Universal Studios Hollywood CityWalk, A Complete Living Environment

Written by Sam Gennawey. Posted in Features

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Published on July 03, 2014 at 3:00 am with 9 Comments

It was rewarding to see so many comments regarding my look at an early proposal to turn Universal City into the Tivoli Gardens of Los Angeles by 1970. Instead, the studio tour would become the focus. However, the legendary entertainment mogul Lew Wasserman had the vision to believe that Universal City could become the cultural and commercial hub of the San Fernando Valley. Just as Disneyland had became the de facto center of nearby Orange County and Twentieth-Century Fox’s Century City became a primary destination on the west side of Los Angeles County, Wasserman was very interested in finding the right project.

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He assigned Albert Dorskind to begin looking at a specialty retail center to coexist with the tour in 1966. Harrison “Buzz” Price was hired as a consultant and said, “Conceptually, the themed shopping center evolved directly from the Main Street commercial complex at Disneyland. Here, what might have been quite ordinary merchandise and food operations have been transformed into a bright, whimsical package which not only performs the basic function of retailing goods and services, but can also be enjoyed purely as recreation — a miniature sightseeing expedition to another time and another place.” His study showed that the one retail sector that is capable of attracting visitors from long distances was fashion. What if Universal City became the fashion destination of Southern California?

The Pasadena-based architectural firm of Smith and Williams was hired to create “a complete living environment with a leisure oriented life paced for its transient and permanent residents as well as for a large Los Angeles residential market.” From the start, Smith and Williams knew it would not be able to attract a major department store. All of the major department stores already had locations nearby plus the hilly site would not allow enough space for a traditional store. Therefore, MCA had the opportunity to create something completely new and different.

Using the latest in merchandising techniques, high-end retailers such as Tiffany, Steuben, A. Sulka, and Bergdorf Goodman as well as department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue or Neiman-Marcus would be offered showrooms “for goods to be delivered by air from the store’s main branches.” The architecture would reflect prestigious locations such as New York’s Fifth Avenue, Champs-Élysées in Paris or their equivalents in Rome, London, and Tokyo.” Certainly this sort of destination could attract the growing affluent community of the San Fernando Valley.

There were two locations considered for the shopping center. The first site was six acres at Lankershim Boulevard and the Hollywood freeway. Like the Century Square Shopping Center (1964) in Century City, the mall would be placed on top of a 4-level 2,000-car parking garage. However, the buildings not on Universal’s property looked dated and obsolete and the men from MCA felt it would tarnish their development.

The preferred location was between the studio tour entrance on the hill and the proposed location for a 1,500-room business hotel adjacent to the freeway and just below the Studio Entertainment Center. Allowing for the hotel to open first, MCA would be able to sell to potential retailers a pristine environment high above the San Fernando Valley floor sandwiched between the largest hotel and the most popular tourist destination in the region. The project was put on the back burner while Lew Wasserman started to think even bigger.

Twenty-five years later, Wasserman revisited the idea of adding a shopping and entertainment center at Universal City to his holdings. In 1989, he hired architect Jon Jerde to draft a master plan for the property. Jerde was well known for his simple, effective architectural elements at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and the urban infill Horton Plaza shopping center in the Gaslamp District of downtown San Diego. Jerde was hired by Disney in 1985 and designed Satellite City for EuroDisney. That development would have been a disk shaped city, more than a mile in diameter, with fifty hotels, spas, a conference center, shopping, and recreation zones. Transportation would have been provided, in part, by a canal system. The project was never built. However, as always, having worked for Disney got you noticed at Universal.

The project was driven by the need to create a dynamic path for people walking between the existing studio tour, cinemas, and the amphitheater. “I saw CityWalk as a venue for human intercourse,” according to Jerde. “All America is now private [and only] New York and San Francisco held on to more foot driven aspects of human interaction, but most of the country has been given over to separateness and loneliness.” He wanted to create something that was different. Jerde said, “Our enemies are artifice and the ersatz [with] fake this and that, like those theme restaurants. But people reject it. It’s exceedingly difficult to make sure that what you do isn’t exceedingly synthetic and contrived.”

