$3 bil Uni City plan to add prod'n space, housing

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NBC Universal unveiled plans Wednesday for a $3 billion studio construction and refurbishing program that could add more than 1 million square feet in new production and office space, a residential development and a new office campus to Universal City.

Officials said it would take at least two years to secure the necessary approvals for the "long-term vision plan" and 12-25 years to complete.

Key features include:

  New and relocated outdoor sets, new postproduction facilities, soundstages, producer bungalows, a screening theater, a rehearsal hall, a film vault and an expanded prop/costume shop, collectively representing about 390,000 square feet of production facilities and 335,000 square feet of office space.

  New production facilities on a campus to be located near the Metropolitan Transit Authority subway station. The studio-and-office campus would add 200,000 square feet of production facilities, 450,000 square feet of entertainment-related office space and parking. NBC Uni "would become the major tenant in the new studio complex to be developed by Thomas Properties Group," officials said.

  A "refreshed" Universal CityWalk and Universal Studios Hollywood theme park. CityWalk would get a 100,000-square-foot, live-production studio "where guests become part of the action," and the theme park would gain 80,000 square feet in new and enhanced retail and dining facilities.

  A 124-acre residential development on part of the current studio backlot, offering apartments, lofts, townhouses and condos. A "town center" would offer residents retail and dining amenities.

  Unspecified new and reconfigured transit arrangements to "enhance mobility throughout Universal City and the community." Possible improvements include a new shuttle system connecting the area with the local subway station, new thoroughfares and freeway-access improvements.

"Now is the right time to plan for the future and take a fresh look at our industry, the community and our businesses," Universal Studios president Ron Meyer said. "This vision plan will extend our 90-year legacy of creativity and innovation, building a solid future for our businesses and much-needed housing in the heart of the entertainment industry."

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa staged an afternoon news conference at the studio to state his support for the plan, which is set for review by governmental planning agencies. Neighborhood groups, who already have heard many aspects of the proposals, also will be included in the review process.

"There certainly will be a group that won't be in favor of this, and we expect that," Meyer said. "We have to be sensitive to the neighbors, and that's a big part of this."

But he added that Universal execs are confident most local residents ultimately will approve of the plans.

"I think we've got to give it a chance," said Michael George, vp of the Cahuenga Pass Neighborhood Assn. "Universal has been reaching out to the community, (and) I always found them to be forthright. It's very, very difficult to please 100% of the people 100% of the time, but they are doing their best. I think they understand our sensitivity toward traffic, and they are trying to mitigate that. So I think we have to give them time before we come to a decision as to whether it is good or bad."

Officials from economic agencies also lent support to the project, estimating that the plan would produce $21 million in new annual revenue to the city and county, with an annual countywide economic impact of more than $4 billion. The project would create 11,000 new full- and part-time jobs once completed and 17,000 jobs during its construction, officials said.

"Implications of NBC Universal's vision plan reach far beyond the magnitude of the jobs created and the dollars invested," Villaraigosa said. "By making Universal City the hub of film and television production for NBC Universal, this project will create a new 'axis of entertainment' in Los Angeles."

Backlot components of the project would be the first executed, Meyer said. The studio still would boast the industry's biggest active backlot and plans to enhance those remaining 267 acres with new, additional tourist attractions, he said.

Once that work is done, project officials will focus on the housing development. Uni's facility and office proposals will be implemented on an as-needed basis, and the Thomas Properties campus numbers among the longer-term projects, Meyer said.

"This $3 billion project is the largest single investment in the history of the San Fernando Valley," the mayor's office said.

The ambitious new proposal to expand and refurbish Universal Studios' 370 buildings and 30 soundstages follows by almost 10 years the studio's last such effort. That plan -- which keyed on new hotels and other controversial theme park additions -- was withdrawn when then-owner Seagram decided to sell the studio to Vivendi, which ultimately ceded control to General Electric's NBC.

"This time is entirely different because we have completely engaged the community in the process," a Universal spokeswoman said.

"I have NBC Universal's commitment that this project will be a national model for community involvement, input and collaboration," Villaraigosa said.

Thomas Properties and Rios Clementi Hale Studios have served as "advisers" to NBC Uni on the vision plan, officials said.
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