worldwide tourist attraction."

Silver's remarks triggered an ovation from many in the audience who oppose the Universal project.

Universal is asking for city and county permission to more than double its current office, theme park and studio space by adding 5.9 million square feet of buildings, and to turn its property into more of a destination resort by building themed hotels in sight of its studio lots.

Some homeowners complained about a private meeting held in a nearby hotel room an hour before the public hearing, at which Universal provided free food for about 100 members of a pro-development citizen's group called Universal City Tomorrow.

The company also provided free food at the public hearing.

Of those who signed up to speak at the hearing, 43 registered as supporters of the project and 70 as opponents.

Jack Rubens, an attorney representing the Toluca Lake Residents Assn., told the hearing that the key issue in the project is added noise. He attacked Universal's proposal as seeking blanket approval for the next 25 years, with no chance for residents to make changes in the future if it is approved.

"There is zero opportunity for a quarter of a century for the public to have any say," Rubens argued.

Sally Stevens, who's lived in Toluca Lake for 20 years, complained of what she called horrendous noise already from the Universal complex. "I don't trust Universal MCA. I don't think too many people do," she said.

But Wayne Burnette, a Studio City resident, supports the project. With any "important civic growth projects there are always critics who resist change," Burnette said.

"You may recall the objections to O'Malley's Dodger Stadium. Universal is the Valley's benevolent rich uncle [ready] to take a giant cultural step forward . . . and providing jobs . . . that would receive a warm welcome in 49 other states."

Universal Studios has said the project would add 13,000 jobs at its complex, and increase local and state tax revenues by $25 million a year.

Economic growth, increased tourism and new jobs were often cited by those in favor of the plan.

Gloria Gold, a Studio City resident, told the planning group that "I can see CityWalk from my backyard," but that her support for Universal's project is "absolutely unconditional," triggering a mix of applause and boos.

Gold said "the Universal City plan promises to fill a poignant need for a wide variety of jobs," including entry level jobs for young people that would help them "develop a variety of skills in the No. 1 industry in the area, entertainment."

Marvin Selter, chairman of the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn., said that "the benefits of the Universal expansion plan outweigh any negatives," and would help propel the local economy into the 21st century. "We all stand to benefit."

But Renee Weitzer, an aide to City Councilman John Ferraro, called for Universal's project to be carried out in incremental phases. "It would also help to know what Universal is planning to build first and when," she said.

Weitzer also suggested imposing a financial penalty on Universal if the company violates future noise standards, "with the monies going to the communities."

Universal City covers more than 415 acres, with about 70% of the land in an unincorporated area of the county, and the rest within city limits. So both the county and the city's Department of Planning are reviewing the project.

Tuesday night's meeting was the second of a long series of public hearings, comment periods and governmental reviews of the project. Universal is hoping to win approval by the end of this year.

But many neighbors oppose the project, and are worried about the added noise, traffic, and liquor licenses that would result. Some residents have said that crime has risen in their neighborhoods since Universal CityWalk opened four years ago.

The meeting was often boisterous. Those who oppose the project laughed or rebuked some supporters, who said they live as far away as Valencia.

More than 300 attended the hearing, and so many wanted to speak that the commission said it would hold another public meeting March 3, at a location in or near Universal City area yet to be determined.

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