Planning Commission hears studio plans for Newhall, Placerita Canyon

Jeff Weber of Shadowbox Studios discusses his outreach efforts on behalf of the project Shadowbox is proposing for parts of Newhall and Placerita Canyon in April. Perry Smith/The Signal

Residents Tuesday packed Santa Clarita City Hall as the Planning Commission held a first hearing on the potential impacts of Shadowbox Studios’ plans for a full-service film and television studio Newhall and Placerita Canyon.

The plans under review call for 19 soundstages among the 1.28 million square feet of construction behind the main entrance to the project, which is slated for 13th and Railroad avenues in an area planners referred to during the hearing as part of “North Newhall.”

After about a half-hour review of the proposed development from Senior City Planner Erika Iverson, Shadowbox representative Jeff Weber spent about 20 minutes talking about the company’s intent and outreach efforts.

Weber noted the company has been working on its plans, which he said has included meeting with residents and trying to understand the feel of the community, for several years prior to bringing it before the commission. The company was called Blackhall back when it actually closed escrow on the property in the summer of 2020.

Shadowbox met with a countless number of business owners and residents, a number of whom were among the nearly two dozen speakers who spoke in favor of the project at the start of public comment period Tuesday.

Renee Berlin, chair of the Planning Commission, split the public-comment portion into two sessions, and had those speaking in favor of the project go first.

Supporters, who included a number of industry workers, business owners in the area and a few Placerita Canyon residents, noted if the city wanted to maintain its reputation as “Hollywood North,” a moniker Santa Clarita officials often tout when discussing its business-growth and retention efforts, approving a project like this studio would go a long way.

Those in favor, and even a few who had concerns about the project as well, noted the zone change for a job-generating studio would be a lot easier for area residents to live alongside than a 900-plus home development, which the area is zoned for and could very well become, if the studio doesn’t go through.

Leon Worden, CEO of SCVTV, a local historian and former Signal city editor, said he remembers hearing about plans for housing on the same lot more than 17 years ago, and times have changed since then. While the city contends it could be a 900-home development, Worden pointed out that with the state’s housing crisis, that figure could actually be much higher, if a housing developer gets the land for that purpose.

“Here’s the problem: It’s not 2005 anymore. State law has changed. Now a developer can come in with a housing project that fits the zoning and get approved by right,” he told the commission. “So what’s gonna happen? The city’ll say it’s 924, the developer will say it’s more, and they’ll go to court, the judge would pick a number and whether it’s 1,000 or 3,000 homes, you don’t get to reject it.”

In addition to production space, the project is projected to create approximately 2,000 local jobs, according to an estimate by the SCV Economic Development Corp., which was a big supporter of the project, as well contribute around $900,000 to the city’s coffers. 

The opposition, comprised of Placerita Canyon residents, raised questions that also were echoed by the planning commissioners, regarding concerns about traffic planning, the project’s egress — particularly in a fire, which one resident noted was “not a matter of if, but when” for the canyon — and how a full-scale production facility could function in abidance with the equestrian-friendly special standards district. 

Commissioners Tim Burkhart and Lisa Eichman questioned the results of a traffic study that indicated levels within the city’s allowable threshold, with Eichman, who also an accountant and business owner, pointing out if the study was conducted during the pandemic, it might no longer be accurate because far fewer people work from home now. 

“One of my concerns is, you know, anecdotally you hear about the number of parking spaces going on there,” said Burkhart, who’s also a board member for the Valley Industry Association and executive vice president of park maintenance for Magic Mountain. “And while I understand traffic goes through their analysis, and it’s very detail-oriented, and it’s very scientific, and there’s a lot of assumptions. Anecdotally, it doesn’t click in my head. So I would like for those guys to come with a presentation to all of us and the public on how they came to those conclusions.”

There was also a request to see if one of the oak trees could be designed around, as previously, the nine trees slated for removal were all deemed necessary for the project. 

Lynn Plambeck, president of Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment, or SCOPE, noted, similar to Theresa Todd, a Placerita Canyon homeowners association’s board vice president and board member of VIA, that she didn’t have enough time prior to the hearing to fully digest the EIR, which was released April 6 and, Todd pointed out, “a hefty 5,450 pages.” 

Todd read a statement on behalf of the neighborhood’s HOA: 

“As a reminder, our association’s mission statement is to maintain Placerita Canyon’s rural and equestrian lifestyle, preserve the oak trees and equestrian rights, monitor and maintain zoning and environmental standards, cooperate and solving health and safety problems within the canyon and monitor environmental tests for public safety. I’m here tonight to express our community’s concerns about the proposed project and its impact on our rural equestrian existence.”

Toward the end of the evening, Weber acknowledged that despite the groundwork prior to Tuesday’s hearing, there was more work to be done, and assured the commission of the studio’s commitment to working with residents and the city.

“I just want everybody to know that we totally get it. We are ‘the new guy.’ We need to fit into the city’s jobs mandate. And we think we do. We need to fit into the city’s film production culture. And we think we do,” Weber said, “and we need to fit into the neighborhood, and after much hard work, we think we do. But that doesn’t mean that we are done. We are here tonight to listen to the testimony of people on both sides to consider the comments of the public and with the commission and then to thoughtfully respond to the coming days and weeks.”

The hearing schedule laid out Tuesday calls for the next discussion to take place May 16, at which point the developer is expected to formally address public comments and the commissioner’s questions. 

The public comment period for the project closes the following Monday, May 22. Another meeting is scheduled for June 6, when the commission would then discuss the final EIR, including the developer’s formal responses to any concerns or questions, and make a recommendation on the project to Santa Clarita City Council.

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