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Proposed Golden State Off-Ramp Stirs Debate : Burbank: City says interchange is needed to revitalize redevelopment site, but critics contend that the aim is to help Lockheed sell unused land.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A proposal to build a $23-million interchange on the Golden State Freeway pits some Burbank council members, who say it is needed to deal with traffic congestion, against critics who charge it would provide a financial boost for the Lockheed Corp., which contributed to their election campaigns.

Lockheed and the council members deny there is any link between the donations and the interchange.

City administrators say the proposed Empire Avenue interchange would help revitalize the huge Golden State Redevelopment Area--a dormant section that once was home to many manufacturing firms.

But critics contend the project’s aim is to help Lockheed sell a 103-acre parcel that has gone unused for three years, and they fear Mayor Bill Wiggins and Councilmen Robert Bowne and George Battey Jr. will cast the three votes needed to pass it.

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In informal discussion at a council meeting June 21, Bowne and Wiggins indicated that they might support building the off-ramp. Battey, who recently returned to his council duties after a long illness, was absent from those discussions and has not yet voiced an opinion, but critics say he frequently votes with them to form a controlling bloc on the five-member council.

“Lockheed has donated to those three, and I firmly believe that this is a pay-back,” said Jim Gordon, co-founder of the Burbank Flat Landers Home Protection League and a 56-year resident. “If it’s good for Lockheed and the property they want to develop, they should pay their appropriate share. But the city wants the good citizens of Burbank to pay for it all.”

According to their campaign finance records, Bowne and Battey received $1,000 each from Lockheed during their 1991 campaigns, as did Wiggins in 1993.

The off-ramp is the second-most expensive capital-improvement project listed in the city’s 1994-95 budget. The capital projects--included on what is essentially a wish list--must be debated individually by the council before construction can proceed.

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Although conceptual drawings have been made, the off-ramp plan has not yet been been placed on the council’s agenda. City administrators, however, said the council did set aside $2.3 million to hire engineers to design the project, though none of that money has been spent yet.

Unusual for most such projects, the city has not yet asked Caltrans, the state agency that pays for most freeway work, to share the cost, potentially leaving the bill entirely to Burbank.

Council members Susan Spanos and David Golonski--neither of whom received money from Lockheed in their 1993 election campaigns--have expressed vehement opposition to the off-ramp proposal, expressing the same objections as the homeowner group.

“This is a special-interest off-ramp,” Spanos said. “From what I understand, it would exclusively benefit the Lockheed land and the (Burbank) airport, and I have a problem with considering a huge expenditure for such a limited benefit.”

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The Lockheed land, a triangular-shaped parcel bounded by Empire Avenue, Vanowen Street and Victory Place, was acquired by the company in the 1920s and used for a huge military aircraft manufacturing plant during World War II. The site remained a major facility until the company moved most of its manufacturing jobs to Palmdale and Georgia in the late 1980s.

Today, all that remains is a dirt field. Lockheed executives say they want to sell the land to a developer who would build a “retail power center” on the site, with one or more large stores.

The company has courted several developers in recent years, but so far no deals have been struck. Wal-Mart looked into buying the site but lost interest, possibly because of the lack of freeway access, city officials have said.

But Keith Mordoff, a Lockheed spokesman, said last week that the company has “absolutely not” asked council members to build a freeway interchange.

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“Yes, we did contribute to some of the campaigns. Before the last local election some of our officials met with all the candidates to discuss their views,” Mordoff said, adding that the company was looking to support “pro-business candidates.”

“But the issue about an overpass never came up, and since the election, Lockheed has never had any meetings with the candidates it supported. So I think it’s unfair to say these people are considering the off-ramp because we gave them a campaign contribution.”

Mayor Wiggins also rejected any suggestion of a pay-back, and accused critics of blowing the issue “way out of proportion.”

“The folks that are upset about this are saying that it’s imminent, but I quite frankly think it’s far from imminent,” he said. He also said the off-ramp may take a back seat to other capital improvements, such as parks, libraries and other facilities. If Lockheed cannot find a developer for the property, that would delay the need for the off-ramp, he said.

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“In my opinion, the development of that land is on the back burner as far as Lockheed is concerned. And if it’s on their back burner, it’s on my back burner,” he said.

Mordoff, however, said Lockheed is “very close” to reaching agreement with a builder to make use of the land, but he would not say how soon a deal could be expected or what kind of deal it would be.

Burbank administrators insist the Empire Avenue interchange was proposed not by Lockheed nor a developer, but by city planners. About two years ago, the city hired consultants to determine how to reduce congestion at the heavily used “five-points intersection” at Victory and Burbank boulevards, as well as in the Golden State project area.

Steve Helvey, Burbank’s assistant city manager, said several options were studied, including improvements to the Golden State Freeway interchanges at Buena Vista Street and Hollywood Way, but a new off-ramp at Empire Avenue “had the most promise.”

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He said critics assailing the City Council for pursuing the project are jumping the gun.

“Depending on your point of view, you can argue that it is or isn’t being done to help Lockheed. From our position, our motive is to improve traffic flow and the vitality of the area,” Helvey said. “As for the city deciding to pay for it, that may in fact be what we do, but we’re just not that far along in the process yet.”

Bob Kramer, a painting contractor who ran unsuccessfully for the council in 1993, said the city should not consider building the off-ramp without demanding that Lockheed, Burbank Airport and Caltrans contribute.

“There’s too many other needs in Burbank. The schools are falling apart, the sidewalks need fixing. You can’t just spend $23 million on an off-ramp,” Kramer said. “If some developer wants an off-ramp, let them pay for it. It’s not an appropriate use of the taxpayers’ money.”

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Kramer compared Lockheed’s situation to that of Universal Studios, which in 1986 sought and won approval from Caltrans to spend $3 million to build on- and off-ramps from the Hollywood Freeway to its hilltop theme park in Universal City. But Helvey said it would be “highly unusual” for the city to ask Lockheed to contribute to the project, because the city’s position is that the off-ramp is for the city’s benefit, not the company’s.

Still, Wiggins agreed that a cost-sharing arrangement may be the only way the project will win approval.

“If it’s going to benefit Lockheed and it’s going to benefit the airport, I think they should contribute handsomely to it,” Wiggins said. But he said no discussions have taken place either with the developer or the airport administration. The airport is run by an authority established by the cities of Glendale, Burbank and Pasadena and managed by a Lockheed subsidiary, under contract.

If the council approves the off-ramp project as a city expense, Kramer predicted a voter backlash in March, when the seats held by Bowne and Battey will be up for election.

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“I think they underestimated the outcry from the Burbank citizens,” Kramer said. “Not one person has come out in favor of this.”


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