DEEGAN ON LA --“Harry Potter Swoops into Controversy with an Epic David Versus Two Goliath's Struggle on Eve of Theme Park’s Grand Opening” is not the Variety headline you’d expect as one of the world’s most famous and successful movie and book franchises makes its debut at Universal Studios Hollywood. It’s a brand new iteration: "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey”, a novel new ride -- in 3-D no less!
The grand opening at the theme park has been announced for April 7. But will the Wizard be met by picketers protesting the closure of the southbound Hollywood 101 freeway’s Barham off ramp that was eliminated in order to build a grand driveway into the park, linked to the freeway?
There is a fourth “D” in this scenario: it’s the “David” (aka Keep the Barham Ramp association) that is suing the two Goliath’s, Comcast-NBC Universal and Caltrans (State Department of Transportation.) The suit is over what Hollywood Hills resident John Strozdas, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, says was a violation by Caltrans of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by not providing substantial proof it had studied alternatives to the closure, and also not sufficiently backing up its findings regarding the closure's effects.
"It is the experience of many persons who ... use the Barham (southbound) off ramp that police and fire services regularly use the ... off ramp to provide public services to that area and that without it, they will have to exit approximately one mile north ... increasing response time," states the lawsuit.
Caltrans has addressed this allegation in fifteen succinct words, stating that this closure ”will have a less than significant impact on public services, including fire and police services.”
This denial can be found on page 8, section K of an addendum to the EIR, the environmental impact report mandated by CEQUA. But no substantiating documentation supports this claim -- no independent traffic studies from LADOT and no on-the-record findings from LAFD and LAPD. Nor were there any attached documents showing Q+A from the community, many of whom say they were caught off-guard by the ramp’s closure since it had been labeled “Bennett Drive” and not what it actually is, Barham Boulevard. This looks like a wizardry that Harry himself might approve of, if, in fact, trickery was the objective.
There were no justifying declarations from Caltrans or Comcast NBC-Universal that could reassure the community that they would have a happy Hollywood ending if they ever needed first responders in an emergency.
The lawsuit alleges that Caltrans did not prove that public safety would not be impacted. Many residents believe there is reason to be fearful; they are concerned that fire and police responders will be the victims of this freeway ramp closure. And they may have a point.
Has Comcast-NBC Universal, a monolithic entertainment giant capable of being a good neighbor and corporate citizen, cast a dark shadow over the people and places in its orbit? Did they know what they were doing to the surrounding community by closing off an important route for emergency responders?
It seems that the southbound Barham off ramp just got in the way of the Harry Potter theme park visitor traffic plans. So it was “offed” and public safety has taken a hit.
The new Grand Entry to the park is designed to speed visitors directly from the 101 Hollywood Freeway to Universal Studios Hollywood's first outdoor roller coaster, the "Flight of the Hippogriff,” a new restaurant called Three Broomsticks, a pub called Hog's Head, twenty-nine stores and restaurants at the City Walk promenade, and finally, the nineteen movie theaters -- all at the top of the hill. There’s a reason the sprawling complex is called Universal City.
Freeway traffic will now flow smoothly in and out of this goldmine, possibly keeping local streets less congested with theme park traffic. That claim has yet to be proven, but will be settled once Harry Potter opens for several weeks of visitors during the spring and summer.
While many Comcast corporate stockholders may be happy with the increased profits Harry Potter will generate, some community stakeholders are not so pleased. This community falls into three camps: the insiders, the outsiders, and the non-aware.
Residents in the Cahuenga Pass, Lake Hollywood and the Hollywood Hills are fearful that this freeway ramp elimination will add precious minutes to emergency responders that had previously been “freeway close” via the Barham off ramp.
As any cop or firefighter will tell you, when it comes to an emergency, it can come down to a matter of minutes. The faster the response, the better the result. An extra few minutes delay in reaching a heart attack or stroke victim can mean the difference between stabilization and eventual recovery, or a state of permanent vegetation, or worse.
As a result of the Hollywood Freeway Barham off ramp closure and the new traffic management plan for emergency responders, those minutes will mount up quickly.
NBC Universal has told CityWatchLA that “the Caltrans study concluded that the new 101 southbound on-ramp will help improve traffic along Cahuenga Boulevard, which means better access to local roadways for all drivers, including emergency vehicles. Caltrans also determined that the freeway improvements, including the off-ramp closure, will not impact public services.” All this remains to be seen, once Harry Potter opens and increased numbers of visitors swarm the Cahuenga Pass.
Comcast-NBC Universal, the world’s largest media company (according to Forbes Magazine) with corporate annual net profits of $8 billion, and Caltrans, the mammoth state transportation agency with an annual budget of $11 billion.
