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11.01.2012
Network Changes
NBC Universal's $1.6 billion Universal City upgrade plan passes; dumps residences.
The updated plan calls for two 500-room hotels instead of one with 500 rooms.
Courtesy NBC Universal

At a late September meeting, the Los Angeles planning commission deemed NBC Universal’s $1.6 billion plan for Universal City ready to be reviewed by the next round of city and county authorities. The project’s Evolution Plan for its 391-acre property in California’s San Fernando Valley has already lived up to its name, having undergone radical changes since the company first announced it in 2006, including a loss of 2,937 residential units and a last-minute addition of public access points along the Los Angeles River.

With its Evolution Plan, the entertainment conglomerate is aiming to improve the site’s economic viability forthe next 20 years. The property already contains Universal Studios and City Walk, as well as studio and office facilities supporting NBCU’s media empire. Los Angeles-based architecture and planning firm Rios Clementi Hale is providing master planning services.

Despite NBCU’s prominent role in the local economy, it took years of convincing for the company to win public support because of concerns about a potential increase in traffic. Following suggestions by Councilmember Tom LaBonge and County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, NBCU introducedanew“NoResidential Alternative” component. City officials called this an "environmentally superior alternative” in their environmental impact review, saying it would “reduce the vast majority of significant or potentially significant impacts occurring under the project.”

The updated Evolution Plan shows no residential alternative.
 

“We took all the comments in and decided to do the right thing to finally move the project forward,” said NBCU’s chief real estate development and planning officer, Corrine Verdery. The company is ready to start work as soon as it receives final approval, she added.

Removing the residential component enabled NBCU to shift the project’s focus to the core businesses: entertainment and tourism, studio production, and postproduction facilities, Verdrey explained. Media executives boosted the proposed allotment for new studio space, from 1.24 million square feet to 1.45 million, and for entertainment space, from 134,000 square feet to 327,000 square feet, and now call for two 500-room hotels instead of one with 500 rooms.

NBCU agreed to spend $100 million on mitigation measures aimed at improving the notoriously old and narrow 101 and 134 freeways adjacent to the project. This includes $500,000 for a “neighborhood protection fund” (to pay for traffic calming measures); $375,000 for a bike fund to study creation of a bike path around the property; and $180,000 for a city study of a potential community development overlay zone, which would insert new development guidelines for Lankershim, Cahuenga, and Toluca Lake.

Just before the planning commission hearing, a coalition of Los Angeles River and bicycle advocates declared opposition to the Evolution Plan, but acquiesced when NBCU announced plans to donate $3 million to a river fund to create a bike path along the mile-long river’s edge.

Bob Hale, a principal at Rios Clementi Hale, described his firm’s desire for the project to “create an iconic experience on the property.” His firm’s master plan calls the property “a hilltop peninsula” that allows for a natural separation between the entertainment area on the hill and the studios below. He expects ideas for how to blurthe boundaries between private and public realms to emerge as designers work with the city’s Urban Design Studio to finalize the property’s frontages on Lankershim Boulevard. Said Hale: “It will invite people into the cinematic experience.”

The City Council’s Planning and Land Use Management Committee as well as its full body will hold hearings, as will the county’s Regional Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors. Determining who has jurisdiction over the property is a tricky matter, since one-third lies inside city limits and the remainder inside the larger county. The current proposal includes annexation measures that would shuffle borders where they currently bisect buildings. Despite those hurdles, the project could be approved as early as next year.

James Brasuell