Developers are seeking to build a film studio downtown on the former Unocal Corp. headquarters site in a move symbolic of L.A.'s shift from a corporate headquarters town to one with a growing dependence on the entertainment industry.

Smith and Hricik Development Co. has filed permit applications with the city Planning Department to build and operate downtown's first sound stages at 1201 W. 5th Street, just west of the Harbor (110) Freeway.

Dubbed the Los Angeles Center Studios, the 155,000-square-foot facility would be built on a 10-acre parcel of the former Unocal campus where a surface parking lot and three small, empty office buildings now sit.

The proposal would preserve the vacant Unocal Building, a 14-story office tower built in 1956 that is now being used as a film location.

The plans for six sound stages and set production space are scheduled to go before the city Planning Commission Oct. 6.

The project encapsulates two major trends in the L.A. business world.

Major corporations such as Unocal, First Interstate Bank and Thrifty Corp. have left downtown for other cities or been closed through mergers and acquisitions.

At the same time, the entertainment sector has been gaining strength to emerge as the region's dominant industry.

So far, entertainment companies have shied away from establishing a presence downtown. Instead, they have made Burbank, Glendale and the Westside the tightest office markets in the county while downtown still has large blocks of office space vacant.

"First, this is important because it's a new development in downtown and no one's talked about doing that for years," said Andrew Ratner, vice president at Cushman Realty. "Second, entertainment is an industry that's active in downtown they film here all the time but they've never been identified with downtown."

In fact, entertainment companies prefer not to lease downtown, citing its "corporate" stuffiness and lack of amenities as detractors. But the proposed Los Angeles Center Studios, Ratner said, might help downtown shake its stodgy reputation.

This is the first proposal the city has ever received to build film production space downtown, according to Jim Tokunaga, a city planner who oversees the Pico-Union district where the three-block property is located.

The Unocal tower itself has been vacant since the early '90s. The project will renovate some of its office spaces and a cafeteria, but the building will largely continue its role as a supporting player in Hollywood productions.


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