Comcast-NBC Universal and Caltrans maintain that public safety is not at risk with the closure of the Barham off ramp. But this is their opinion and not fact backed up by documentation and studies. And if tragedy occurs and the two Goliaths are wrong, more lawsuits could follow, especially if someone dies because an emergency responder is unable to get there fast enough.
The community suspects that Comcast-NBC Universal paid Caltrans $30 million to facilitate the closure of the southbound Barham off ramp, stating that there remain two other ramps in the same proximity. Comcast-NBC Universal denies the existence of these funds, stating that such money was earmarked for unrelated traffic studies of the 134-170 freeway interchange and for Hollywood and Highland. Carrie Bowen, Director of the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) District 7 (Los Angeles and Ventura counties), would neither confirm nor deny this when her office was contacted by CityWatch. We will discover the truth of these allegations if the pending litigation reaches a judge and jury.
One payment by Comcast-NBC Universal that has been acknowledged is the $50,000 paid to the Outpost Homeowners Association in negotiating for their support or tamping down their opposition, depending on which side you take. These funds were earmarked for traffic mitigation for neighborhood improvements, stated John Campbell, a board member of the HOA at the time of the transaction. “The fact is, they ‘bought our HOA’, and even though the money went to the city, under the stewardship of former CD4 Councilmember Tom LaBonge, it was just a cute way of the HOA accepting those funds and be able to say we’re clean.” He added, “We couldn’t even get $250 from the HOA for the cause (the lawsuit), because they had already been bought.”
This chilling effect on an HOA’s prospective support of a lawsuit shows how funds by developers are used to freeze opposition. Several other HOA’s surrounding the Harry Potter project may have had their own “deals” with Comcast-NBC Universal. This makes them “insiders,” and an example of how the shoe can sometimes be on the other foot -- with the HOA “green-mailing” the developer, withholding support until funds are provided. This is often described as “traffic mitigations.”
The proposed Neighborhood Integrity Initiative ballot measure may supercharge needed reform and cast sunlight on developers, mandating that this “cash for blessings” paradigm be forced out of the shadows, creating transparency instead of suspicions and secrecy.
Developers and HOA’s alike must be required to publicly disclose what cash and other transactions take place as part of the land use agreement process.
This puts a spotlight on the “insiders:” the several neighborhood homeowner associations that Comcast-NBC Universal has been cultivating ever since it was mandated by LA County to do community outreach during the 2013 approval process for the Comcast-NBC Universal Evolution Plan, the 25-year blueprint for the property.
The six favored homeowner organizations (HOA’s) are Cahuenga Pass Neighborhood Association, Cahuenga Pass Property Owners Association, Hollywood Knolls Community Club, Studio City Residents Association, Toluca Estates Drive Homeowners Association, and Toluca Lake Homeowners Association.
The following rules of public engagement were set by Comcast-NBC Universal’s management for the quarterly meetings with these groups: You must be specifically invited, one of two authorized representatives of one of the six approved HOAs; you must RSVP and be authenticated before being given the location of the meeting; and you may send your questions in advance for review by Comcast-NBC Universal before the meeting even starts. The meetings are not open to others in the community, or the media. Some have called this strict control mechanism “elitist,” or “preaching to the choir” or “non-inclusive.”
The next meeting is Tuesday, January 19, the day following the celebration of MLK’s birthday: the man who challenged us all to “let freedom ring” in his historic 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech before tens of thousands at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. But freedom to engage with Comcast-NBC Universal is apparently not universal, unless you are a favored and vetted insider in the group of six. Once a year, they let all members of the approved HOA’s in the front door for what Comcast NBC-Universal callas an “annual meeting”.
How some parts of a community get included in the conversation may stem from the rigid corporate culture governing Comcast-NBC Universal, whose corporate parent, Comcast Corporation, is legendary for hiring dozens of ex-Members of Congress, and anyone else with influence in Washington DC, to lobby Congressional and state legislatures for the cable company’s agenda. Forbes Magazine ranked Comcast the number one media company worldwide last year. They are big and they are powerful. They have a very good record of setting the meeting agenda and getting what they want. They are a Goliath. As is Caltrans, a Goliath.
The “David” in the piece is a small, outsider community group -- the Keep the Barham Ramp association -- fighting huge odds through a pair of lawsuits against the two Goliath’s. However, the Biblical story of David versus Goliath reminds us that one well-placed rock, lobbed by sling shot into the eye of a giant leveled the playing field.
Negative opinions are being directed at public relations sensitive, image-conscious Comcast-NBC Universal. In this climate, it will reveal how it plans to treat a community that they do not really “own.” This could end up being the rock that is thrown at them.
(Tim Deegan is a long-time resident and community leader in the Miracle Mile, who has served as board chair at the MidCity West Community Council, and on the board of the Miracle Mile Civic Coalition. Tim can be reached at [email protected].) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.
Vol 14 Issue 6
Pub: Jan 19, 2016