Burbank Viewpoints

Burbank, California – Information and opinion on the most crucial issues facing our city.


Real Estate

Goodbye, Burbank.

The author’s children compete in the Buena Vista Library summer reading program’s annual costume contest — July 2010.

Twenty years ago, Burbank was just about the last place I thought I’d live. I was 29, with an unpublished novel under my belt, living in a 5-story walk-up in what was starting to be called the Upper Upper East Side, but was really Spanish Harlem, when my husband was offered a job on the writing staff of a new late night talk show — a job that came with union wages and, better yet, health insurance. When you compared it to selling monologue jokes to Letterman and earning $25 a night for MC-ing at Boston Comedy Club, it seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime (and I suppose it was). We jammed everything we owned into a Penske truck and headed to Hollywood.

After a week of driving, listening to the audiotape of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” a friend had given us as a going-away present, and staying in motels so crappy I made sure to keep my shoes on in the bathroom, we wound up in a two-bedroom apartment off Ventura Blvd. in Studio City. After our New York apartment, it seemed ridiculously spacious and downright luxurious, despite the flimsy fixtures and predominance of beige industrial-grade carpet. We had an extra room — I could have my own office! — and it even had a hot tub and a pool. We decided we wouldn’t need a car. We could walk to work. And when it turned out the job wasn’t on the CBS Radford lot but in Television City, we bought an unpretentious Honda (because city people don’t care about what kind of car they drive) and agreed we’d only buy just this one car for commuting to work — because most of the time we’d just walk wherever we wanted to go.

Two years later I was driving my own used Volvo station wagon. We’d had our first child — a daughter — and she’d started to walk. Overnight, our apartment had become a death trap. A balcony? A pool? Why not just hand the baby a razor blade and end the suspense. We needed a house — preferably one with a backyard.

And, one sleep-deprived afternoon — after taking a wrong turn driving back to the apartment from the dirty Target in North Hollywood — I found just the one. It was nestled in a quiet tree-lined neighborhood that looked like something out of a 1960s sitcom. The houses were neat behind perfect squares of green lawn and there were actual children playing in the streets. Our house, a two-bedroom bungalow, had a palm tree in the backyard — a Queen Date Palm apparently — and even an orange tree. We were knocked out. Could you get more “California” than that?

Our realtor had grown up around the block from the place and he knew everyone in town. He walked us through the process and before we knew it we were holding the keys to the house on Evergreen Street where we’d raise our family.

It was 2000.

This was before there was a Costco or an Empire Center or even a big multiplex in the middle of downtown. This was when you could still get from one end of Burbank to the other in less than a half hour. This was when people understood that the Airport Authority was not their friend.

Our neighbors had young children too and they played together, running in and out of each other’s homes even crossing the street to play in each other’s yards (something that seems unthinkable to me now that speeders have discovered our street’s a convenient shortcut when traffic backs up on Burbank Blvd and Hollywood Way). One of our neighbors dressed as Santa at Christmas. On the Fourth of July we had a bike parade down our block with a real live marching band (because one of the dads played the trombone at Disneyland). We knew everyone on the block. Once, when a new family moved in, we held an ice cream social to welcome them and had the kids go door-to-door handing out the invitations they’d made. Another time we found a baby squirrel we named Sweet-Tart and all the neighbor kids delivered her, by wagon, to a squirrel rescue lady who lived a few blocks over.

With my daughter, and later my son, I spent countless hours at the park down the street, and each week we loaded up the bike stroller and pedaled down the Chandler Bike path to the Buena Vista Library for story time. As they got older, they took craft classes and drama classes, gymnastics classes and team sports classes — all offered through Parks and Rec. They swam in the pools, learned to play tennis, learned to play golf, took riding lessons at the Equestrian Center and learned to skate at the Pickwick. They won bags of candy at the annual Glow-Ball tournament at the DeBell Par-3 and held a snake at the Stough Canyon Nature Center. At the week-long camps offered each summer, my son sampled volleyball, football, track, baseball and soccer before turning his attention to golf. They went all-out for the costume contest put on by the library’s summer reading program, where on the last day, you got cupcakes from Martinos if you read enough books.

