NBC Universal's ambitious plans for a $3-billion overhaul of Universal City passed a milestone Thursday with the release of the long-awaited city report on how the project might affect neighbors and the surrounding area.
Much of the study, known as a draft environmental impact report focuses on the traffic that would be generated by adding nearly 3,000 residences to the famed studio property in the San Fernando Valley. The plans also call for the construction of additional studios and offices for producing movies and television shows, as well as a hotel, shops and tourist attractions.
The 39,000-page report identified noise and solid waste removal during the construction process as the primary negative effects of the development.
The release of the draft EIR by Los Angeles city planners kicks off a 60-day period for public comment before the report becomes final. Public hearings on the proposed project would begin next year. NBC Universal hopes the hearings lead to approval of the project by 2012, when construction would begin on production and office space.
It would take 15 to 20 years to build out the entire project, said Thomas Smith, senior vice president in charge of real estate on the West Coast for NBC Universal.
The company has worked for nearly four years to reach this stage in the approval process, Smith said. The recession reduced demand for new housing, but it didn't squelch the entertainment company's desire to build one of the largest infill real estate developments in Los Angeles history.
"We're still committed to making it happen," Smith said. "We have to. Our industry is facing a lot of challenges."
NBC Universal's goal, he said, was to get approval of a plan that would allow the company to grow and adapt its business model over the next two decades. For example, most of the studio lot is currently zoned for heavy industrial uses, which stands in the way of much of the owners' plans.
"Iron smelting is OK" under such zoning, Smith said, "but hotels are not allowed."
The 391-acre property located along the 101 Freeway just north of the Cahuenga Pass is ringed by businesses and upscale homes whose residents would never put up with smelting and aren't keen on what might come with new homes and offices either.
"Our principal concern continues to be traffic," said Daniel Savage, president of the local residents group Hollywood Knolls Community Club. "Especially traffic driven by the apartments on the back lot."
NBC Universal's plan calls for 2,937 residential units to be built in low-, mid- and high-rise buildings at the east end of the studio's property. The apartments and condos would be served by neighborhood shops and restaurants. The neighborhood would be reached by a new north-south street running parallel to Barham Boulevard and served by shuttle buses to the subway stop on Lankershim Boulevard.
The street is among $100 million in transit and roadway improvements planned by NBC Universal to accommodate the project. As much as $200 million more in state and federal transportation funding could become available for freeway improvements, Smith said.
Improvements would include a new ramp and a new interchange on the 101 Freeway, which would also be widened. About half the $100 million would be spent on improving traffic flow on nearby streets and intersections, which would have to handle an additional 2,750 car trips each afternoon.
That's similar to the traffic generated by a regional shopping center, said Patrick Gibson, a traffic consultant for NBC Universal. Mitigation measures such as street widening would ease the flow at most intersections, though Lankershim would remain a bottleneck where it is flanked by the subway on one side and an office tower on the other.
One of NBC Universal's traffic mitigation proposals is to operate its own shuttle service to nearby destinations such as Burbank and Hollywood. It would also buy a large articulated bus for the MTA to operate on Ventura Boulevard, a solution economist Nancy D. Sidhu finds inventive.
"We are looking at an absolutely huge project on land inside L.A. County that is currently underutilized," said Sidhu, chief economist at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. Infill development makes more sense than building on the fringes of the city, she said.
"We are utilizing land that definitely is on the transportation network and they are proposing some interesting ways to utilize that transportation network more completely," she said.
NBC Universal's first priority is to build more studio space, which is primarily of benefit to NBC, she said, "but the jobs are well-paid."
The project is expected to generate 31,000 construction jobs and 12,000 full- and part-time jobs after completion, NBC Universal said.
Nearby residents will follow NBC Universal's plans closely, said Savage of Hollywood Knolls Community Club, one of about a dozen homeowner groups in the area.
"We have never been a group that categorically said no" to the project, Savage said. "We recognize their right as private property owners to realize their business potential. At the same time, it doesn't give them carte blanche to do so at the expense of their neighbors."