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Universal Official in Charge of Expansion Leaving Firm

Development: Helen McCann's departure catches city planners, neighborhood leaders by surprise. Further delays in project expected.


UNIVERSAL CITY — Helen McCann, Universal Studios' top executive for its controversial but now-stalled expansion plans, will leave the company at the end of the year, a Universal spokesperson said Friday.

McCann, Universal's vice president for the master plan, joined the company in 1994 after serving in a similar role for the expansion-minded Fox Studios. Unlike the abrupt removal recently of key executives on the entertainment side at Universal, McCann's departure was for personal reasons, the spokesperson said.

The move, which caught city planning staffers and community leaders by surprise, is expected to cause yet another delay in the hearings required for the proposed expansion. The matter has been pending for nearly two years before the Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission.

Universal wants to add 3.2 million square feet of hotel, office, studio production and entertainment space to its hilltop perch just southeast of the intersection of the Hollywood and Ventura freeways. Many residents of the area have expressed worries about increased noise and traffic they fear the expansion will bring to their neighborhood.

Larry Friedman, the city Planning Department specialist who has been most involved with the expansion review, said he heard about McCann's planned departure about a week ago.

He said he's heard nothing from the entertainment giant since McCann sent the commission a terse letter in early November asking that a hearing on the master plan, which was expected to be the last, be canceled.

"We've been in a holding pattern since November," said Friedman, adding that McCann's letter is "the last thing we have on record."

"We haven't heard anything officially from them since then. I'm working on other things, and I'm sure [county] planners are too."

The Universal spokesperson, who asked to not be named, said McCann will be replaced but the position will work under a new executive in charge of global real estate planning.

Last month, Universal announced the hiring of George H. Garfield, former vice president of corporate real estate for Walt Disney Imagineering, to serve in the new post of senior vice president, global real estate and facilities. McCann's replacement will be part of the new real estate group.

Meanwhile, some community and labor leaders who regarded McCann as difficult to deal with expressed hope that her replacement will be friendlier.

"All we can do is hope they will hire someone to replace Helen McCann who understands that we have a vested interest and we want their project to succeed," said Joan Luchs, president of the newly formed Cahuenga Pass Neighborhood Assn. "We have the best chance of success by working together."

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