We were so lucky to land in Burbank. It was a great place to raise a family. And the thing is — I don’t think that was an accident. The people making decisions about Burbank at that time must have realized something I didn’t fully appreciate until recently. Burbank had something special to offer. It was an oasis away from the bustle of Los Angeles. It wasn’t hip like Silver Lake or the Hollywood Hills. It wasn’t fancy like Santa Monica. It wasn’t like Glendale. It wasn’t like anyplace else, really. Burbank was just a sleepy little town where you could come home from work and throw a ball with your son, or sit under the stars and watch your daughter pitch a softball game, or ride your bike to the donut shop on a Sunday morning. It was a place where you could take your kids to MacCambridge to play floor hockey and see seniors swing dancing and enjoying a hot lunch. It was a place where, when you called the fire department because you smelled something funny, they showed up in minutes — and were nice about it when it turned out to be your neighbor’s barbeque.

I wasn’t paying attention — there were dinners to make and baths to give and bedtime stories to read — but it seems to me now that our elected officials, back then, must have known that Burbank was different. And at City Council meetings they must have been doing whatever they could to protect our city and fend off those forces that would try to turn it into something else. They fought hard to keep the airport from expanding, realizing that the additional revenue would come at too great a cost. They must have cared enough about young families like mine to stand up for us and make sure Burbank remained the kind of place where anyone would be lucky to raise a family.

Now, when I see new families moving into my neighborhood, I wonder: will Burbank be that for them? Or will it become just another LA neighborhood surrounded by freeways and dotted by high-rises? Because that is essentially the question our city is facing right now.

And, I know it’s complicated. The finances are different, the money just isn’t there anymore. I get that. But with all this talk of cutting services to balance the budget, of building our way into the black, and with a City Council that votes repeatedly and unanimously to sell our city off to outside developers piece-by-piece — can we expect to retain even a fraction of what makes Burbank Burbank? With that fancy new airport, more flights in and out of Burbank and hundreds of additional hotel rooms about to get green-lit — can we expect our city to remain a place where people live their lives — not a place they pass through on their way to Harry Potter’s Wizarding World?

The problem, it seems to me, is that our elected officials seem to have a very different vision for our city than a lot of us who’ve raised families here. With each new massive development project they rally behind (and there have already been a few rubber-stamped with more in the pipeline), they boast about creating a new Burbank — a modern, 21st-century city designed for a new generation. For my daughter’s generation. Burbank, they tell us, has to change with the times.

They are not entirely wrong. Change is inevitable and we can’t stay rooted in the past. Nobody understands that better than a mother with one child away at college and another retreating behind headphones and a closed bedroom door. But what we need, in my view, is sensible change. Change that recognizes the unique character of our city. Change that puts families first.

As we talk about budget cuts and plans to make Burbank bigger and better, let’s not forget the little things that make our city what it is — a place where kids can play in the streets and the parks, where seniors can get the services they need to lead healthy active lives, and where families feel safe and protected. And let’s make sure we send a message to developers who come here to line their pockets: this is not your playground. This is not an “untapped market.” This is our home.

And I know life is busy — especially for those young families who will be impacted most by what is lost. But now is the time to start paying attention — to start contacting your elected officials, to start going to City Council meetings, to make sure you vote — to remind your neighbors to vote — the next time we have a chance to weigh in on the leadership of our city.

Maybe it’s not too late. Maybe our city can be saved. Maybe — just maybe — we don’t have to say goodbye to Burbank just yet.















