Thanks to guest contributor Amanda Biers-Melcher for this report:
Yesterday, Jim Casey from Preserve Burbank, Gail Nicol from Save Burbank Neighborhoods and I had the opportunity to sit down with the developers for the Burbank mall project (I Heart Burbank). You will recall that, in addition to a total rehab of the mall itself, this project involves building a hotel on the Magnolia side of the mall and a 12-story apartment building on the old IKEA, Corner Market and Office Depot space.
We did our best to express our concerns about the the size, affordability, parking, sustainability and traffic implications of the project and explain the context and political climate in which this development is being proposed. If this were the only mega-development in the pipeline and/or if we had trust that our planning department and elected representatives were making intelligent, thoughtful decisions about quality of life issues like traffic, parking, etc. (and, frankly, being honest in their dealings with Burbank residents) we might be having a very different conversation.
I found the project’s representatives to be receptive to our input. They would like to continue to involve Save Burbank Neighborhoods in discussions as the project progresses. Some issues we discussed:
The size and design of the apartment building. They seemed to understand that many of us would view a high-rise similar to what you’d see in Glendale and West Hollywood as incompatible, so they will revisit that.
Impact on schools. After conversations with the superintendent, the developers were under the impression that Burbank High School could handle any influx of students. We shared our impression, as parents, that in fact the Burbank high schools are overcrowded and resources are stretched thin. They pointed out that the school tax on construction — which goes directly to the schools and not into the general fund — might help mitigate this problem.
While this was not said, my impression after looking at the plans, is that these apartments are not intended for families anyway so it’s unlikely we’ll see an increase in school-aged children. With an on-site gym, a rooftop pool, and a shared-workplace facility, they seem to want to appeal to young professionals. (In my opinion whether the rare millennial who can afford $2000/month one-bedroom apartment will opt to live in Burbank instead of in Silverlake or off-Sunset remains to be seen, but that is beyond the purview of this discussion).
Impact on resources. There are some green initiatives — water-saving devices, power-saving lights, charging stations — already planned, but they have agreed to look for ways to reduce the project’s footprint further. We shared that it is important that they do so especially because residents have been asked to conserve resources, save water, replace their lawns, etc.
Affordability. We voiced our concern that Burbank needs affordable housing — not $2000/month one-bedroom apartments — for the seniors, veterans and middle class families who can’t keep up with the rising rents. The developers were already considering setting aside moderate income housing units for teachers and first responders who want to live and work in Burbank. We agreed that was a good start and asked them to think about what they can do for seniors and veterans as well.
The Hotel. Their rationale for including this in their plan is that tourist dollars help sustain the mall’s retail shops and restaurants. We advised them that especially because of the underhanded way in which the airport ballot measure vote was handled, residents are wary that efforts to develop Burbank as a tourism destination go hand-in-hand with plans to expand the airport from a sleepy regional airport to another LAX. Also, with so many hotels being proposed for this same area there is a perception that Burbank is being transformed into another Anaheim — with Universal as the draw instead of Disneyland — and nobody wants that. They will consider this. The alternative is another retail store.
Parking. They are adding another floor of mall parking and redesigning the layout and exits with a (hopefully) more sensible design. But they are still allocating only 1.7 parking spaces for the new apartment with the idea that people will uber, walk or bike to work. (Apparently Disney told them that they need employee housing close-by so people won’t drive cars to work). This is absurd on many levels, of course, and we suggested that while, perhaps it might be true at some point in the distant future that self-driving cars will eliminate the need for personal cars, they should look for ways to either decrease the number of apartments or increase the number of parking spots for units if they want the support of residents. We have been burned too many times by inadequate parking which causes spill-over onto local streets.
Traffic. There is no getting around it — despite what the developers’ own traffic survey says or what the city’s might say eventually, we all know this will negatively impact traffic at a time when traffic is already unsustainable. We suggested they continue to look for ways to make it easier for people to get into and out of the mall and/or the apartments especially in light of the other nearby developments already in the pipeline, and the impending airport construction. (They think the Burbank bridge will be open again by the time they complete construction). We also advised them that residents had lost faith in the city’s ability to determine traffic and environmental impacts and that residents along Glenoaks would not tolerate log-jams like those we are seeing around IKEA.
Also of concern is the area around Burbank High School where students are dropped off and picked up twice a day. (At present they use the Office Depot parking lot). Unless they can come up with a viable solution to lessen the impact of both their construction and the project itself on the adjacent streets, they can expect to be met with resistance, especially from residents who live north of Glenoaks.
Conclusion. My personal view is that plans for the mall itself look impressive and we all recognize that it is in desperate need of a facelift. I am heartened by the developer’s willingness to listen to resident input and concerns about other facets of their project. If this were occurring in a vacuum and not hand-in-hand with all the other mega-developments in the pipeline I’d say an argument could be made that, with some modifications and concessions, it could be beneficial for Burbank. I actually think it’s unfortunate that this proposal will not come before residents until after other, in my view, less compatible projects have already poisoned the well.
I understand, for example, that the project on First and Magnolia has been approved by the planning board. The next step, according to the city’s website, is for it to come before the Council for approval. In my opinion, we would be smart to weigh it (and other projects) not only on its own merits but against the merits of projects like “I Heart Burbank.”