July 30, 1994 - From the July, 1994 issue

Streamlining Lessons Learned by City of Glendale Planning Director

The Planning Report presents an interview with Glendale Planning Director John McKenna. No longer a sleepy residential community, the City of Glendale has experienced a tremendous amount of population and demographic change, renewed interest in downtown revitalization, and is currently revisiting many planning practices to address the challenges facing this diverse community. 

As Glendale's Planning Director, share with us the focus and objectives of Glendale's planning activities? 

One of the principal planning issues we are focusing on is business retention: finding ways to simplify the way permits and approvals are processed, and eliminating any non-essential quality checks in the system. We are implementing simultaneous processing of permits for those who wish to do so, thus people will not have to process applications sequentially, in essence they can do the variance, design review approval and plan check process at the same time. If a proposal is sufficiently completed and for instance, the variance won't change the basic plan, we will allow applicants to enter into as many processes as they want at one time. Also, among our major activities are: completion of a new Recreation Element, Circulation Element, and work on our Strategic Downtown Plan.

What are the aspects of planning least appreciated by your constituencies? 

One of the things we are working on is the citywide strategic planning process. I would say, so far that project has not been given much attention by the press or general public. I think the project is fairly theoretical. In essence, city management bas come out with the first iteration of a strategic plan for the city for the next 10 years.

What do we want the city to look like? What will be a yardstick against which we can prioritize our budgeting and priorities. The Plan has not had tremendous input thus far via the public or even management below the executive level. It's a vision that calls for a continual update on a systematic, yearly basis that will ultimately be a driving force behind our capital improvements programs. 

Glendale has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. 49 percent of Glendale residents are foreign born, that is not what Glendale was 20 years ago when I came here. The cultural and demographic differences present many challenges and opportunities. We need to selectively evaluate neighborhoods to open them up with appropriate development especially small pocket parks which can help to anchor a neighborhood. We'll also be looking at ways to provide local services that people need within walking distances, instead of by car. We want to get people in the neighborhoods. Just building parks is not an answer, we have to have a connectedness to our plans to make them work. If we build a park, we want people in that neighborhood to own it.

How have the goals of Glendale's planning department changed with prolonged economic recession and what are lessons that other cities can draw from your experience? 

With general direction from the City Council to explore ways to enhance business retention, as well as the promotion of new business, our city bas approached this with a multi­disciplinary team consisting of department heads who relate to business development from myself to the Fire Chief, Director of Public Works, Director of Community Development to the Director of Redevelopment. Meeting with the City Manager on almost a bi-weekly basis, we've explored ways to streamline our systems, and from those meetings, we've established task forces of relevant people at different managerial levels to develop ordinances from the new ideas generated. 

Describe this middle course you have charted here in Glendale as you have reviewed your economic development policies during the recession. 

The first lesson is not to throw the baby out with the bath water which has been the previous approach. For many years, when a problem in a community is perceived, a law is frequently passed which is perhaps an overreaction to the problem. About 20 to 25 years ago in Glendale, the city had a problem with too much outside merchandising and in response to this type of merchandising the City Council simply passed a law which banned it. Of course, outdoor merchandising in and of itself is not really bad, in fact, it can actually enhance an area if it is done in a way that is sensitive to the needs of others. 

To take the simplistic approach of banning it all, you end up with a very sterile town and you discourage the type of street traffic that enhances street activity. 

We are reviewing what we want to happen on the sidewalks. We have an ordinance headed for City Council in another two weeks to allow vending carts to operate in private plazas. We are trying to encourage the small coffee carts, shoe shine booths, flower stands and various activities in private plazas around the city. 

We've also revised our sign ordinance in a similar fashion. Apparently, Glendale was subject to a tremendous amount of blight due to an overabundance of signs. As a result, many different types of signs were banned. For instance, neon signs were severely restricted, no signs could extend over the public right-of-way, and all roof signs were banned, making Glendale a little more sterile that we wanted it to be. We realized that we needed to open up the laws to lend interest to the community. We now have laws on the books allowing banner programs to be enacted in areas where we have certain control over the issue. Also, we've expanded the kind of neon signs that can be put up, basically relaxed restrictions on types of signs that have been banned for a number of years. We feel these efforts will help merchandising in the area by creating a more festive environment in the public areas of the city. 

We have also instituted flexible parking standards. The City Council has accepted that an administrative exception procedure for parking standards to allow for more rapid decision making by trained personnel can be achieved without any erosion of the quality of the decision making. 

For instance, with respect to ADA compliance, where a developer might be between a "rock and a hard place" with a proposal to retrofit an existing parking garage, we don't believe that the developer should have to go through a complete variance hearing with 300 feet notice to surrounding property owners, when a minor code exception would not adversely affect the community. We've been looking for opportunities where there isn't any appreciable impact on people's property rights, to review if we really need every regulation on the books. Over the last year and a half we have been methodically cutting away at those kinds of things.

How is Glendale's Downtown Strategic Plan progressing? 

We are dealing with a large area of about 1,100 acres in downtown. We aren't just focusing on the central business district, but downtown Glendale from the San Fernando Corridor all the way over to Glendale Avenue which includes a large residential component. We are also dealing with all the property from the 134 freeway on the north, down to where San Fernando meets Brand Blvd., with the exclusion of the core area of auto dealers which we call the South Brand Specific Plan area. 