Burbank Mom on I Heart Burbank

I wish I could have made this event at the old Ikea. I didn’t get home from work until 7:15 that evening. So hopeful they will do something similar again. But here’s an interesting viewpoint from This is the blog that always seems to be in lockstep with the development class in our city. This time she’s a bit “sad.” Which is telling. I’m neutral on this project but very concerned for the congestion it WILL bring. I already avoid the Empire Center and downtown is already pretty bad. You can justify this massive development any way you want but the fact remains: I HEART BURBANK will further transform the downtown area into the congested, zoo-like atmosphere of the Santa Monica 3rd Street promenade when it’s completed. No one can argue against that. But of course Burbank Mom makes it sound like any dissent would be akin to “panic”. Do we want all this for a measly one-time 2.5 million increase to the city’s coffers? Remember the sales taxes go to the region not directly to our city. And the idea that Macy’s “owns” San Fernando Blvd. That one sounds pretty fishy to me. Will have to check that out and report back. The best course is to pay attention to the project and keep getting the word out so the people who live in the area can weigh in.

Mega Development Open House this Thurs.

If you live, work or do business downtown OR if your kids go to Burbank High you need to attend this open house for the new I Heart Burbank development at the Old Ikea site on San Fernando. It’s this Thursday from 6pm-8pm. More info here.  Be advised they are asking to email or text you news etc. Not singling out these I Heart Burbank people specifically, but you should always be cautious online.

On the next Episode of Flipped: I HEART BURBANK

The American shopping mall may be dead — or at the very least on life support — but a handful of real estate investment companies aren’t ready to sing a requiem just yet. Instead, they’re bucking the trend — snatching up shopping malls around the country at bargain basement prices and trying to turn them around.

Dallas, TX-based Cypress Equities — which bought a majority stake in Burbank Town Center from the mall’s current owner, Irvine-based Crown Realty and Development, for a reported $250 million last April — is one such company.

Cypress CEO’s Chris Maguire explained his strategy of buying failing shopping malls around the country for dimes-on-the-dollar to Bloomberg News: “They need capital, but there’s cash flowing, so you just sit and wait.”

The purchase of the Town Center mall wasn’t Cypress’s first foray into the Burbank area. The company bought Glendale’s Marketplace in 2013 and, in 2016, it added Pasadena’s Paseo to its roster. It’s been on a cross-country buying spree since 2014, when their private equity arm — Cypress Acquisition Partners Retail Fund — held a private equity offering.

Investors were invited to buy shares in the fund in return for a stake in Cypress’s future profits. The offering was a success. CAPRF collected $400 million from backers described in the fund’s SEC filings as “a diverse group of investors including public and corporate pensions; sovereign wealth funds; endowments; foundations; family offices; and fund of funds investors.”

One hundred sixty million dollars of the investor money — 40 percent — was specifically earmarked for shopping mall acquisitions. Cypress Equities currently owns 28 retail centers in 14 states.

What does Cypress’s ownership of the mall mean for Burbank?

In the short term, if you believe the company’s press, it means “a thriving, sustainable community in the heart of Burbank.” Not to mention a much, much fancier mall.

At the moment, Cypress Equities Real Estate Management (the retail management and property development wing of Cypress Equities, which was formerly known as Arrow Retail), is waiting for Burbank’s Planning Department to okay plans for a $55-million dollar facelift aimed at transforming the mall from a drab retail mausoleum to an airy, light-filled indoor/outdoor restaurant, shopping and family entertainment space.

The company is also partnering with Crown to re-purpose the abandoned IKEA space and the property around it into a mega-complex of apartments, condos, stores, offices, a hotel, a farmers market space and even a skating rink (maybe).

According to “I Heart Burbank,” the PR website for the project, plans include:

Extensive remodeling and renovation of the mall and “opening” of the Magnolia Street entrance
765 apartments on the former IKEA site
70 condo units where the Corner Bakery is now
An open-air pedestrian plaza
An additional 259 rental units at the current Office Depot site.
A hotel and additional retail spaces

These last two, it notes, are “subject to future market conditions.”

On the City of Burbank Planning Board’s website, plans submitted by the owners give us a few more details.

