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Valley Perspective

2 Studio Expansion Plans Receive Opposite Reactions

Like NBC, Universal needs equation the area can live with

March 23, 1997

When a proposal to nearly triple the size of NBC's studio complex came before the Burbank City Council earlier this month, 22 nearby residents and local business representatives testified. Not one opposed the network's 20-year growth plan--one of three that will add more than 7 million square feet of new development to Burbank over the next two decades. But just the day before that amicable hearing, dozens of people jammed the downtown Hall of Records to complain for four hours about a plan to nearly double the size of Universal Studios, which sits up the hill, less than two miles from the studio cluster housing NBC, Warner Bros. and Walt Disney Studios.

What gives?

The San Fernando Valley's entertainment industry has more than filled the void left by the collapse of aerospace, providing thousands of high-paying jobs to residents from Chatsworth to Glendale. Office space in the southeast Valley is among the most desirable in the region, with rents topping premium locations downtown and in Century City.

So why would residents--many of them employed in the entertainment industry--embrace one set of studio expansion plans and reject another? Why is a tripling of NBC welcomed and a doubling of Universal scorned? Part of the answer lies in differences of scale: NBC proposes a total complex of 3 million square feet and Universal proposes 11.3 million square feet.

But the biggest perceived difference, and the biggest problem for most people, lies in the intended uses of the new facilities. NBC plans to build offices and studio space, quiet uses that generate traffic but cause few other problems. Universal plans those kinds of facilities too, but also wants to build resort hotels and expand the tourist-oriented successes of its theme park and CityWalk entertainment complex.

Some neighbors appropriately fear increases in traffic, noise, litter and crime--not to mention the potential proliferation of tacky burger joints and cheap motels that generally hem destination resorts. They dismiss Universal's boasts about the project creating thousands of new jobs, pointing out that many will be low-wage service workers. And despite the confident promises of the project's environmental impact report, the Universal expansion will cause problems in the neighborhood.

The question is whether those problems are offset by the potential benefits. Expected tax revenues are substantial--as much as $25 million a year to Los Angeles city and county. Construction jobs will provide solid wages, as will the jobs that occupy the studio and office space proposed by Universal. And with the completion of the Metro Rail subway station across the street, the complex will be poised as a regional center of business and entertainment.

Despite the surface differences, the decisions at the heart of the NBC and the Universal plans really differ very little. Both ask residents and officials to make a trade. In Burbank, they traded extra traffic for as many as 4,700 new jobs and $2 million a year in property and business taxes. In Universal City, the trade is slightly more vague--obscured by the neon lights of the project's theme-park component--but essentially asks for more traffic and noise in exchange for more jobs and taxes. Reducing the rhetoric from both sides and focusing on that fairly simple equation would go a long way toward finding a project that's right for Universal, right for its neighbors and right for Southern California.

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