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Battle building over studio-office complex

Developer, residents at odds over project near Universal Studios.

September 28, 2008|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

An intense campaign is underway this fall in the San Fernando Valley, and it's not for presidential votes.

Instead, a veteran Los Angeles developer is seeking to win over residents' groups who oppose an $800-million studio and office project that would house NBC's West Coast headquarters and become a cornerstone for sweeping changes proposed for the Universal City corridor.

Confronted with skeptical homeowner groups and a councilman who compared the project to a "New York City block," developer Jim Thomas -- who helped build the West's tallest building, the US Bank Tower downtown -- has hired consultants to send thousands of glossy pamphlets touting how the project would boost the city's economy and be a "model of green development."

Thomas himself has even taken to walking precincts of sorts, and planned to go door-to-door this weekend to promote the project. He is also recruiting supportive residents to host kaffeeklatsches in their homes to talk up the proposal.

"Entertainment is one of our most important industries, and if we don't protect our entertainment industry . . . we're not going to have the money, we're not going to have the jobs, to deal with lots of issues," Thomas said. "So it's very hard for me to imagine a project that should have more support."

Some residents say the public relations campaign may be backfiring. The mailers, for example, only reinforce what they oppose: density.

Valley residents say that despite multiple meetings with the developer and NBC about the project, which would be constructed on a parking lot over a Red Line subway station, the recently released environmental report did not incorporate their concerns.

"We we're hoping to see something more than a Century City model," said Richard Bogy, a Toluca Lake resident who co-chairs a homeowners group formed in part to evaluate the plan. "It's animated billboards, glass-front studios and towers. We were hoping to see something more imaginative in terms of aesthetics and the incorporation of public and park space."

The development is one of several large and controversial projects proposed for a 4-mile corridor stretching from Universal City to the upper reaches of North Hollywood that would include about 5,500 new residences and millions of square feet of commercial and office space.

NBC/Universal has even bigger plans for its 390-acre studio lot across Lankershim Boulevard -- a $3-billion redevelopment proposal that would include 2,937 residential units, new production facilities and retail space. Environmental studies for that project are underway, and construction isn't expected to start for several years.

The NBC-related projects come in addition to a proposed remake of the Valley Plaza mall, and additional office and residential towers near a Red Line stop in North Hollywood. For months, neighborhood councils have argued that the city must consider the traffic, environmental and infrastructure impacts of all the projects.

Developers disagree, saying their proposals shouldn't be lumped together with projects miles away. City planners said the cumulative impact of the proposals will be considered during reviews.

The current debate between Thomas Properties and homeowners, who plan to hold a town hall meeting Nov. 12 to present their vision, intensified this month after the release of the environmental report.

Homeowners -- aware that their resources are dwarfed by those of one of the city's most influential developers and its biggest media conglomerate -- are holding coffees of their own and are trying to raise $500,000.

"It's really a telephone-tree concept," said Bogy, who lives near the Lankershim Boulevard site. "We're getting word out there by telling one person about it and asking them to tell 20 other people."

Key to the Thomas campaign is old-fashioned pounding of the pavement. "It's much cheaper to sit on Mrs. Jones' living room sofa and let the cat shed on your lap then it is to make costly concessions about the project, such as adding open space or reducing square footage," said Debra Stein of San Francisco-based GCA Strategies, a public affairs firm that specializes in land use.

Environmental studies give a glimpse into new fronts in the debate. Once complete, the project would add significant traffic to already crowded intersections and the 101 Freeway. To ease the traffic, Thomas Properties said it would spend $35 million on improvements and help complete an interchange with the 101 Freeway at Campo de Cahuenga Way.

But residents argue that those improvements aren't enough and that some of the buildings should be shifted to the future Universal lot development.

The developer said spreading the project over two sites is not realistic because the studio lot is already overcrowded. In response to neighbors' concerns, Thomas said, buildings would be closer to Lankershim and studio buildings wouldn't be so tall.

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jennifer.oldham@latimes.com

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