The 259 unit apartment building on the Office Depot site will be seven stories high.
A 15 story building will house house 70 condo units where Corner Bakery sits now.
That 7-story mixed use building will also include 37,420 sq. ft. of retail/restaurant space and the old IKEA parking lot will make way for a pedestrian walk that will connect the two sides of the street.
From the architectural drawings it appears as if that 7-story, 200 room hotel with 10,000 sq. ft. of restaurant space will sit where the Chevy’s and Barnes and Noble are now.
The developers are asking for permission to “make Improvements” to N. San Fernando Boulevard (which presumably means closing it to traffic for the pedestrian mall)

The project’s construction has been designed to take place in a series of “phases,” with the Office Depot site “maintain(ing) its current retail use for some time to come” because it has a long-term lease on the site.

Like the other developments pending in Burbank, even if this one is approved by the Planning Department, the Burbank City Council would still need to give it the green light.

And after that?

There’s no reason to believe the mall’s out-of-state owners are in Burbank for the long haul. If history — not to mention their own business model — is any judge, Cypress will stick around just long enough for market forces to make the mall and the adjacent mega-development attractive to suitors. Then they’ll sell it off to the highest bidder for a sizable profit and get out.

Clues can be found by examining their 2014 private equity offering. Commercial Real Estate Direct noted, “(Cypress Equities is) expected to complete its acquisition phase in about three years and hold its assets until about four years afterwards.”

Presumably, then, if all goes according to plan, Cypress will complete the Burbank Town Center project (or whichever elements of it still make financial sense by the time it’s approved) and then they’ll dump it. It’s what they did with The Streets of Woodfield, the mall they bought in suburban Chicago.

In 2012, using a $100 million dollar loan, Cypress paid $118 million for The Streets of Woodfield, in Schaumburg, Illinois. The mall is one of the biggest retail centers in Chicago’s Northwest suburbs. Cypress made a few minor improvements to the mall (the property had been completely renovated a decade earlier), repainting the parking garage and asking the city of Schaumburg for permission to add some additional signage. And then, in 2015, they sold it to New York-based Blackstone Group.

The flip netted Cypress more than $60 million, a 53 percent profit in return for its investment three years earlier. Not too shabby.

In the case of Burbank, provided the commercial real estate market remains strong, there’s no reason to believe the scenario would be any different. Cypress would take its profits and get out — which wouldn’t necessarily be bad for Burbank. Putting the multi-use development component aside for a moment, many residents would look at the mall renovation as a win for our city.

But as we examine this project in its entirety, and other development projects currently in the pipeline — but especially those ambitious enough to promise a complete re-invention of our downtown — we must do so while keeping in mind what might happen in a worst-case scenario.

Many experts warn that Los Angeles real estate, both residential and commercial, is experiencing another bubble. If investing in our downtown starts to become a losing proposition, can we count on an investment company, beholden to Wall Street, to take the project to completion, even if that means throwing good money after bad?

Who knows? And, frankly, Burbank might be willing to take such a risk. But we shouldn’t do so blindly. Thoughtful development means looking at all the options and weighing the good and the bad before making decisions that will change our city for a long time to come.$300mln-for-value-add-investment-fund.html

Mega-Developments Could Cost Burbank Schools Millions

Thanks to a 30-year-old California law which imposes a so-called “developer’s tax” on new construction in the state — money that’s earmarked to pay for school construction and facility upgrades and maintenance — Burbank’s schools will reap additional funds from the city’s development boom. But will it be enough to offset the impact of all those new students that will result from the new development?

An April 2016 analysis prepared for the school district suggests maybe not.

The School Fee Justification Study,” prepared for the district by the consulting firm Koppel & Gruber Public Finance, examined what impact an increase in new residential housing might have on the city’s schools, which serve more than 15,000 students in grades K-12. It determined that each additional square foot of construction would cost Burbank schools $4.10. However, developers of residential housing in Burbank will only have to pay $3.48 per square foot — the maximum set by the state.

As a result, Burbank schools could be left with a shortfall of $.62 for each square foot of new residential construction. And the district could be left high and dry when it comes to commercial development too, according to the study.

