In a move to hold on to local control amid a wave of strict housing bills from the state, the City Council voted on May 23 to establish design standards for multifamily housing developments built in Burbank before a new state law goes into effect this summer.
New projects will be mandated to follow certain design elements, including the materials used, a new requirement for balconies and a requirement that dictates the design of a building’s facade.
Burbank officials said that the new standards will “promote consistent design language and thoughtful development standards to facilitate the anticipated infill projects and help protect existing neighborhoods.”
Assembly Bill 2011, signed into law last September, requires that cities provide a streamlined approval for affordable housing developments that meet certain location, affordability and labor requirements. Eligible projects must be located in certain commercial zones and be 100% affordable multifamily buildings with at least five units.
Similar legislation, Senate Bill 35 — which allows the same streamlined local government approval for buildings with some affordable housing — has brought about significant public backlash in recent years after residents in the Rancho Equestrian neighborhood sought to protect their corner of Burbank from large housing developments and traffic.
As it turned out, the city actually had very little say in whether or not those developments would go through, as state law requires an approval if the site meets requirements under state law. The same would be true for AB 2011 once it goes into effect on July 1.
The outcry was so loud that Rancho neighborhood activists convinced the City Council to deny an SB 35 project’s application eligibility in 2022, inviting a lawsuit against the city for violations of housing law. Developers of the project — called the Pickwick Project — sued, citing that the city “acted in bad faith” and was “knowingly and willingly in violation of state housing law.” Last October, the city settled the lawsuit and approved the project.
Another controversial 150-unit SB 35 project was later approved with just seven parking spaces on Empire Avenue.
Since then, it has become clear, city leaders have said, that state mandates have resulted in declining local control over the approval process of new developments. These new design standards are an effort by the city to regain some control in the design of new projects that city planners forecast will be cropping up far more in the coming years.
“This effort will enable the city to efficiently process future projects, and maintain local control to the extent possible,” said Greg Mirza-Avakyan, associate city planner, and a presentation to the City Council.
The new design changes include requirements for publicly accessible open spaces, improvements to standards in front of mixed-use developments to allow walkability for pedestrians, new standards such as security and maintenance requirements, and “fine-grained architectural requirements” to achieve facade variation and promote the pedestrian experience through objective design and development standards.
The facade variation changes will require developers to design buildings in a way that has depth, with multiple planes and “robust architectural details” to avoid “boxy, wall-like” buildings from being approved, said Mirza-Avakyan.
“These standards are meant to ensure contextually appropriate design,” said Mirza-Avakyan.
RESIDENTS URGE CITY TO CONSIDER OPTIONS
Residents spoke out during the May 23 meeting, opposing the measure, though for different reasons. Some said that it was too big of an obstacle for developers, while others felt that the city should instead focus its time on fighting new state-mandated housing law.
“Everything that you folks do is put up impediments to the creation of housing, and make it harder for developers and more expensive for developers,” said one Burbank resident, Joel Schlossman, who opposed the measure.
Another resident, Simon Hammel, asked the City Council to delay voting on the new standards, and instead join in on a lawsuit with the city of Huntington Beach, which alleges that new state housing law violates the city’s zoning rights.
Hammel wrote in a letter to the City Council that allowing new projects “essentially brings in those conditions that many people sought to escape by living in Burbank, homogenizing cities in a developer free-for-all profit before people approach without any regard to long-term outcome than supposed housing cost.”
“No city has prevailed yet in challenging the statewide interest that preempts local charters in all of these housing production issues,” replied City Attorney Joe McDougall.
Ultimately the Council voted 5-0 to approve the new design standards, perhaps opening the door to what will become a very visually different Burbank in the coming years.
First published in the June 3 print issue of the Burbank Leader.