Hollywood has finally made it official: Los Angeles is undeniably an urban place – one that's beginning to look and feel more and more like Manhattan.

It's one thing when we urban planners say it and point to loft conversions in Downtown L.A. But when NBC-Universal confirms it, you know it's true.

A couple of weeks ago, NBC-Universal announced that the NBC studios and West Coast news operation is going to move – from old suburb to new urb.

The old location was a gated 34-acre soundstage farm at Alameda and Olive in Burbank, which opened in 1962 – the same year as Dodger Stadium, right at the height of the suburban era.
And the new location? Part of a large new mixed-use project on property adjacent to the University City Red Line station, where NBC will rig up a street-level studio for news shows similar to the one at 30 Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan. That way, the bustling L.A. commuters headed for the Red Line can serve as urban eye candy in the background during various NBC news and talk shows.

In making the announcement, NBC-Universal officials said the old complex of buildings was outmoded and "it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep building new technology on top of an old backbone." (Check out the L.A. Times story.) The new building will be technologically modern and "green" as well, they say.

But in terms of citybuilding, the return to a more urban setting – or the creation of a new one – may be the more important point. Like most radio network facilities in L.A., NBC was originally located in Hollywood – in an iconic building right along the street at Sunset and Vine that opened in 1938. With the coming of television, however, NBC moved out of Hollywood's urban core and into a studio-like atmosphere adjacent to Warner Brothers in Burbank. (The Hollywood building was demolished in the 1960s and replaced with another iconic building – a Home Savings bank that's now a Washington Mutual branch.)

That's why "Beautiful Downtown Burbank" was such a good joke. The phrase originated in the late'60s, as part of Gary Owens' announcer lead-in on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," which was taped there. But it became world-famous when it was repeated by Johnny Carson after "The Tonight Show" moved from Manhattan to Burbank in 1972. Could there be a bigger contrast in all of urban America than Rockefeller Center and a bunch of soundstages located off the freeway in a second-tier town near a cemetery? In fact, it was the legacy – or the stigma – of Beautiful Downtown Burbank that led NBC to start programming live from New York again in the ‘70s and ‘80s, first with "Saturday Night Live" (an urban, hip version of Laugh-In) and "Late Night With David Letterman" (an urban, hip version of "The Tonight Show".)

But it looks like L.A. will have the last -- urban, hip – laugh. The Lankershim property, which Universal sold to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is being developed by Thomas Properties. The current plan is for a 1.5-million-square-foot project that includes offices, the media production facility, retail shops, restaurants, and parking for both visitors to "Metro Universal," as it is called, and Red Line riders. In other words, Manhattan in Cahuenga Pass.

What's next? An urban, hip version of Magic Mountain – with roller-coasters descending into the Red Line tunnel?

By the way, the real Beautiful Downtown Burbank seems to be doing fine – as I discovered, somewhat to my consternation, on Friday night. To get from NBC to the real downtown, you drive a couple of miles up Olive (northwesterly) to San Fernando Road, right by the Verdugo offramp on I-5. Anchored by Burbank Town Center, the old downtown – like so many others in L.A. – has been transformed into a hopping center of restaurants, movies, and other entertainment. At 8 o'clock Friday night, I drove in, through, and out of no less than five different city parking lots and parking garages before I finally found a rooftop space. So Johnny Carson shouldn't be worried.

- Bill Fulton