HomeCity Government NewsAdvocacy Group Might Sue Over Pickwick Project

Advocacy Group Might Sue Over Pickwick Project

First published in the April 23 print issue of the Burbank Leader.

A housing advocacy group said it is contemplating suing the city of Burbank over the City Council’s recent denial of a heavily criticized proposal to convert the Pickwick Bowl into townhomes.

The council voted unanimously during a special meeting on Monday to deny the potential project, which would have replaced the historic Pickwick site with 96 three-story condominium units, 10 of which would be allocated for low-income households. It would have included 219 parking spaces, more than 59,000 feet of open space and 15-foot sidewalks around the perimeter.

Laguna Beach developer Matthew Waken had submitted the project application under California Senate Bill 35, which requires cities and counties to approve residential developments that meet certain criteria. Such projects must comply with a jurisdiction’s development rules, including land use, density and parking, and meet a specified percentage of affordable units. SB 35 applies to cities that haven’t met their state-ordered shares of new housing units — a group that includes the vast majority of municipalities.

Rafa Sonnenfeld, director of legal advocacy at YIMBY Law, said in an interview that his organization has had an eye on Burbank for months, ever since the council moved toward appointing itself the deciding body for SB 35 matters. After this week’s decision, he added, YIMBY Law could file a lawsuit against the city, alleging the council violated SB 35’s requirements by declaring the Pickwick project ineligible for its provisions.

“We’re definitely considering it,” Sonnenfeld said, calling the situation “an open and shut case” that the state could also investigate. “All options are on the table right now.”

YIMBY Law, whose name references the “yes, in my backyard” slogan of some groups that lobby for more housing development to address California’s housing crisis, has sued or threatened to sue other cities for allegedly violating SB 35’s provisions.

Alicia Murillo, a spokesperson for the California Department of Housing and Community Development, said the Housing Accountability Unit is looking into the city’s decision but had no further comment. Waken also said he did not wish to comment.

Photo by Christian Leonard / Burbank Leader | The director of legal advocacy at YIMBY Law, a housing advocacy organization, told the Leader that the group is considering suing Burbank over its City Council’s rejection of a proposal to turn the Pickwick Bowl into condominium units.


The City Council argued Monday that the average person could not determine that housing is an allowable use for the zone in which the Pickwick Bowl is located. The Burbank Municipal Code, said Councilwoman Sharon Springer, indicates the Rancho Commercial zone does not allow for the construction of residential units.

“Forcing and distorting this non-residential land use designation into ministerial review for residential development is jamming a square peg into a round hole and potentially shatters the Rancho neighborhood,” she added, reading from a pre-written statement during the meeting.

A letter from state Sen. Anthony Portantino, who currently represents Burbank, also bolstered opponents of the proposed development. He said he consulted with the Legislative Counsel’s Office and believes the Pickwick property zone is not eligible for residential use.

However, an HCD letter to Portantino disputed that assertion, as have Burbank’s own planning officials, pointing out that the city’s General Plan allows for some housing in the Rancho Commercial zone. That letter, which city staff members said they only discovered on HCD’s website during the public hearing, also said state law gives the General Plan final say when there is conflict with other elements.

Fred Ramirez, Burbank’s assistant community development director of planning, added that the city’s municipal code mentions that homes can be built in the Rancho Commercial zone via a table referencing the General Plan.

Sonnenfeld called the council’s arguments “comically bad,” saying its members should have listened to the recommendations of their staff.

“Clearly … they made a very political decision that isn’t based on the evidence,” he added.


The council acknowledged that it needs to build more housing to address high living costs, and expressed a willingness to work with the developer on a more acceptable project. But they maintained that Burbank representatives never intended for residences to be built on the Pickwick site.

Mayor Jess Talamantes expressed concern, however, that denying the project would attract the ire of state officials. Between 2014 and 2021, the city issued building permits for about 60% of the 2,684 housing units for which the state indicated Burbank should plan. But because Burbank didn’t make sufficient progress toward building above-moderate-income housing, it is subject to SB 35.

“It’s going to be another message that we send to Sacramento lawmakers saying, ‘See, Burbank doesn’t want to play. They don’t want to do their share of housing,’” Talamantes said. “But we do have to do our share. We can’t just be saying, ‘Well, not in my neighborhood.’ … There’s not going to be a perfect location.”

The council faced significant pressure to deny the project, though its members said their decision was objective. The council received 111 emails on the Pickwick proposal by the beginning of Monday’s meeting — all but a few expressed concerns regarding it. Dozens more who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting reiterated their opposition, arguing the project would increase traffic and endanger the neighborhood’s equestrian community.

For some Rancho residents who addressed the council, the tension was between two groups — the one that currently lives in the neighborhood, and the one that might live in the neighborhood, if the project moved forward.

“We cannot allow our legislators who voted for the SB 35 rule to be able to ruin this community,” said resident Toni Osseck, who lives across from the Pickwick property and is a horse owner. “We, and you also included, need to stand up for what we want our community to actually be.”

“You talk about bringing in new community,” she added. “What about the current community which is supporting this area?”

Some council members acknowledged the chance of a lawsuit, expressing wariness of potential fines the city might face if it refuses to comply with a judge’s orders.

“There is a strong probability that this will go to court,” Councilman Nick Schultz said Monday. “We’ll see what the court has to say and, it may be out of our hands at some point. … But with all of that said, I think we can all agree the Rancho is a very special place, the Pickwick is unique and it’s worth fighting for.”

Most Popular

[bsa_pro_ad_space id=3]