First published in the Oct. 29 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
The Burbank City Council approved a contentious townhome project that seeks to convert the Pickwick Bowl into 92 residential units under state Senate Bill 35 during its meeting Tuesday, Oct. 25.
Laguna Beach developer Matthew Waken had submitted the project application to convert the Pickwick Bowl into townhomes under SB35, a law that allows a streamlined approval process for projects with affordable housing units, but was denied by City Council in April over zoning concerns.
Waken sued, citing that the city “acted in bad faith” and was “knowingly and willingly in violation of state housing law.” Earlier this month, Waken and the city of Burbank settled the lawsuit, agreeing on a collection of terms including reducing the project density from 98 units to 92 total units — 10 of which are still slated to be low-income housing.
The agreement also requires that Waken build an equestrian trail along the perimeter of the property with other pedestrian and equestrian safety measures.
“We are pleased that the City Council approved our project Tuesday night. In addition to providing the city with 92 new homes, we think our project will enhance and contribute in a real positive way to the character and the vitality of the Rancho neighborhood, particularly with the added neighborhood amenity of an equestrian trail along Main Street and Riverside Drive,” Waken told the Leader.
In a reversal from their April decision, the council now recognizes that the Pickwick parcel does meet zoning requirements under the Rancho neighborhood plan, which allows for 20 housing units per acre on that site.
Many residents of the Rancho equestrian neighborhood still expressed opposition to the development altogether, worrying that the density will overwhelm city resources and change the character of the neighborhood.
Vice Mayor Konstantine Anthony addressed public concerns saying that the site fits into the Rancho neighborhood zoning requirements.
“Any member of the public who is worried that we can’t supply water, power, fire or police can refer back to our general plan and see that we’ve already made the qualifications necessary to know that we can in fact supply that type of density because we’ve done the study already,” Anthony said.
“It is never wrong to stand up for what you think is right,” said Emily Gabel-Luddy, spokeswoman for Friends of the Rancho Providencia Neighborhood, which intervened in the lawsuit. The group was included in the settlement agreement.
“The Pickwick settlement agreement represents constructive engagement that reached a better conclusion for all concerned including the amended application,” she added, thanking Waken and the city for working with the Rancho neighborhood to reach an agreement.
“We also agree to disagree, and that is in the settlement agreement as well,” she added. “We advocated for more affordable housing, because the 10% in this project does not even meet the 16% required by the state mandated target for low-income units.”
The Pickwick project was the city’s first SB35 project application. Councilmember Sharon Springer argued that the controversial bill stymies local control by mandating the approval of affordable housing projects, but pointed out that developers only include the minimum number of housing units, which is 10% under the bill. SB35 forces the council to approve developments where the city would like to see far more affordable housing units.
“We are doing our best to maintain the local control and to meet the commitment that we have made to provide housing at all income levels,” Springer said.
This sentiment was reflected by public commenters on Tuesday. “I’m concerned about SB35 projects like the Pickwick project where the taxpayer may be forced to incur the [cost] and yet the city gets minimal affordable housing benefits from the project,” said resident Susan O’Caroll.
“The city should adopt an ordinance that requires SB35 projects to produce housing at levels consistent with the city’s targets,” she added.
Burbank is a long way from reaching its goal of building 15,000 affordable housing units by 2035 — only about 500 new units were added during the last housing element cycle between 2014 and 2021.
Since the April denial of the Pickwick project, the city has approved other SB35 projects and doubled down on its intent to provide city-owned public housing the Civic District.
Rancho community members have also spoken out for an enhanced equestrian trail beyond the property line of the Pickwick development. Rancho resident Jay Geisenheimer and planning board member Chris Rizzotti proposed their plans for a new trail and both asked the council to make a future agenda item to discuss building a trail connecting Main Street, Riverside Drive and Mariposa Street.
“At the moment, we have a small trail at Pickwick that is, in my opinion, inadequate. It’s a trail really to nowhere that drops the rider off in the middle of traffic,” Rizzotti said.
In addition to the bridle equestrian trail, the Pickwick project design includes 92 units between 1,816 and 1,930 square feet each in three- to four-story high Spanish-style dwellings. The project will include drought-tolerant landscaping, patios, courtyards and more than 65,000 square feet of open space.