Burbank landmark Pickwick Bowl and Gardens is being sold and redeveloped into a residential housing site using Senate Bill 35, a measure that limits the City of Burbank’s control over the outcome of the proposal.
In May, a notice of intent to submit an application for the development was presented to the City, followed by a property submittal on July 1. This outlined plans for constructing 98 townhomes on the site, with housing that will consist of for-sale units rather than rental property. 10 of the 98 units will be cost-effective for low-income residents in compliance with California State guidelines, and each unit will include the addition of two-car garage guest parking. Pickwick Ice, which entered into a partnership with the Los Angeles Kings and American Sports Entertainment Co. in 2018, will remain on-site as is.
Matt Waken of MW Investments has been named as the buyer of the property through whom the City has received the submittal, and SB 35 is being utilized for the development. This legislation has been in effect since 2018 and streamlines housing projects throughout California. The bill is a response to a lack of housing in the State, and specifically seeks to implement more affordable housing developments. The process under SB 35 is ministerial, meaning that local residents and governing bodies have limited influence over the authorization of such proposals.
“SB 35 takes away our discretion,” City of Burbank Community Development Director Patrick Prescott said. “This project will go through what the state intends it to be, which is to remove our discretion and require us to approve it if it complies with the state statute.”
Pickwick being converted into housing is not the only instance in which a city has been left with no authority over housing projects due to SB 35. In Santa Cruz, a large development has been introduced at a site which the city deems as historical. They have voiced concerns over negative consequences for public health and safety which could result from the construction, but the city has no ability to object. Separately, the City of Berkeley and the local Ohlone Native American tribe recently went to the California Supreme Court to file an appeal of a housing project being introduced on grounds that are sacred to the tribe. This appeal was rejected by the Court on July 29, however, confirming the bill’s power over municipal governments.
Former Mayor of Burbank and City Council Member Emily Gabel-Luddy says she doesn’t believe Pickwick should qualify for streamlined housing, as the Rancho District property is the only area in Burbank which falls under Commercial Recreation zoning. Gabel-Luddy also voiced concerns that two current members of the Burbank City Council are being left in the dark about the specifics of SB 35. In mid-May, Gabel-Luddy says, these members requested a briefing on the bill’s components from City staff. Two months later, this vital information has not been delivered to the council members. Moreover, Gabel-Luddy, a Rancho District resident, previously requested permission to view a copy of the developer’s plans for the property, which she says was rejected.
“If I was on council, I’d be very concerned right now,” Gabel-Luddy said. “Why hasn’t staff come forward yet to give a full briefing on SB 35 and how it would affect future land use decisions in our city as a whole?”
The Burbank City Council’s 2035 General Plan adopted a housing goal in 2019 of creating 12,000 new residential units within the next 15 years. The City has additionally drafted a new Housing Element for the 2021-2029 8-year timeline, and Prescott says they will consider this project to be a down payment on housing goals for this agenda.
Prescott added that, although the developer has indicated some willingness to talk to the City regarding “what [they] prefer to see there or how [they] want the project to look,” this proposal still points towards a rising problem of a city’s lack of input over where new housing additions would best serve their community.
“[SB 35] shortens the review process because the state has determined the need that we have for housing,” Prescott said. “It’s unfortunate that the state has taken away our control because…the council already set a goal of 12,000 units and we prefer to do that on our terms, [and] the state has taken away that discretion.”
While a member of the Burbank City Council, Gabel-Luddy was instrumental in implementing housing through projects like the Talaria apartment construction, which introduced over 200 units to the City. Additional projects were approved while she served the City, including two that are currently underway and will add over 850 dwelling units and nearly 83 affordable units to Burbank. These past projects by the City are noteworthy in being strategically placed where they simultaneously contribute to Burbank housing and retain neighborhood integrity.
“I do think that it’s really important that cities also do what Burbank has done and figure out where to do housing in a way that adds value to the whole city, but at the same time preserving the parts of the community that are working and that people are invested in and enjoy,” 43rd District Assemblymember Laura Friedman said.
The initial property submittal to the City from MW Investments was determined to be missing some details after an evaluation, which will require the developer to make alterations accordingly and re-submit the plans to the City. Once these corrections are completed, they will be able to submit the plans and move forward with a 90-day tribal consultation process. Following the consultation, the developer’s application will be formally submitted and another 90-day design review period will be performed by the City. After this, the process of constructing the units will be allowed to commence.
Although Pickwick Bowl and Gardens has the land use designation of Commercial Recreation zoning, which does not permit residential housing developments, the City’s General Plan anticipates the low-density residential potential for this site. Under the plan, 20 housing units per acre are allowed to be proposed on the land. Rather than a cause for concern over California State policies, Friedman acknowledges that this development can be addressed in the City’s General Plan. A Historic Preservation Ordinance, she states, along with a citizen survey to determine which places locals feel should be preserved, can prevent future projects of a similar nature.
“I think that this is a city not realizing that this property might at some point be under threat and not taking the chance to preserve it when they could have,” Friedman, who voted in favor of SB 35 in 2017, said.
Since becoming aware of the development, Friedman has reached out to the Los Angeles Conservancy, an organization that seeks to maintain historical sites in Los Angeles County, and is currently awaiting their response. Friedman concurs with local opinion that there are alternative areas better suited for new housing units in Burbank other than the Rancho District. California State Senator Anthony Portantino, who voted against SB 35, did not respond to an interview request to discuss the bill and its possible effects on Burbank.
“While facing the housing crisis head-on is important, it’s also important that we make sure that housing doesn’t take away from the communities we love,” Friedman said. “We need to preserve the structures that give our community a sense of place, have historical significance and meaning for residents. I believe that Pickwick is a key historic and recreational property that adds a huge amount of value to Burbank, I would love to see it reused and preserved instead of torn down.”
Although she notes her position does not grant direct input over the outcome of this proposal, Friedman has actively sought out conversations with City personnel on methods of maintaining Pickwick Bowl and Gardens. Friedman has a background in historic preservation, as she previously worked with the L.A. Conservancy as a volunteer for numerous years. She suggests that, if the City was to raise the argument that Pickwick should be protected as a historic site, a historic assessment of the property would be the first step of this process.
In 2017, a housing development project was attempted at Pickwick Bowl and Gardens, which was met with great opposition by community members and eventually failed to move forward. Unlike this instance, however, a more extensive review and development process will not be permitted while using SB 35. This means that Burbank City Council and Planning Board hearings will not be required, and no public hearings with input from locals will be held. The Rancho Review Board will instead be used as the platform to host an informative community gathering on SB 35 and its provisions.
With SB 35 placing a strong removal of local authority over the fate of Pickwick, the overriding question is what the bill may mean for other city properties. Burbank’s General Plan describes Pickwick’s Rancho District as “one of a few neighborhoods in the urbanized areas of Los Angeles County where homeowners may keep horses on their residential properties,” and characterizes it as a distinct land area that warrants preservation. Gabel-Luddy is concerned other spots like the Media District or Downtown Burbank, which adhere to similar General Plan guidance, may be under threat in the future if the City’s control remains limited by state authority.
“This is a completely unique parcel,” Gabel-Luddy said of Pickwick Bowl and Gardens. “The real question here is…Does anyone in those other neighborhoods have the ability to weigh into the discussion about what’s going on and exercise their duty and right to engage in conversations over the future of the area?”