The result was a two block long “street” made up of eight separate structures with twenty-seven individual building facades that connects the theme park’s front gate to the parking structures required by this isolated, compact hilly site. Jerde said he wanted to capture the emotional impact of Tuscany or North Beach in San Francisco.

“CityWalk had to be appropriately built on the architectural language of L.A., as opposed to New York or Paris,” Jerde said. “And the language of L.A. is that there is no language except stucco buildings and layers put upon them. So the thematic element is layering.” Juxtaposed facades, historic neon signs, towers, and billboards frame the narrow street, which Jerde says creates “a sequential plan of orchestrated events.” The massing of the buildings came from computer-compiled traces of local architecture. No one building was replicated. Instead you have a collage of images and traits of the city. Jerde wanted a space that is “self-consciously designed” yet tries to appear to have grown organically. The architect claimed that CityWalk was a “simulacrum,” a copy with no original.

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CityWalk did feel energetic, bordering on chaotic, as it tries to echo the visual disorder of a complete city within the space of a few yards. The street leads to a large central plaza capped by a steel-web canopy. In one corner was an interactive fountain by WET Design. Up above was a second level of nightclubs and restaurants dubbed CityLoft. More then a third of CityWalk’s 540,000 square foot building area was dedicated to offices and a satellite college campus.

Many critics disliked the design. Cultural critic Norman Klein wrote, CityWalk is “a Victorian-style separation of classes in our public life,” while writer Lewis Lapham argued it served consumers who “had no intention of going to see the original city fours miles to the south.” Cultural critic Mike Davis simply concluded, “It fulfills our worst prophecies.” Paola Giaconia wrote, “This hilltop shopping mall impersonating a city street was commissioned by MCA Development and garishly overdesigned for mass appeal by the Jerde Partnership.” He added, “In designing this privatized social area for the privileged, the architects didn’t make much of an attempt to connect it with the surrounding community and actually shielded it by a wall of parking garages.”

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Jerde disagreed with the critics. He said, “These things are vast consumption machines, but we treat them as communal complexes that happen to have shopping in them. What we provide is urban glue.” Jerde said he “doesn’t aspire to the kind of social idealism and aesthetic purity that were the foundations of Modernism.” Professor David Sloane of USC also found something to like. “In one sense, people went there and found it to be a familiar place,” he said. “The circus-like street reminded them of an old midway. On the other hand, it’s different enough to be exciting.” Architectural historian David Gebhard said, “This is the cleaned-up retail strip as it should be. It is excellent stage-set architecture, lively and well carried out.”

CityWalk proved to be a perfect compliment to the tour. The number of locals’ crossing over and visiting the Studio Tour had increased dramatically. The new mall changed the visitor mix at Universal City mix from 80% tourists to 50-50 tourists and residents. It turned a struggling Cineplex into one of the most successful theaters in Los Angeles. It helped to boost theme park attendance. With almost 3 million new visitors, parking revenues boomed. Buzz Price said, “Universal City’s hilltop operates as one big mega theme park made up of three paid gates all supported and reinforced by a free entry festival marketplace. It is in the same genre as Harborplace in Baltimore, which contains three paid gates (the aquarium, the science museum and IMAX, and the USS Constitution) operating in concert with a major festival marketplace. It is also in the same genre as Knott’s theme park with its festival market outside the gate.” Lew Wasserman was so proud of CityWalk he used to pull the tallies of the lunches and dinners served at the restaurants and show them off to visitors.

The success of CityWalk was vital to the long-term sustainability for the park and critical for Universal Hollywood’s transformation from an industrial tour to a full fledge theme park.

When MCA commissioned a study in 1996, they found that demand for the center far outstripped capacity.Buzz Price said, “The demand for expansion is obviously there. It’s a slam-dunk.” In fact, the study suggested Universal could double the size of CityWalk. Other suggestions included Universal taking over as many of the store leases as possible to cut out the middle man and that they operate the themed restaurants as joint ventures to maximize profits. He also recommended adding an IMAX large screen format theater, which would happen a few years later. This was all Wasserman needed to hear. Planning for the expansion began immediately.

