Bowing to homeowner pressure, Universal Studios Inc. agreed last week to cut the size of its expansion project by more than 44 percent, eliminating a new theme park, scaling back additions to its retail center and trimming the number of new hotel rooms.
Although radically smaller than the expansion plan first presented by Universal, the revised project still calls for nearly 1.2 million square feet of new office and studio office space, 450,000 square feet of new studio production space and a 388,000-square-foot expansion of the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park.
But highrise hotels were eliminated from the plan, and the number of hotel rooms was reduced from 3,400 to 1,200. New retail space primarily on CityWalk, Universal’s collection of restaurants, stores and movie theaters was reduced from 358,000 square feet to 250,000 square feet.
The plan for the entire expansion project was reduced from 5.9 million square feet to 3.3 million square feet, and the project will be completed over a period of 15 years, rather than 25 years as originally proposed, if it wins approval.
“We feel that our original proposal was a real well-thought-out and do-able plan,” said Helen McCann, vice president of the master plan for Universal Studios. “But we’re realists.”
Universal’s decision was a coup for homeowners groups in the vicinity of the project, which lashed out against the original plan. Well-organized homeowners called meetings with Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and City Councilman John Ferraro.
In early June, Yaroslavksy and Ferraro called for a 40-percent reduction in the size of the project, elimination of the new theme park, a reduced number of hotel rooms and other changes. Universal last week agreed to nearly all of their recommendations.
Those in the business of winning approval for large-scale projects said last week that Universal was forced into scaling back the plan because of its poor relations with local homeowners, who have complained for years about unresponsiveness to complaints about increased traffic from CityWalk and noise from the theme park’s “Waterworld” show.
“You can’t ignore your neighbors for years and then come to them with the plan Universal had,” said Richard Lichtenstein, president of lobbying firm Marathon Communications. “This is a lesson for all large companies that deal with communities and residential groups.”
Yaroslavsky and Ferraro both represent the Universal City area, which is partially in the city of L.A. and partially in unincorporated L.A. County. The project is currently up for approval by the city and county planning commissions.
Tony Lucente, president of the Studio City Residents Association and one of the project’s most outspoken critics, said Universal’s revised plan is a good first step toward an agreement between the company and local residents.
“The framework is in place for a future agreement,” Lucente said. “In terms of Universal Studios’ presentation, I thought they win hands down in ‘Best Performance from a Studio.’ It was a very well thought-out and put-together presentation. However, there is still work to be done in the traffic area.”
Lucente said homeowners are seeking a direct access ramp from Universal Studios to the southbound Hollywood (101) Freeway. Universal has yet to offer to build such a ramp.
The county Regional Planning Commission will hold its next public hearing on the project Sept. 17.