State law caps the tax on new commercial construction at $.56 per square foot. With the exception of hotels, the bulk of the commercial construction projects proposed for Burbank also fell short of covering projected costs, sometimes by more than 150 percent, according to the school fee study, which set the impact construction of a standard commercial office space at $2.07 per square foot, a large high-rise commercial office space at $1.97 a square foot, and shopping center at $.85 a square foot.

The school district says it plans to use the money it collects on new development to cover roughly $124 million in facilities costs over the next decade, including an almost $40 million-dollar renovation project which would “include modernization of existing classrooms and the replacement of portable classrooms with permanent classrooms,” the report said.

A rudimentary review of five projects currently in development in Burbank — Burbank Town Center/I Heart Burbank, Premiere on First, 115 N. Screenland, First Street Village, and The Avion (airport adjacent property) — indicates that the discrepancy between how much tax the schools can force developers to pay and how much the district says it needs to blunt the impact of new construction could rob Burbank of almost $2.3 million dollars.

How we got the numbers:

We obtained estimates of the potential square footage and use of each project from City of Burbank Planning Board’s website. For residential units, unless a more accurate figure was provided in the developer’s plan, we used 1,173 square feet as the weighted average square footage of the proposed units (an estimate based on information obtained from LA County, according to the district study). We determined the cost impact of each project on school facilities using the BUSD report’s numbers ($4.10), and then compared this to the total revenues the school fees would generate as a result of the developers tax at a rate of $3.48 per square foot.

Because the impact on schools by commercial development varied according to the type of development (shopping centers compared to banks compared to commercial offices, etc.) we relied on the BUSD’s numbers to determine an average commercial cost impact ($1.40 per square foot) and compared it to the maximum school fee assessed on commercial properties ($.56).

Since the BUSD report determined the impact from hotels would be $.49 (below the minimum), and the district can not assess more fees than the cost of impact — we determined each square foot of hotel space should be taxed at a rate of $.49 per square foot. We used 300 square feet (slightly less than the average US hotel room size according to USA Today) to determine the overall square footage of hotel projects proposed.

Burbank Town Center/I Heart Burbank
70,000 square feet of new commercial square footage, approximately 200 hotel rooms and approximately 1,100 housing units

Total square footage: 1,290,300
BUSD impact ($4.10): $5,290,230
School Fee ($3.48): $4,490,244

Shortfall: $799,986

Total square footage 70,000
BUSD impact ($1.40) $98,000
School Fee ($.56) $39,200

Shortfall: $58,800

Total square footage 60,000
School Fee ($.49) $29,400


Premiere on First
Two options have been proposed. Both would include 154 residential units. One would include 181,517 square feet of commercial space; the other proposes 126,000 square feet in hotel space and 15,589 square feet of commercial space.

Total square footage: 180,642
BUSD impact ($4.10) $740,632
School fee ($3.48) $628,634

Shortfall: $111,998


Option One – Commercial/No Hotel

Total square footage 181,517
BUSD impact ($1.40) $254,124
School Fee ($.56) $101,646

Shortfall: $152,478

Option Two – Commercial & 230 room hotel

Commercial sq. footage 15,589
BUSD impact ($1.40) $21,825
School Fee ($.56) $8,730

Shortfall: $13,094

Hotel square footage 126,000
School Fee/impact ($.49) $61,740


115 N. Screenland
40 residential units with an average size of 1,284. 3000 square feet of commercial use.

Total square footage 51,360
BUSD impact ($4.10) $210,576
School Fee ($3.48) $178,732

Shortfall: $31,844

Total square footage 3,000
BUSD impact ($1.40) $4,200
School Fee ($.56) $1,680

Shortfall: $2,520


First Street Village
261 residential units and 21,265 square feet of commercial space

Total square footage 306,153
BUSD impact ($4.10) $1,255,227
School Fee ($3.48) $1,065,412

Shortfall: $189,815

Total square footage 21,265
BUSD impact ($1.40) $29,771
School Fee ($.56) $11,908

Shortfall: $17,863


The Avion
1,177,489 in commercial construction. 150 room hotel.

