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Byline: Phil Davis Staff Writer

Architect Jon Jerde casts a critical eye as workers put the finishing touches on a massive expansion of Universal CityWalk, his idyllic vision of a Main Street that never materialized in Los Angeles' sprawling cityscape.

``Great, beautiful, beautiful,'' Jerde said, strolling through the dusty racket of the construction site on a recent afternoon. ``This is a street in an L.A. that hasn't really happened yet; L.A. as it ought to be and will be. It's ahead of its time.''

Actually, the real test comes April 12 when the public gets its first look the 93,000-square-foot CityWalk expansion, which began in 1998. Some stores and attractions such as the NASCAR Silicone Motor Speedway, a virtual reality racing simulator, already are open.

Universal, a division of global beverage and entertainment giant Seagrams, is betting millions of dollars - no one will say how many - that more than 10 million tourists and locals alike will flock yearly to the sprawling entertainment complex to eat, shop and be entertained.

``We're finally reaching a critical mass of choices,'' said Larry Kurzweil, president and chief operation officer at Universal Studios Hollywood. ``We're building an entertainment center that is just over the top for entertainment, for energy and for engagement of the senses of sight and sound. There's nothing like it in the United States.''

The new section of CityWalk wraps around the Hard Rock Cafe and links up with the 18-screen movie theater. A second-floor food court terrace offers a prime people-watching vantage point. And there will even be ice skating in the winter.

Jerde - the retail visionary who made his name with striking shopping and entertainment centers like Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., and Rokko Island in Kobe, Japan - says he's pleased with CityWalk's lineup of 34 new tenants. They include rock 'n' roll bowling, a Latin dance club, a dueling piano bar, a 3-D IMAX theater and restaurants ranging from gourmet Italian to the chili-soaked fast-food fare of Tommy's Hamburgers.

And Jerde loves the thousands of newly installed lights, speakers and strobes, and massive video screen intended to dazzle patrons with a 2 1/2-minute light and sound extravaganza every hour after sunset.

Both lights and tenants are crucial components in his vision of an ``iconic'' street.

The soundtrack, which is B.B. King at this moment, makes him scowl.

``I hate this ------- music,'' he said. ``It's supposed to be movie background music. That's supposed to be the feel of this place.''

He's also not thrilled with the second-story walkway, intended to relieve CityWalk's unpopular shoulder-to-shoulder human logjams, that connects the original section, which opened in 1993, with the new food court and retail stores by the movie theater.

``It's supposed to be a street,'' Jerde said. ``Streets don't have walkways along them.''

John Aleksich, Jerde's No. 1 man and a key architect on CityWalk Phase II, chuckled.

``This is his vision,'' Aleksich said, gesturing to the tapestry of curved buildings, eclectic signs and colorful lights that made the virtual street famous around the world. ``It gets the big test today. Jon gets to put his critical eye to it.''

The expansion is Universal's answer to critics who said the original CityWalk, despite its stunning, innovative architecture, had the feel of a stale tourist trap.

``It got a little tired by virtue of not having enough choices,'' Kurzweil said. ``Everyone is giving choices these days, so we went out and got the best of tenants in every category, whether it's restaurants or retail. This isn't just about building more buildings, it's about refreshing the experience, refreshing the tenant mix and refreshing the street theater.''

Universal is not bashful about its goal: creating a entertainment center that keeps visitors engaged - and spending money - from morning well into the night with concerts, studio tours, thrill rides, eclectic shopping and plenty of entertainment and dining choices. Universal estimates visitors presently spend an average of four hours at the complex.

The June 2 opening of the Universal City Metro Red Line subway station, which connects Hollywood with the San Fernando Valley, means CityWalk will be even more accessible to Angelenos. The subway may help to relieve crowding in the parking areas, which were not expanded. City buses already make stops in the area.

Even skeptics are intrigued by CityWalk Phase II.

Jody St. Michael, owner of the Wound & Wound Toy Co., made his name in the heart of hip L.A., Melrose Avenue. The old CityWalk seemed too mainstream, but he's intrigued enough by Phase II to gamble on a second store in CityWalk.

``We're everything they're not,'' St. Michael said. ``I told them, 'You're corporate America and I'm not.' But hopefully that's the trend, to bring small grass-roots people like me in to change it. I think it's a tremendous business opportunity for both of us.

``This pseudocity they've built up there is incredible,'' he continued. ``I love the fact there's a Times Square-like center. I think at night it's going to be phenomenal.''

Universal also convinced Atomic Garage, another Melrose icon, to open a clothing store in the expansion. Big-name L.A. restaurants such as Versailles, Jerry's Famous Deli and Gaucho Grill will open their first-ever fast-food establishments in the new food court.

Jerde said CityWalk II realigns the retail center with his original vision, a seamless fusion of a city street and entertainment company. He said the original CityWalk tenant mix was too upscale and that turnover in company management stalled the evolution of the project. The street looked good and fulfilled its main role by connecting the Universal Studios attraction with the movie megaplex and concert amphitheater, but it lacked soul.

``What makes a street exciting is the people on the street - in this case, the tenants,'' he said. ``It used to be when you walked through here, you couldn't, for the life of you, think of why you'd want to go in any of the stores. And if you did, when you saw the prices, you'd go right back out. We the people, America, USA are this street, not some elitist movie exec.''

This explains the presence of Jillian's Hi-Life Bowling, ``the coolest bowling in the United States,'' Kurzweil said; Laundry Matt's irreverent T-shirts; and Van's for skateboards and footwear. Restaurants include Cafe Tu Tu Tango, out of Miami; Buca di Beppo, for family-style Italian food; and Shanghai and Mein, a dim sum restaurant.

The cocktail crowd has Howl at the Moon, a dueling piano bar; Club Rumba for Latin dance; and the Karl Strauss Microbrewery and Beer Garden. Gregg Silver, CityWalk's director of Tenant Operations, said older venues are featuring new funky signs, merchandise and menus.

This is all packed into Jerde's vision of the perfect street, supermodel thin compared to L.A.'s sprawling boulevards and packed with personality.

``Good streets are narrower than they are high, so they are enveloping, as opposed to an L.A. street that is low and sprawling,'' Jerde said. ``A city evolves over hundreds of years, is sprawling and ragged. This is condensed, an iconic city with the best selected from across the planet.''


6 photos


(1 -- cover -- color) Walk this way

Universal builds its expanded vision of an entertainment main street

David Crane/Staff Photographer

(2 -- color) CityWalk Phase II is a 93,000-square-foot expansion project expected to debut April 12. The remodeled site will feature a dance club, more dining choices and many shops.

(3 -- color) Architects John Aleksich, left, and Jon Jerde discuss design changes.

(4 -- 5 -- color) Jillian's Hi-Life Bowling - featuring a rock 'n' roll version of the game - comes to CityWalk, above, and colorful electric signs, right, will light up the action.

(6) A second-story walkway, connecting the new CityWalk with the original construction, will house a large food court and retail stores.

David Crane/Staff Photographer
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 12, 2000
Previous Article:A LA CARTE; ST. PATRICK'S DAY.

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