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Proposed downtown Glendale building rules mandate stricter design guidelines

Proposed downtown Glendale building rules mandate stricter design guidelines
The Alex Theatre District, pictured here, is just one of the areas that would be affected by building rules and regulations under a revised Downtown Specific Plan for Glendale. City Council members will consider adopting the plan in March. (Courtesy of Glendale city staff)

Developers looking to build in downtown Glendale may soon have to adhere to stricter design guidelines and include more open space in proposed projects, under a set of overhauled building regulations slated for a City Council vote in late March.

Planning commissioners on Tuesday voted 4-0 to introduce the significantly revised Downtown Specific Plan to council members, expected to be considered March 5 before possible adoption as soon as March 26, according to a timeline presented by city staff.

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With a downtown building moratorium adopted last year scheduled to expire on March 23, the proposed plan was drafted to address issues that led to the moratorium in the first place, including complaints that new developments are unsightly and have shut out public activity on local streets, according to Bradley Calvert, the city’s assistant director of planning.

“We really want to inform what the urban design looks like, what the buildings look like, the kind of character that we’re creating, from the building to the streetscape to the experience that [people] feel as they move through our city,” Calvert said.

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On a practical level, that means regulations would increase. Four chapters of the existing plan were completely overhauled and significantly expanded, and guidelines were changed to enforceable standards whenever possible, according to Vilia Zemaitaitis, the city’s principal planner.

“It might be interpreted as cumbersome by some,” Calvert said, adding that the intention of the changes is to provide clarity and ultimately reduce subjective interpretation by both developers and city staff.

Under the proposed guidelines, developers would have to use materials of better quality, change the size and height of projects, and often include more than double the amount of open space than under the existing plan.

Current density and floor-area ratio restrictions would remain in place, but height requirements would be removed for some projects.

According to Calvert, the current restrictions of 185 feet tall and 12 stories are atypical for construction, lowering investment return for developers.

Developers could bypass certain restrictions by implementing “community benefits” — a phrase that city staff substituted for what’s called “incentives and bonuses” in the existing plan.

In a report on the plan, city staff members listed four preferred uses for maximum development: affordable housing, historic preservation, hotels and reuse of existing buildings.

Under a tiered system, developers including a certain percentage of what staff called diverse housing — two- and three-bedroom units for families and multigenerational households — could also build more dense projects and potentially bypass other restrictions, according to the plan.

Commissioners were split over whether to try to include a diverse-unit mix as a requirement for all projects, instead of ones that were just seeking extra benefits, and whether to increase the percentages required in the tiers.

“I think part of [the goal is] for you to also invite developers to come into Glendale to develop, and I think this kind of works against that.” Commissioner Chang Lee said in response to the idea of raising the percentages of diverse housing.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Greg Astorian said he felt the percentages should be higher.

“We need to have a diverse makeup of units in downtown, more so than we do now,” Astorian said.

To convey the lack of consensus, Zemaitaitis said she would append individual commissioners’ comments and recommendations to the plan heading to City Council.

At the same meeting, the commissioners also voted unanimously to lower the parking requirement for hotels from 1 to 0.8 spaces per hotel room.

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