Alex Cooper of New York is guiding our downtown strategic plan, and we are hoping they'll provide us with some recommendations to make choices on specific issues - what do we want Brand Blvd. and Broadway to look like? Do we want them to be your main traffic carrying streets or do you want Central Ave. and Colorado Street to serve that function? The data seems to be pointing towards the expectation that Colorado and Central will be our main feeder of traffic in the community, and that Brand and Broadway will be principally signature streets with a higher element of design and street character, with more of a cache of what the community is all about. 

The private sector developing furniture retail uses on Central Ave., which we view as a good trend. But we still haven't focused on what we want Brand to be, which I think is very important to decide. It’s a magnificent street in terms of its length and width. From one end of Brand you can see all the way to the Los Angeles First Interstate Bank Tower right. In Glendale, the street is longer than 5th Avenue in New York City from 59th Street down to Union Square. It's a huge street which can encompass many neighborhoods, yet in the past, we have always looked at Brand as if it were one monolith. Some preliminary information that Alex Cooper has drawn attention to has been that we have some fundamental problems in our downtown based upon the way the land was platted. It's platted into extraordinary long blocks, some as long as 300 feet. (Between Colorado Street and the 134 Freeway.) Additionally, we have very little park land in and around the downtown. 

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If you look at the typical block on for this type of area, it's about 150 feet between streets, and thus very walkable. Brand is not a very walkable street in terms of its human scale, pedestrian dynamic. We are looking at ways to enhance the livability of the street with more paseos or walk-thrus. We are also looking at the housing areas adjacent to our downtown core. I am a believer that so goes your downtown housing, so goes your community. Your core will remain successful dependent upon how much quality you can keep or enhance in your downtown housing areas. In other words, if you have quality housing in your downtown area, it's likely to remain very viable. 

Where does mixed-use fit into Glendale's planning vision? Often it’s difficult to implement because of the need to make code changes, secure variances, seek unconventional financing, etc.?

I would say that mixed-use is not one of my high priority agenda items, but it is something that we have been, and continue to be hospitable to in Glendale. We have one mixed-use project that was built in the City, but I understand there has been a lot of difficulty in getting commercial tenants, and I think you are correct that often financing is very difficult to obtain for mixed-use projects. Mixed-use is very difficult to finance if it's going to be one building mixing the uses. Mixed-use on the same site with separate buildings is far easier for a developer to package for financing.

Glendale's downtown is only about two or three blocks wide, with multiple family residential adjacent to it. That does not augur well for the classic apartments over the store type of mixed-use development. If you have the alternative of having all the convenience of being within walking distance to the downtown, then the market doesn't seem to encourage mixed-use. 

If a developer wanted to do a mixed-use project, we would be hospitable to such a proposal. 

What role have Historic Preservation and Design Review played in your priorities and plans? 

The Planning Department provides services to Glendale's Historic Preservation Commission. Our policy of historic preservation is pretty conservative. We haven't developed historic districts yet although we have that potential. There are areas of the city that reflect the typical suburban areas of 50 or 60 years ago, that lend themselves to districting, also we have a number of buildings that we can hopefully gain property owner consent to have listed on both the local and national historic register. 

We have a Mills Act program which covers properties on the Historic Element of our General Plan. Glendale is one of only a few communities statewide which has implemented a Mills Act program. The Mills Act uses tax credits for preserving the historic fabric of a property. So far people haven't taken advantage of it, but I expect as more costly residences are put on the element, people with take advantage of the program. 

In terms of Design Review, our program is something of which I am very proud. We have implemented Design Review for both single-family in-fill development as well as redevelopment single family housing, as well as a comprehensive program for commercial and industrial property. We have two boards - with one board meeting every other week so we don't hold up projects in the process. 

Presently, commercial and industrial business is very rigorous but we have a high enough threshold so that much of the design review can be accomplished over the counter by staff. Only the larger projects require review by the board. The boards are composed of a minimum of two architects, a landscape architect, a builder and a realtor which gives us a good mix. 

Returning to transportation, Glendale is the leader in SCAG's Arroyo San Verdugo Subregion for the Regional Comprehensive Plan? Share with us the program for the region? 

We are beginning our second year in the program, and I would say the Arroyo Verdugo Subregion bas taken on a life of its own which has its own agenda in addition to SCAG's. We are working in many areas including transportation, housing, open space as well as code issues where we can cooperate as a group of five cities. We are trying to work together on an economic level as well as achieving our SCAG program. 

In essence, we are beginning to inventory our resources to examine what is available amongst the cities in terms of industrial, commercial, recreational and other opportunities. Creation of a common, networked data base is one of our main tasks this year. We feel that if we understand where our strengths and weaknesses are, we will be better able to market ourselves as a subregion of one half a million people. 

What is Glendale's position on the 710 Freeway extension and the other major transportation plans on the drawing board? 

We are very closely allied with Burbank in terms of advocating the extension of the light rail, certainly as far as the Burbank Airport in terms of it being essential to the entire region's transportation base. That's very important to us. I would say that it's the major focus of much 

of our transportation planning. The city is in the process of developing its transit center, we've been buying right-of-ways and land for the transit center. 

We've spent many years deliberating how mass transit should interface with the city, especially with downtown. Among the alternatives discussed at the time was the possibility of running mass transit and light rail through the city. We tossed around a number of alternatives from Brand Blvd. to Central to the existing San Fernando Corridor. Finally, the decision was made that it was most sensible to push for the light rail of the existing rail lines, and to foster an intermodal change from rail to local bus. We are hopeful the light rail will move forward as soon as possible, in view of our financial commitment to develop a major transit center.

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