Glendale Unified’s proposed property exchange rejected by City Council

What Glendale Unified Supt. Winfred Roberson Jr. described as a near-perfect project — an exchange of the district’s ailing headquarters with a developer for a newer, larger property — was shot down 3-1 by the Glendale City Council on Tuesday.

Developer Carmel Partners proposed a 207-unit residential development on several parcels across 2.39 acres — a portion of a 3.42-acre site owned by Glendale Unified, including its 38,000-square-foot headquarters located at 223 N. Jackson St. that school officials said the district has outgrown. Also, the building, constructed in 1972, is in dire need of repairs, officials said.

In return, Glendale Unified would have received a 116,000-square-foot building, constructed in 1984, and parking structure located at 425 E. Colorado St.

It would have provided the district with a parent center and additional space to lease out that would have generated revenue for the school, according to Roberson.

Daily High School, which is located next to the administration building, would have remained there under the proposal.

Acknowledging that the Colorado Street building would support the district’s needs, Councilman Ara Najarian, who voted against the project, said Carmel’s proposed project “would blow our development standards out of the water,” in terms of size and scale.

Although Carmel had decreased the size of the project over time — lowering it from five to four stories, reducing the units from 286 to 207 and adding a small public park — Najarian and Councilwoman Paula Devine pointed out that it still exceeded many of the city’s building regulations in terms of height, setbacks and density.

“We could set a precedent here that would totally devastate our neighborhoods, and I just don’t want to do that,” Devine said before voting against the project.

Lone dissenter Mayor Zareh Sinanyan, who has four children attending Glendale Unified schools, said it was impossible to separate the well-being of the school system from the city’s economic conditions.

Glendale Unified officials estimate it will cost more than $40 million to renovate the district’s existing administration building, which is not ADA-compliant, and provide adequate space and parking for district operations, according to its planning department.

That money could come out of taxpayers’ pockets if the exchange was not approved, school officials said.

The project would also have added 17 very-low-income or 24 low-income units to the area, furthering the City Council’s collective goal of bringing affordable housing to the community, Sinanyan said.

Councilman Vartan Gharpetian recused himself from the proceedings because his wife is on the district’s school board, although he said the city attorney advised him that he would not have violated conflict-of-interest laws by participating.

All present council members, except Sinanyan, called the affordable units, at 400 square feet each, too small.

“Last week, and the week before, [the council] was insisting that we are OK with tiny units as long as single, elderly, low-income individuals could reside there,” Sinanyan said.

“We said if folks want to create more low-income units at the expense of their size, that’s something we want to encourage,” he added.

Lasting nearly six hours and drawing more than 75 public speakers, the meeting on Tuesday brought together people on both sides of the issue: some neighbors who saw the proposed project as overdevelopment and school officials, employees and parents who thought the benefits to approximately 26,000 students outweighed other concerns.

Tamara O’Connor, co-owner of a five-unit apartment building near the administration offices, said that while it seemed like a win-win for the district and developer, it’s the neighborhood residents who would have “to live with the aftermath of the proposed development and all the density that it brings, while the entities who dreamed up the plan get to walk away.”

Community resistance to multifamily projects is common, but it doesn’t change the fact that an increasing population means more units must inevitably be built, said Neda Farid-Farhoumand, executive vice president of the Glendale Council PTA.

“So, the issue isn’t whether these units get built, but how they get built,” she said. “We cannot let exaggerated fears and misconceptions get in the way of progress.”

The vote represents a setback for Glendale Unified, which has sought to pursue a property exchange for nearly a decade.

The property on Colorado Street was initially presented to the school board in June 2017 following discussion by school board members to relocate the administration offices.

District officials have not yet decided what the next step will be, according to Marge Rader, Glendale Unified’s administrative secretary said.

Twitter: @lila_seidman