State Senator Portantino Issues Letter Addressing Pickwick Housing Project

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Pickwick Bowling Lanes and Gardens (© Ross A Benson)

On Thursday, Oct. 7, State Senator Anthony Portantino submitted a letter to Burbank city staff questioning the legality of allowing Senate Bill 35 to be utilized for a housing development at the Pickwick Bowl and Gardens property.

The letter was issued in response to a request for information on Portantino’s communications with Mayor Bob Frutos regarding the project, which will add 98 townhouses to the Pickwick Bowl and Gardens site. 

Portantino wrote in the message that he has received several inquiries from locals about the development, which will use SB 35, a bill streamlining California housing developments, to allow for the residential construction project. Portantino voted against the bill in 2017, as he “foresaw potential negative impacts on communities like Burbank” from the ordinance.

As Pickwick is the only area in Burbank that falls under C-R zoning, which does not permit residential construction, the proposal has been met with questions from locals and the Burbank City Council. City staff has stated, however, that the city’s General Plan anticipates low-density residential in this zoning area, and therefore, the development is permissible.

Portantino met with an attorney in the Legislative Counsel’s Office to consult about city staff’s evaluation of the project. These discussions addressed a May 27 letter from Assistant Community Development Director Fred Ramirez to Scott Birkey of Cox, Castle & Nicholson real estate firm. In this letter, Porantino says, Ramirez specified that “residential is not listed as a permitted use in the C-R Zone” before stating the consistency of the Pickwick housing development. Portantino believes this conclusion should be left up to the Burbank City Council and would require a General Plan amendment if they choose to approve it.

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Burbank Chamber

“There was an incorrect citation used to justify the applicability of SB 35 outlined in the staff letter,” Portantino said. “It is the generally acceptable practice that General Plan amendments are under the jurisdiction and purview of the City Council, not staff. It is my understanding that Pickwick requires a General Plan amendment in order for the ministerial approval provision of SB 35 to be relevant and applicable.”

On Oct. 27, City of Burbank Community Development Director Patrick Prescott issued a response to Portantino’s letter. This reply was written with the goal of clarifying “the actual General Land Use designation and Zoning for the subject property,” Prescott wrote. 

He stated that the Pickwick location is within the Rancho Commercial land use designation, which allows for a “maximum 0.60 FAR, 20 units per acre with discretionary approval.”

“Based on the City General Plan and Zoning Code residential use is allowed on the Pickwick site with discretionary approval,” Prescott wrote.

The write-up did express the question city staff still holds, which is whether or not discretionary approval would be required to move forward with the development under SB 35. Prescott says that, although staff members find SB 35 to be applicable to this location, they are open to having a conversation on the subject with legal experts to ensure the validity of this claim.

“The plain reading of the state statute and our zoning code and General Plan make it clear to us that the proposed project at the Pickwick site qualifies for the ministerial streamlined review allowed by SB35,” Prescott said. “As we mentioned to the Senator in our response, we are happy to be shown where we might be in error and welcome a conversation with the Legislative Council if necessary.”

Former Mayor of Burbank and City Councilmember Emily Gabbel-Luddy says the conclusions drawn from Portantino’s conversations with the Legislative Counsel’s Office present clear inconsistencies in city staff’s judgment of the project. 

“Senator Portantino’s long experience as a Mayor and Council Member, informs his understanding of the impacts of Sacramento bills like SB35 on local government. That is one reason he voted against it,” Gabel-Luddy said. “In responding to the community concerns, he consulted with the legislative counsels’ office. The Senator’s letter makes clear that the legislative counsel’s office found errors in the city’s interpretation.”

The next Burbank City Council meeting will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 2.  An ordinance establishing the SB35 ministerial design review process and designating the City Council as the decision maker for projects submitted under SB 35 is on the meeting agenda

Portantino maintains that the City Council is the body which holds the ultimate authority in choosing whether or not the Pickwick development may move forward, dependent on a General Plan modification.

“I responded to requests from concerned citizens and conducted my research. It seems clear to me that the City Council has the discretion to either approve or not approve the General Plan Amendment necessary,” Portantino said. “It is not my place to tell the City Council what they should or should not do but it is appropriate for me to have consulted legislative counsel and provide my opinion of the City Council’s options as requested and then communicate those findings with the Mayor and City staff.”