Total square footage 1,177,489
BUSD impact ($1.40) $1,648,485
School Fee ($.56) $659,394

Hotel sq. footage 45,000
School Fee/impact ($.49) $22,050



It’s important to note that the analysis prepared for the district was a cost projection — the actual cost impact on schools could, in fact, turn out to be much less (or much more).

Also, the school district must meet certain legal requirements before imposing the fee on new construction in the first place. They must:

1. Determine the purpose of the fee;
2. Identify the use to which the fee is to be put;
3. Determine how there is a reasonable relationship between the fee’s use and the type of development project on which the fee is imposed;
4. Determine that there is a reasonable relationship between the need for the public facilities and the type of development project on which the fee is imposed;
5. Determine that there is a reasonable relationship between the amount of the fee and the cost, or portion of the cost of the public facility attributable to the development on which the fee is imposed; and
6. Provide an annual accounting of any portion of the fee remaining unspent or held for projects for more than five (5) years after collection.
So, in fairness, the report prepared for the district should be read in light of the fact that the school district has an impetus to, perhaps, provide the “worst case scenario” in calculating, the potential impact of the new development on schools. After all, it may only assess the developer’s fee if it can show that its needs are equal to or greater than the amount of revenue it would collect from the tax.

But the potential impact of building residences for thousands more families whose children may use the district’s 19 schools should not be discounted either. It is one other important factor residents need to examine as we head to the polls next month. We need a city council that thinks before acting and considers all the ramifications of its decisions. We need a council that puts Burbank families first and won’t greenlight projects that allow outside developers to turn a quick profit and stick Burbank schools with the bill.

Are Chinese Investors Driving Burbank’s Mega-Development Boom?

Hanhai Plaza. Land purchased for $100 in 2003 by Cusumanos. Sold to Chinese investors for $22 million 11 years later.

“This purchase is a gateway to entering the multimedia and entertainment industry,”

That’s what Lucy Lu, the chief executive of the Chinese investment group Creative International Investments, said in a press release back in 2014, when her company paid the Cusumanos $22 million for Burbank Civic Plaza — a four-story building for which the Burbank developer had paid the city a mere one hundred dollars 11 years earlier.

She was referring to the Chinese company’s plan to use the building as an incubator space for Chinese media companies as that country seeks to raise its entertainment industry profile. But, looking now at the slate of mega-developments jockeying for a green light from the Burbank City Council, perhaps residents should ask if the Cusumano sale was actually the gateway for something else — namely a wholesale campaign by Burbank developers to cash in on a Chinese real estate buying spree.

Experts say that Chinese investment in US real estate — and in Southern California in particular — has gone from a mere trickle to a flood, and indeed, from 2009 to 2014, Chinese investment in Los Angeles County doubled, according to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. Last year, the country’s investment in foreign commercial and residential property broke new records, with an increase of almost 53% over 2015, according to JLL Global Capital, a leading real estate investment bank.

While the Chinese spent their yuan all around the world, the United States was the most popular destination for their cash, drawing in $14.3 billion. West Coast cities — particularly San Francisco and Los Angeles — collected the bulk of those Chinese dollars, continuing a multi-year trend that has transformed the Southern California real estate market, and which experts say will continue, despite recent efforts by the Chinese government to stem the flow of money out of China.

Developers in Southern California have not been shy about tapping the Chinese investor market. The website for downtown LA’s megalith “The Metropolis, the biggest multi-use development on the West Coast, for example, is in both English and Mandarin.

A recent listing from Brad Korb
A listing from Brad Korb, one of Burbank’s top realtors.

So, what does all this mean for Burbank? Is there reason to think our local development boom is linked to this larger trend?

Well, we can’t ignore the fact that many of Burbank’s more savvy real estate brokers are already tapping potential buyers in China for their commercial, multifamily and single-family listings. China’s popular online real estate site is currently advertising more than a dozen Burbank properties, including: 220 East Valencia (12-unit rental property) 3118 Burbank Blvd (former home to The French Confection Company, the specialty cake store). 1913 Jackson Street (a triplex investment property) 2317 N. Frederic Street (16-unit apartment building)

And these single-family homes: 3018 W. Wyoming 7774 Shadyspring Place 1920 N. Evergreen 1133 N. Reese 344 N. Florence 1110 N. Griffith Park 1526 N. Catalina 2124 N. Brighton 2900 Scott Road 2712 Kingsway Drive 434 Parish Place 1421 W. Oak

So the answer is — it sure feels like a trend.

