Changes in design review process near

CITY HALL — Proposed changes to the design review process are poised to become the new rule of law for single-family homes after the City Council on Tuesday introduced the ordinance and a set of zoning code changes for a final vote next week.

The weeklong wait — a procedural formality — and minor modifications made to the proposed overhaul during the meeting did little to hamper the sense of finality many city officials and stakeholders expressed Tuesday after wading through nearly a year of often-arduous discussions and review.

“We were all told this topic was too taboo, you can’t touch this, and now look at us,” said Councilman John Drayman, who spearheaded the effort to overhaul the design review process after campaigning heavily on the issue in 2007. “It’s happened.”

It was also seen as a victory for the city’s major homeowners associations — Drayman’s most ardent constituency — which in the past several years have stepped up their criticism of the two Design Review Boards and their perceived failure to heed concerns that many single-family home projects were incompatible with their respective neighborhoods.

“It’s a giant step forward,” said Dick Murray, president of the Chevy Chase Estates Assn.

The new two-step process would eliminate the potential endless back-and-forth between project applicants and a Design Review Board, which critics say has led to a virtual “design studio” that produces incompatible homes.

Instead, Design Review Board members would have the authority to send a proposed project back for redesign only once.

Upon its return, the board would have the option of approving the project with or without conditions, or rejecting it altogether.

The new process would also dissolve the Alternative Assessment Panel — an appeals body made of members from both boards — and send appellants directly to the City Council.

Slight modifications to the proposed ordinance came after representatives for the Glendale Homeowners Coordinating Council on Tuesday pushed for mandatory temporary project frames — also known as story poles — more public involvement in the preliminary conceptualizing stages of a project applicants, more pointed definitions for “neighborhood compatibility” and a greater emphasis on privacy preservation.

The council directed staff members to come back next week with options to incorporate some of those elements into the final draft ordinance.

Throughout the public hearing, council members also engaged in a give-and-take about imposing more strict rules for city planners and design review authorities while allowing them the freedom to use their expertise to guide future projects into compliance with the spirit of both the intent of the overhaul and forthcoming design guidelines.

“Just let staff do their jobs,” Councilman Bob Yousefian said in response to calls for greater public input in conceptual meetings between city planners and architects before a project is even submitted.

But even with the haggling, the proposed ordinance and zoning code amendments received a general, albeit cautious, endorsement.

“We’re making some drastic changes here,” Councilman Dave Weaver said.

“I think we’ve gone a long way with this and I’ve got my fingers crossed that it’ll work.”

With a year of intense effort to complete the change — including a total reconstitution of the two review boards that now meet in the evening instead of the afternoon — under the council’s belt, expectations from the homeowners associations of measurable results were mirrored on the dais.

“I sincerely hope this ordinance is everything that we hoped it could be,” Mayor Ara Najarian said.

Cautious optimism aside, the political significance of near unanimous agreement among city planners, the City Council and residential activists on the design review overhaul more than a decade after a sweeping vote of confidence was given to the Design Review Boards was not lost on the dais.

“We’re here tonight because there’s a new City Council sitting on the dais,” Councilman Frank Quintero said.

“There’s no way the old City Council would have touched this.”


 JASON WELLS covers City Hall. He may be reached at (818) 637-3235 or by e-mail at jason.wells@latimes.com.

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