The new home of KNBC-TV in North Hollywood is set to be accompanied by what are -- at least by one measure -- the most expensive traffic improvements paid by a developer in Los Angeles history.
However, the $35 million that Thomas Properties Group Inc. plans to spend to offset the traffic generated by the massive $800 million studio and office development is not generating the goodwill that the developer had hoped.
Local homeowners in neighboring Studio City and Hollywood Hills, along with the area's councilman, are vowing to fight the project, called Metro Studio@Lankershim, if it moves forward as planned.
"If any developer is going to bulldoze a project in or bully their way in, Studio City is known as being very resolute and we will stand shoulder to shoulder with the stakeholders and fight the project," said Ben Neumann, president of the Studio City Neighborhood Council.
The complex would be built atop the Universal City Red Line stop directly across from the western entrance to Universal Studios and Universal City Walk. It's an area near the intersection of the Ventura (134) and Hollywood (101) freeways with oddly angled streets already bedeviled by horrible rush-hour traffic.
By its own account, the Los Angeles-based developer acknowledges the project would generate an additional 1,900 car trips per day.
The $472 million phase one construction alone would include a three-story studio facility, a 24-story office building, subterranean parking and an eight-story parking garage.
The project was announced last year as part of NBC Universal's decision to leave its longtime television complex in Burbank. Aside from KNBC (Channel 4), the project would house the entire West Coast operation of NBC News and the local operations of its Telemundo Spanish language affiliate. Construction could begin as early as first quarter 2009 and be completed by 2012.
The project includes a second phase to be built later that calls for a 490-foot building that would either serve as offices or a "condo-hotel."
The key component of the traffic improvements is a $22 million enhancement of the Hollywood Freeway's on- and off-ramps at Campo de Cahuenga Way. Currently there is a northbound entrance to the freeway and southbound exit.
The improvements would allow drivers to exit and enter the freeway in both directions, and traffic would be directed to the project, said Ayahlushim Hammond, a Thomas Properties senior vice president overseeing the development.
The remainder of the money would largely go toward improving 34 nearby intersections and a long-discussed pedestrian linkage -- either a bridge or tunnel -- across Lankershim from the subway to the Universal Studios entertainment complex.
Thomas Properties Chief Executive Jim Thomas said that his company will continue to work with local homeowners and other stakeholders. He admitted that traffic was a chief concern, but said the bigger picture should not get lost.
"This project really is all about jobs, jobs-housing balance and transit-oriented development and environmentally sensitive development," he said. "It's a very special project and it's coming at a time when it's very important for the region."
There have been bigger traffic improvements made for development in absolute dollars, but several traffic consultants said none higher on a per-square-foot basis of proposed development.
Playa Capital Co. LLC is paying $125 million for traffic improvements in the Playa Vista area. That equals $20.83 per square foot of developed space, but it includes some public subsidies. Thomas Properties is paying for its traffic improvements itself, and it is paying $23.33 per square foot, or 12 percent more.
Still, one of the issues for homeowners has been that the project precedes NBC Universal's even bigger, 25-year strategic plan for its 390-acre Universal City holdings.
NBC Universal, a unit of General Electric Co., proposed in 2006 to increase the size of Universal's working studios, as well as its entertainment park and City Walk retail attraction. Even more ominous from the homeowner's perspective: a proposal to build up to 2,900 homes on portions of its undeveloped backlot.
An environmental impact report with more details on the longer term development is expected to be released this winter.
Working with Caltrans
Meanwhile, Thomas is working with Caltrans on refining the most significant element of the traffic improvement plan: the Campo De Cahuenga on-ramp and off-ramp.
A Caltrans spokesman wouldn't comment pending release of a draft environmental impact report on the project and its proposed traffic improvement. The report is due out Aug. 1.
An MTA spokesman said the agency so far likes the project and improvements, given how the proposal puts new dense development directly atop a subway station. However, the agency also wants to hear the public's concerns.
"Everything is a balance, but what they are trying to do there and what we were able to get is good. We worked hard to get mitigation," said MTA board member Richard Katz, a former longtime state Assemblyman who represented the San Fernando Valley.
But nearby residents such as Anastasia Mann, president of the Hollywood Hills West Neighborhood Council, say that traffic in the area has become a "humongous" issue. She said trips that once took five minutes now routinely take 20 minutes.
She said that residents are very cautious about new development, because it seems like more is always promised than delivered. "I've lived here my whole life and was born here and we've seen many projects that haven't turned out how they were planned," she said.
Another resident, Lisa Sarkin, a Studio City Neighborhood Council board member and the group's Land Use Committee chair, was even more vociferous.
"There is no way to improve anything," said Sarkin, who doesn't support the project and would like to see "10 times more" mitigation. "(And) I don't believe they can get the 10 times more."
So far, the wary homeowners have an ally in City Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose district includes the area. He opposes the project as proposed.
LaBonge said he is pleased that NBC Universal has chosen to leave Burbank and come to the site, but feels that the project would be "overbuilt" as planned. "Advocates of Mr. Thomas and Universal know how I feel," said LaBonge.
LaBonge said that any mitigation plan should include a freeway interchange that directly connects the Hollywood and Ventura freeways in all directions -- something that it doesn't do currently. However, a cloverleaf-type intersection that could accomplish such a connection could cost hundreds of millions of dollars -- clearly a bill that Thomas could not foot alone.
For now, both sides are awaiting release of the draft environmental impact report, which will detail various iterations of the project and potential traffic improvements. (A source with knowledge of the document said that the freeway interchange is addressed but declined to provide further details.)
In order for the project to move forward, ultimately the City Council must approve the document. Thomas hopes that process will take less than a year, but opponents are vowing a fight to get what they want.
Larry Kosmont, president of Kosmont Cos., a real estate and economic development firm based in Encino, said that it's clear Thomas is spending a ton of money to reduce traffic -- roughly $18,421 per additional trip caused by the project.
But he said that may not be enough in a neighborhood with thorny traffic problems.
"To me this is a very advantageous contribution to the neighborhood but it may not be satisfying (residents)," Kosmont said. "I think the residents are totally embattled by a very challenging and difficult congestion issue and there is no one project that is going to fix it."
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