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Universal Moves to Develop Property

Homeowner groups opposed an earlier effort to build on the 400-acre Cahuenga Pass site.

March 23, 2006|Roger Vincent | Times Staff Writer

NBC Universal said Wednesday that it had hired a prominent Los Angeles real estate developer and architectural firm to create a plan for future construction at Universal City that may include housing, offices, stores and production facilities.

The 400-acre parcel in the Cahuenga Pass is considered one of the region's prime pieces of real estate. But development plans by previous owners of Universal came to nothing amid vociferous opposition from neighbors and community leaders concerned about increased traffic congestion.

By suggesting that the company would take more time and create an open process, Universal's latest announcement was seen as an effort to create community goodwill and prevent another debilitating showdown. The studio already has reached out to public officials and nearby homeowner groups, which appear to be waiting for more details before taking a stand.

"We're trying to be transparent," said Ron Meyer, president of NBC Universal's Universal Studios unit.

Patrick Garner, a representative of the Toluca Lake Residents Assn. who described himself as the major opponent of Universal's last failed development plan, said he gave the studio credit for trying harder to work with homeowners this time around.

"They've got to [build] something," Garner said.

Developer Thomas Properties Group Inc. and architectural firm Rios Clementi Hale Studios will evaluate the four main components of Universal's real estate and suggest additions and improvements.

The lot is divided into its core studio, where movies and television shows are made; its back lot, which doubles as a filming backdrop and tourist attraction; its entertainment center including CityWalk and the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park; and its business district with offices and hotels. The back lot also includes several acres of raw land.

The property is one of the largest under-built pieces of real estate in the region, said Jim Thomas, president of Thomas Properties.

"Sooner or later, it's going to get developed," Thomas said. "I can't think of another piece of land in Los Angeles that is as key as this one."

Thomas took part in the early stages of development at Playa Vista near Marina del Rey when he was a partner in Maguire Thomas Partners. His company, formed in 1996, owns City National Plaza in downtown Los Angeles.

Thomas is a co-chair of the Grand Avenue Committee, which is planning a $1.8-billion mixed-use project in downtown Los Angeles around Disney Hall.

Rios Clementi Hale is also working on the Grand Avenue project.

And it has designed the Nokia Plaza entertainment venue under construction next to Staples Center, as well as improvements to the Westfield Century City shopping center.

The arrival of Thomas as a partner indicates that Universal intends to pursue development on its own instead of carving off pieces to sell to builders. None of the property is for sale, Meyer said.

Meyer was also eager to distance future proposals from a 1996 plan by previous owners Seagram Co. and Vivendi Universal that could have doubled the amount of development on the site by creating a 24-hour resort and entertainment complex.

"The last plan was more Orlando," said Meyer, referring to the company's Florida theme park and hotel collection. "We're not looking at a resort destination."

More-urgent needs can be found for the studio, which is often operating at 95% of capacity, Meyer said. The operation has grown for years while the lot has not.

The studio has had to find space for its home entertainment division and media Internet operation as well as its specialty label Focus Features. The studio's 30 soundstages are usually booked 24 hours a day, with internal house productions having to share space with outside television, commercial and movie productions that rent the spaces.

The studio may also attempt to build more office and hotel buildings along Lankershim Boulevard, officials said.

The back lot may get new production facilities such as the Wysteria Lane set now being used to film the "Desperate Housewives" television show, or it may be redeveloped with residential and retail use. Earlier real estate industry reports have suggested that the back lot could accommodate hundreds of homes or thousands of apartments and condos.

CityWalk and the theme park might also be improved, and the various parts of the studio could be better linked to one another and the surrounding community, said architect Bob Hale, managing principal at Rios Clementi Hale.

Studio executives predicted that it would take four to six months to create a preliminary plan and as much as three years to gain construction approvals while attempting to satisfy the concerns of neighbors and city and county officials.

"They are not going to go crazy because nobody is going to let them," said county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who added that he had "no idea what they have in mind" yet.

Meyer said the development team was aware of traffic concerns and was examining solutions that might include building additional roads connecting the lot with surrounding streets.

Garner of the Toluca Lake Residents Assn. said a residential component would probably be the most benign addition.

"On the other hand," Garner said, "they are just creating another major homeowner group they are going to have to deal with."

Times staff writer Lorenza Munoz contributed to this report.

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