By examining certain trends we see in previous efforts to attract Chinese investment, and noting similarities between those projects and what’s being proposed in Burbank, we might be able to better evaluate the developers’ intentions.

Too Many Apartments (And Too Few Parking Spaces)

The projects which will go before the Burbank City Council are for mixed-use developments, which combine housing with retail and commercial use. It is a relatively new land use for Burbank (the Talaria being a notable exception), although it is becoming more and more visible in DTLA, where shiny new super-towers dot the Los Angeles skyline with increasing frequency. It is worth noting that this kind of development — high-density, multi-use buildings located in urban centers — is the norm in China.

“Compared to the United States or other developed countries, mixed-use development is already common in China, where many neighborhoods feature all the services most people need within walking distance,” reports the China Business Review, a publication of the US-China Business Council.

The ability to house a lot of people who will presumably walk to the grocery store, ride their bikes and take public transportation to work, and rarely if ever get in their cars, is the major selling point for this type of development — and indeed, local boosters say it will obviate a need for additional parking and minimize the dwelling’s impact on local traffic patterns.

Cusumano's next development
The Cusumano Company’s latest project on First Street.

However, a significant difference between the Burbank projects and the Chinese variety is how the heavy hand of the Chinese government influences their city planning process. As Jennivine Kwan, vice-president of international operations at the US Green Building Council told the China Business Review that the Chinese government’s role in urban planning makes it easier to create sustainable communities. “China is one of the few places in the world that actually decides where a city is going to happen. They actually build the city,” Kwan said.

This difference is significant, and something Burbank residents might consider as they evaluate promises from our local developers to build green, self-contained communities. While all of these promises of sustainability are of course appealing on their face, the reality is that Burbank lacks the transportation infrastructure necessary to make a car-free lifestyle feasible. Post-war city planners went in a completely different direction with our town. For better or for worse, Burbank was built for car culture and to fulfill a postwar vision of a suburban utopia. Burbank residents would do well to consider that those decisions can’t be undone by simply building a handful of high-rises with low-flush toilets.

Don’t we have enough hotels in Burbank?

There may be a reason all these development projects include plans for new hotels. Consider this, from The Washington Post:

“Hotels, which often come with prime real estate, big-name brands and a promise of stable returns, have become an especially popular parking space for China’s billions.”

The interest by Chinese investors in the hotel market — and especially in multi-use projects that include hotel and office space — stems from a desire to capitalize on the relative stability of that sector, as well as in increase in Chinese tourism, especially by middle class Chinese, according to research analysts at HVS financial services. They report that according to the National Travel and Tourism Office, 2.19 million Chinese visitors traveled to the U.S. in 2014, a 21% increase over the prior year. These visitors contributed over $2.3 billion in travel spending. Moreover, the analysts continued, U.S. inbound travel from China is expected to continue to grow, and Chinese investors have been focusing on acquiring mid-scale hotels to capture the demand from the country’s middle-class.

That the projects awaiting approval in Burbank comply exactly with the needs of this particular investor group may not be a mere coincidence.

Who Can Afford to Live in These Apartments?

A major concern for cities that have seen a spike in Chinese investment – from Silicon Valley to Arcadia to downtown Los Angeles — is that the influx of foreign funds resets rents to a level that puts apartments out of reach for local residents. Yes, Burbank’s proposed projects would add thousands of rental units to our city’s housing supply, but with rents set at about the Los Angeles average (about $2,000 for a one-bedroom), the projects would do little to address the city’s shortage of affordable housing (the median household income in Burbank is about $66,000 a year).

So, why would developers build apartments most people in Burbank can’t afford?