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With this kind of success, it was only natural that Universal would try to build a sequel. The second phase of CityWalk opened in April 2000. The new addition became known as the EastWalk. More than 93,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space was added to the existing 300,000. Thirty new shops, restaurants, and attractions were part of the mix. Twelve new retail stores included such diverse goods as vintage clothing, movie memorabilia, wind-up toys, and a Hollywood Harley-Davidson outlet. Dino Vindeni, general manager of the Harley store said, “We’ve been so packed that we had to close our doors at some points. We’re catering to a different crowd than a dealership would, so the hard-core Harley owner might be disappointed. But we’ve been getting great feedback so far.”

Entertainment venues included Jullian’s Hi-Life Lanes with neon bowling balls, Howl at the Moon dueling piano bar, and Café Tu Tu Tango, a smaller version of a House of Blues. Universal’s Larry Kurzweil said, “We were looking for choices and concepts that had a lot of attitude, fun and energy. The key concept is that this is an extension of Universal Studios Hollywood.” For a very brief time there was an artists’ loft above one of the restaurants where some of the profits went to struggling artists.

Lighting was used as the signature architectural component as well as giant 80-foot billboards above the pedestrian walk. Los Angeles Times critic Nicolai Ouroussoff suggested “the new structures offer fewer architectural quotations, leaning toward a more abstract aesthetic” with “images distilled from Los Angeles’ own peculiar landscape of fantasy.” He says, “the effect is a ‘Blade Runner’-like collage of commercial images, a tensely energetic mix of fantasy and reality.” He also suggested that the new addition was best experienced at night, when the lighting provides an eerie effect.

There was another positive by-product to the success of CityWalk. This time it was internal. Buzz Price was an outsider with a keen eye for detail. He noticed, “The old battle between the tour people who thought that the Tour was the mother of all profits and the periphery development team was obsolete. It was one dynamic place, one of a kind.”

If you enjoyed today’s article, you’ll probably want to pre-order my upcoming book on Universal Studios history:

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About Sam Gennawey

Sam Gennawey is an urban planner who has collaborated with communities throughout California over the course of more than 100 projects to create a great, big, beautiful tomorrow. Sam is a member of the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Regional Planning History Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving municipal, county, and private sector planning documents from throughout Los Angeles County. Sam is the author of Walt and the Promise of Progress City which you can find on Amazon.

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9 Comments

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  1. CityWalk really was one of a kind when it opened and remains a fun and high energy place. I’ve always thought of it as Universal’s Main Street since you need to shop your way too and from your car. Uni doesn’t need to run trams from your car to the front gate because the deposit you in the middle of this amazing shopping district. So smart.

  2. I had the pleasure of seeing CityWalk about a month before it opened on a private walking tour of my Architecture school at USC (Spring of 1993). I was a first year student of the architecture program at that time and was already thrilled with Universal as a theme park and remember being SO excited to see it before the public on a hard hat tour. I remember talking to one of the roofing contractors who was saying how so many of the unique elements in the architecture made for new roofing challenges. In the subsequent years living in West Hollywood, CityWalk became my local destination for movies and brunch on a Sunday afternoon. And although it is very dynamic at night, I usually bail out by then as the crush of humanity approaches. CityWalk seems to serve as a huge “date night” place for teens and early 20 year olds from the valley side. It is nice there is a safe and fun place like that for them to go. Good for Universal too.

  3. Another great article Sam — thanks as always.

  4. CityWalk was always unique and energetic – unlike Downtown Disney Anaheim. CityWalk feels like a happening place – Downtown Disney not as much. CityWalk has layers of visual elements, Downtown Disney is more spread out and not as interesting visually. It seems like Downtown Disney took it’s cue from Disney World’s Marketplace and Pleasure Island – they’re ok but not that exciting architecturally or visually. Disney Springs looks to be dull too. But I guess they have to do something different from CityWalk Orlando, you can’t out do CityWalk.

  5. Great article. Thank you.

  6. I feel like Citywalk started the outdoor parking lot center mall with a movie theater craze but it works there because it’s on two levels instead of being all spread out and difficult to walk around.

  7. Perhaps Citywalk works economically, but as a piece of urban planning and as an aesthetic experience, it’s horrible. Between the dehumanizing massing of the buildings, the tacky late postmodernism and the poor traffic flow, CityWalk is a gauntlet to be endured. Real Angelenos never go there, unless taking an out of town friend to the park or, until recently, going to the Gibson.