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Yaroslavsky, Ferraro Urge Universal to Cut Project 40%

Entertainment: Planned theme park and convention hotels would be eliminated from $2-billion expansion.

June 07, 1997|HUGO MARTIN and BARRY STAVRO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Responding to fears that Universal Studios' proposed $2-billion expansion could choke surrounding neighborhoods with increased traffic, noise and crime, county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and City Councilman John Ferraro on Friday proposed a dramatic reduction in the movie giant's plans.

While acknowledging the importance of the entertainment industry in Los Angeles, Yaroslavsky and Ferraro called for a 40% reduction in the project's scope, including elimination of a proposed new theme park and convention-style hotels.

"We believe these changes would result in an improved balance in providing the business growth for Universal and providing protections and benefits for the surrounding community," the two lawmakers said in a joint statement.

While the final project still must be approved by the city and county planning commissions, joint objections from Yaroslavsky and Ferraro are likely to be decisive. The planning bodies traditionally defer to the wishes of the elected officials whose districts include a project's site. Yaroslavsky and Ferraro both represent the 415-acre Universal City area, which includes both county and city land.

In addition, the lawmakers' recommendations have the support of dozens of homeowner groups in the neighborhoods that surround the popular tourist attraction.

"We are very pleased that our elected officials are stepping up to the bat for us," said Krista Michaels, president of the Cahuenga Pass Property Owners' Assn.

Over the next 25 years, Universal, which is part of entertainment giant MCA, wants to roughly double the current building space by adding 5.9 million square feet of theme park attractions, resort hotels, space for studios and offices and 6.3 million square feet of additional parking.

The company estimates the expansion would generate 13,000 jobs. But many critics argue that an expanded theme park would generate only low-paying positions.

Universal Studios representatives would not comment on the proposal by Yaroslavsky and Ferraro, except to say that they will study the suggestions and respond at a July 2 joint meeting of the county Regional Planning Commission and the city Planning Commission's hearing examiner.

Helen McCann, the Universal vice president overseeing the expansion plan, said she is glad that after months of public hearings and protest, homeowners and lawmakers are finally speaking with one voice.

"The very fact that John Ferraro and Zev Yaroslavsky have provided a joint recommendation is a first and is unprecedented," she said. "These recommendations are a logical next step in the public process."

Yaroslavsky and several homeowners emphasized that the proposed reductions are not intended to hurt the movie and television studio operations at Universal Studios.

"We want them to grow as a movie maker," Yaroslavsky said, "but it has to be done sensibly, responsibly. It can't be overdone."

He added that the strongest opposition is aimed at an expanded theme park, which he said would be "dead on arrival" if it were brought before the county for approval.

The Yarolsavsky-Ferraro plan is not likely to slow other studios from expanding in the Los Angeles area.

Jack Kyser of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. said: "Basically, what they said is: Studios fine, theme park no. And we know there is a strong demand for office space and for high-quality production facilities" in the entertainment business, and that several expansion projects are already underway.

In March, for example, NBC won approval from the city of Burbank to roughly triple its building space, to 3 million square feet, as it puts up six new studios, four office buildings and three parking garages on its property.

Hollywood executives are also not overly worried about the ramifications of a scaled-down development because many major studios have received approval for expansion plans.

In recent years, Disney and Warner Bros., like NBC, have won approval from the city of Burbank to begin 20-year expansions of their studio operations.

Universal Studios' situation is something of an anomaly because it is by far the biggest entertainment parcel in the city, and includes both a theme park and a studio complex. The theme park and related CityWalk attract about 5 million visitors a year.

For months, Universal's neighbors have vehemently complained at public meetings about excessive noise, traffic and crime since CityWalk opened in 1993. They have expressed fear that if Universal wins approval for its 25-year project, it would expand into an out-of-control destination resort and theme park complex.

Yaroslavsky and Ferraro recommend the following changes:

* Reduce the project by 2.5 million square feet, or more than 40%, and have the project built over 15 years, instead of 25.

* Eliminate the proposed new theme park.

* Limit the construction of new hotels to no more than 1,200 rooms, allow only low-rise hotels and prohibit convention-style hotels.

* Split the remaining 3.3-million-square-foot project into two phases, with the first 2 million square feet to be built in one phase and the rest not until traffic mitigation measures are added.

* Expand landscaping around the project.

* Reduce building heights to eliminate shading of residential properties.

* Impose new regulations to reduce "amplified entertainment noise."

* Enclose or shut down the Water World attraction, which neighbors say creates too much noise.

* Require special permits on a case-by-case basis for alcohol service.

Times staff writer James Bates contributed to this story.

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