Burbank looks at ways to help preserve historic signs

The sign at Bob's Big Boy in Toluca Lake is protected because the entire building was designated as a California Point of Historic Interest in 1992.
The sign at Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake is protected because the entire building was designated as a California Point of Historic Interest in 1992.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

When Umami Burger moved into a building at Riverside Drive and Rose Street in Burbank, it kept a few traces of Papoo’s Hot Dog Show, a restaurant that had been there for 62 years before closing in 2011.

The most obvious trace is the signage, which Brian Rosman, a spokesman for the burger chain, said is a “nod to what Papoo’s was before.”

The signs have been updated to retain a flavor of the previous tenant. But the neon hot-dog angel atop the eatery was too expensive to update, Rosman said.


City officials have heard from many residents that such signs mean a lot to them. Now planners are looking at ways to encourage businesses to preserve their historic assets.

The city embarked on a census of the signs. And last week, the Burbank City Council reviewed the findings of the study.

After hearing from many residents who value Burbank’s historic signs, city planners began looking at ways to preserve them. Among those cited for possible protection are those for the landmark Safari Inn, the Smoke House and the Blue Room.

Perhaps Burbank’s most famous sign — the Bob’s Big Boy in Toluca Lake — is already protected because the entire building was designated as a California Point of Historic Interest in 1992.

The city has cataloged nearly 80 potentially historic signs in Burbank’s commercial districts this summer and is drafting an ordinance that seeks to encourage businesses and sign owners to register and preserve them.

A survey of the city’s commercial zones looking for historic signs found 42 intact signs — designated Tier 1 — that were in place before 1969 and have remained largely unchanged. They may meet city criteria for designation as historically significant, the study found.

An additional 37 pre-1969 signs — labeled Tier 2 — had been significantly modified and might not qualify for historic designation, but could be restored to their historic state, said Katie Horak of Architectural Resources Group Inc., the Pasadena firm that conducted the study with funding from a state grant.

Currently, the city has little to no ability to help businesses preserve or restore historic signs, said Amanda Landry, an associate planner with the city. In some cases, it may even hamper restoration efforts — old signs that don’t meet the city’s modern code requirements lose “grandfather” status if removed for repair, she said.

A proposed ordinance could change or clarify the city’s code to help preserve such historic, non-conforming signs. It could also give owners incentives to preserve them, such as waiving permit fees for restoration work or offering a free process for historic designation.

“We would look to the council for additional suggestions,” Landry said.

Mayor David Gordon and Councilman Jess Talamantes expressed concerns about restricting new building owners from removing a sign designated a historic resource by a previous owner or blocking someone from putting up new signs if their business differs from the one that had put up the historic sign.

Landry said the ordinance, which will still need to go through a public-hearing process and planning board review before coming to the City Council for consideration, would include provisions to address such concerns.

For example, it would allow owners to seek removal of historic designation or would exclude a historic sign’s square footage from the calculation of total allowable signage space under city code.

Councilwoman Emily Gabel-Luddy said she saw value in encouraging voluntary preservation efforts.

“We can offer an incentive where [sign owners] could bring those signs back to life,” Gabel-Luddy said. “That is an enormous help to any property owner who desires to restore their signs.”