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Zev Yaroslavsky Headshot

A Universal Win-Win

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Back in the 1950s and '60s, Los Angeles watched as 20th Century Fox Studios' massive backlot was gobbled up by the development that eventually turned into Century City.

By now we're all familiar with that growth and the congestion that followed. Less visible to the public at large was the virtual disappearance of one of Hollywood's most essential resources: the backlots and production facilities underpinning our hometown industry.

When I was first elected to the Los Angeles City Council, representing Century City, among other communities, I often thought about the loss of the Fox backlot, and all of the jobs and history that went with it.

In recent months, we've found ourselves in precisely the same situation. NBCUniversal, one of the last studios in town that actually has a huge working backlot, was proposing to spin off a good chunk of that valuable and historic acreage to build nearly 3,000 apartments and condos.

It's something I've opposed from the start.

Putting thousands of new residents right on the often-noisy frontlines of entertainment production makes no sense. Not only does it detract from Universal's core mission, it also makes it all but inevitable that the new residents' complaints about the noise and distractions of making movies and TV would eventually derail that part of the business altogether.

That's not an insignificant loss to our shared culture and economy. After all, you can build residential units just about anywhere, but once you eliminate a studio backlot, it's gone forever. And so are the jobs it supported.

Universal's Evolution Plan, a 20-year guide to the future of the world-famous studio and theme park property, was originally drawn up when the company was still owned by General Electric. Now it has a new majority owner, Comcast, a media giant in its own right. It seems to me that this company is not in this for the quick buck; they're in it for the long haul.

So in January, I appealed to Universal president Ron Meyer to drop the housing component of the plan. Eliminating a major section of the backlot, I said, would chase away much-needed entertainment jobs from the immediate area and likely hurt his company and our regional economy along with it. Others, including City Councilman Tom LaBonge and many members of the community, added their voices to the opposition.

This week, we had a breakthrough. After receiving numerous public comments and seeing the results of the environmental review, NBCUniversal scrapped its residential building plans. Instead of a quick real estate play, the studio is looking to enhance its core entertainment business, creating potentially more than 30,000 jobs while expanding its production facilities and revamping theme park attractions.

If you're the grip, tour guide or construction worker who'll be getting one of those jobs today or in the future, that's great news. It's also great news for the broader entertainment industry, which increasingly is turning to Universal as one of the few large-scale production facilities left in town. Building condos would have led to some construction jobs, yes, but those jobs would have disappeared when the last nails were hammered. Entertainment industry production jobs will continue as long as this town still makes movies and TV shows.

But that work can't exist unless there's a workplace to go to. And sad to say, studio backlot space is an endangered species these days in Los Angeles. While it might sound strange to an outsider, in our town these are industrial lands devoted to producing to an internationally sought-after product, and it's vital that we protect them for this creative and economic purpose. Universal's plan as it stands now does this.

There's still a long road ahead, as the Evolution Plan moves from the final environmental report phase into a series of public hearings and official reviews that will be required before the first shovels break ground. Neighborhood input has been essential so far, and community voices will continue to be heard as the process moves forward.

It's important to take a moment now, though, and acknowledge those who've realized that taking the long view isn't just the right thing to do -- it's also good for business.

To his credit, Universal's Ron Meyer and studio owner Comcast were willing to listen -- and courageous enough to ask for a rewrite.

The resulting breakthrough gives our hometown -- and our hometown industry -- a chance to grow and thrive. This time around, unlike decades ago, the studio, local leaders and the community are taking the long view, and that's good for all of us.