While it’s true that for middle class and wealthy Chinese families, buying — not renting — is generally a more attractive option, the reluctance to rent might be overcome by one of our city’s noted strengths: the reputation of our local schools. A review of Burbank single-family home listings on indicates that sellers recognize the value in promoting their proximity to Burbank’s well-regarded schools. “Walk to award-winning Bret Harte Elementary,” says one listing. “Close to John Burroughs High School,” another notes. “Award-winning schools are within walking distance of the front porch,” yet another listing brags.

According to The New York Times, “education plays an outsized role” in the real estate decisions of Chinese families, and those middle class families who can’t afford to buy a home in a top school district like Palo Alto, for example (where prices have skyrocketed in recent years) will often rent an apartment to allow their children to attend American high schools and state universities. Some 23,500 Chinese students were enrolled in American high schools in 2013, the last year for which such numbers are available (the number is probably higher now), and according to the Institute on International Education, almost a third of international students at American Universities are Chinese.

If, in fact, the ultimate goal of our local developers is to sell these developments to Chinese investors, marketing these apartments to Chinese families makes perfect sense. The planned 12-story apartment building across the street from Burbank High School, for example, seems particularly well-located for families hoping to take advantage of educational opportunities in Burbank. And while Burbank would certainly be enriched by this addition to our culturally diverse community, it’s fair for us to consider the potential impact of a large influx of short-time residents who have an agenda other than making our city their home, and no stake in its future.

Why It Matters

As our city considers whether to give the go-ahead to a series of major development projects that will inarguably change the landscape of this city forever — whether one believes that change will be for better or for worse — it’s necessary to consider as many potential outcomes as possible.

An argument can be made, of course, that in a profit-driven global economy it’s completely unreasonable to expect a developer to consider a community’s wish that ownership of its prime real estate remain in the hands of those with a personal stake in its city. Capitalism dictates that decisions be based on profit margins alone.

And, of course, there is the gaping hole in Burbank’s budget that must be addressed. It might be true that development — even development intended to maximize profits at the expense of local ownership — is the price we must pay if we want to fund Burbank’s beautiful parks, libraries, and schools. Maybe the cost of living in beautiful downtown Burbank is selling off beautiful downtown Burbank piece by piece.

However, if this is the choice that must be made, residents should approach it with their eyes wide open. If our local developers are indeed operating with an eye on the Chinese market, we need to consider all the possible ramifications.

For example, we might ask:

Is the recent trend of Chinese investment a repeat of Japanese investment in U.S. real estate in the early 1990s? (That didn’t end well).

Is building developments tailored to Chinese investment a sound financial bet, given the recent slowing of the Chinese economy?

What if our local developers have overestimated the zeal of the Chinese investor, and later discover there are no great profits to be made off their building folly? Will they just walk away? And if so, what will become of our downtown?

Alternatively, what if our local developers’ bets pay off — are we, as a community, okay with selling off downtown Burbank like so many pieces of Monopoly property?

As residents we have a lot to consider, but it all comes down to this:

Fundamentally, do we think development in our city should be be aimed at creating spaces where we can live, work and raise our families? Or should building projects be tailored to make them attractive to buyers in the global marketplace, for whom our city is nothing more than another place to turn a profit?

We need to have a conversation where we consider the risks and benefits of both scenarios — with regard to our budget, certainly, but also in terms of what kind of future we, collectively, envision for our city. Most importantly, we need to have this conversation now — before our City Council gives these projects the green light — and it’s too late.


I Heart Burbank developer meets with residents

FireShot Capture 2 - - http___www.iheartburbank.com_the_details

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.”

Elect to Protect



Here’s a flyer every voter in Burbank needs to see and share. The upcoming municipal election is crucial and this shows in vivid detail why. If you are concerned about what is happening to Burbank please share this with your friends and neighbors. Click on the picture to load a high resolution PDF version. Right click on it to save it for sharing. And don’t forget our sharing buttons for FaceBook, Twitter and Google + below this post.

Must See TV: Do you live near Burbank Blvd, Magnolia or Olive?

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