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.
The staid, classically "corporate" look of the Unocal office tower provided the location for the films "Money Talks," "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery," and "The Game" as well as the television shows "The X-Files" and "Murder One."
The Unocal building has a 1,000-space underground parking garage, a grand lobby, and board rooms with unobstructed views of the downtown skyline.
The building offers logistical as well as aesthetic advantages, according to Pete Brosnan, vice president at Hollywood Locations, a real estate brokerage service that arranges location shoots for film production companies.
Brosnan said he often refers film crews to the Unocal building when they don't want the hassle of working around a building's tenants. "It's hard to do major stunts in a building that has people trying to work in it," he said.
The Unocal site also has an entire city block of surface parking, which is ideal for the big-rig trucks used by production companies. This open parking area would remain under the proposal.
"As far as most of us are concerned, downtown on the weekend is desolate," Brosnan said. "But the film companies just take over. If you have a CB radio, you can hardly find an open channel because there are so many productions underway."
Indeed, about 35 percent of all the production shoots in the county take place in the two-mile radius surrounding the Unocal building, said Cody Cluff, president of the Entertainment Industry Development Corp., a public agency that promotes L.A. as a film center.
But production crews that want sound stage-type space in downtown currently have to construct their own. That involves hunting down empty warehouses that are larger than 20,000 square feet, have no obstructing support columns and a 30-foot high clearance.
"And that's very hard to find," said Cluff, who added that zoning regulations often require that production companies hire fire safety inspectors as well.
The closest sound stages places where film crews can shoot quieter, interior scenes are in Echo Park. Construction of the new studios downtown would be an enormous benefit to film makers, Cluff said. In addition to convenience, it would also provide much-needed production facilities.
He said the county's 57 sound stages that are more than 15,000 square feet are all booked until the end of 1998.
"This would really take the pressure off production crews," he said.
Although the film industry is traditionally associated with the Valley and Westside, downtown was in fact the birthplace of the city's film industry.
In 1908, the Selig Co. established the city's studio on the roof of Dearden's Department Store, located on the corner of 8th and Main streets, according to Marc Wanamaker, who is writing a book on the history of film studios in L.A.
But by 1920, the studios left downtown for the cheaper and more expansive land of Hollywood, the Westside and the San Fernando Valley.
The Los Angeles Center Studios would still be the first sound stages downtown however, because the earlier studios existed in the silent film era.
Ratner said construction of the studio project might also be a boon for the downtown office market, which has been struggling with high vacancy rates.
The low lease rates available downtown and the proximity of film production space "might entice some of the entertainment companies to finally move" from their tight Westside and Tri-Cities markets, he said.
Unocal, a gas and natural resource company, bought the downtown site in the 1950s, and gradually expanded its ownership from the 400,000-square-foot headquarters building to the surrounding 18 acres.
Unocal sold the property in 1989 to Pittsburgh-based Hillman Properties for $205 million, although Unocal remained a tenant in its headquarters.
Hillman planned to develop the entire property into a a project that would feature offices, hotels and a new 600,000-square foot headquarters for Unocal, which wanted to move out of its current office rather than bring it up to building codes.
But shortly after Unocal signed its lease with Hillman in 1990 to be the lead tenant in the development, Unocal bought its way out of its contract and moved its headquarters to El Segundo. Hillman was left with no tenants for its development proposal and an empty office tower that wasn't up to safety codes just as the downtown office market slid into the recession.
The property sat vacant ever since, though Smith and Hricik tried numerous ideas to revive the property, from courting developers of the proposed L.A. sports arena to pitching the Unocal building as the new police headquarters.
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