Group has designs on a new look for city

City planners, having pushed through years of arduous and often turbulent efforts to set the vision for Glendale’s future development, are now focused on making sure those policies translate into a landscape that people actually want to be a part of.

It is not enough to set height and density limits, to develop a downtown mobility plan, snatch up open space and historic landmarks and then allow developers to build according to the status quo, city planners said.

Now that development parameters have been set, Glendale Planning Director Hassan Haghani’s new “design studio” is in place to make sure that as the city becomes more dense, it does so with engaging design, concessions to the pedestrian and protection for the past.

The new focus is a departure for the Planning Department, which for decades has been consumed with the minutiae of zoning codes and guidelines for single-family homes, hillside development and setting the guide for downtown infill.

With that largely out of the way, city planners now get to manage how developers build within the new boundaries.

“We’re actually creating an institutional change in the way we do planning,” Haghani said.

That means allowing for architectural innovation and reducing the chances for “inferior design,” he added.

The design studio is the new filter through which proposed developments will now have to pass, a design catch-all that most “built-out” cities in California are only now beginning to form.

When Haghani took over the Planning Department last year, it was at a time when the city was in design flux.

The drumbeat of homeowners associations against Glendale’s two Design Review Boards was loud and steady, the draft hillside ordinance and historic districting process were in full bloom, and now-Mayor John Drayman had just been elected to the City Council with a mandate to overhaul the design review process for single-family homes.

Since then, the Planning Department has absorbed the sweeping overhaul of the single-family home design review process, a reorganization of various planning-related commissions and a host of other potentially landscape-altering proposals called for by a City Council thirsty for change.

Moving from zoning-based to design-driven planning in a city that, according to a recent survey, is almost completely built out, fueled Haghani’s drive to assemble an in-house team of urban designers to facilitate the transition — an effort that ended in May with the addition of Michael Nilsson, a planner who will focus on mobility and pedestrian corridors.

He was the last addition to what is now a four-member design studio that includes historic preservation planner Jay Platt and urban designers Alan Loomis and Stephanie Reich. Through them, Haghani said, Glendale will enter the next phase of its planning life through higher-quality designs, incorporation of historic elements and beautified pedestrian corridors.

Haghani’s vision is a shared one that is beginning to creep into planning departments across the Southland as cities begin to realize the benefits of engaging the public with higher-grade buildings in pedestrian-friendly landscapes, said Anastasia Laukaitou-Sideris, who heads the Urban Planning Department at the UCLA School of Public Affairs.

“Cities rightly realize there is a demand for a more walkable city,” she said, citing the success of Pasadena’s Old Town and the Santa Monica Third Street Promenade. “I think it is a very good change.”

At four members strong, Glendale’s urban design team is among the most comprehensive in the county. Santa Monica’s planning department has just one urban designer who works with other city planners mostly on commercial projects or historic homes.

  GLENDALE’S REFOCUS

For a city that has a 20-year love-hate relationship with design review, forging yet another venue for it to take place is par for the course.

“This is a very demanding community, which is where the studio comes in,” Reich said. “The community is interested in great design, and that makes it easier for us to do our job.”

But this change is as much proactive as it is reactive to community tastes, city planners said.

Now, more than ever, cities have begun to realize that zoning-based policies don’t always adequately address issues like design and pedestrian-friendly corridors, said Soren Simonsen, chairman of the American Institute of Architects Regional and Urban Design Committee.

“Urban design hasn’t necessarily been considered a top priority, but I think now people are realizing that it has to be part of the mix,” he said. “It’s become apparent to many that creating a well-developed community that is sustainable, that is beautiful, that is a destination, is really a concerted effort.”

Cities that have a design team in place are better positioned to direct that effort, especially as age-old issues like “mansionization” in Glendale turn to people wanting environments “to walk out of,” Laukaitou-Sideris said.

That means more pedestrian connections to public transit, to sidewalk cafes, to landscaped streets, to engaging storefronts, said Emily Gabel-Luddy, who heads the urban design studio for the Los Angeles Department of City Planning.

“There’s a lot about past planning efforts that really worked against those kinds of connections,” she said.

Major developments coming to downtown Glendale — including the 24-story Verdugo Gardens, with its “sky gardens” and public space that has been lauded as architecturally groundbreaking — incorporate these new design-based concepts, said Loomis, who as principal urban designer heads Glendale’s design studio.

“Some cities haven’t caught up with that concept,” he said. “It’s a new concept for Southern California.”

In that sense, Glendale has propelled itself to the forefront of urban planning, Haghani said. With a unique skyline that is set to undergo a major transformation over the next decade with several distinct high-rises and an urban design studio in place, it only stands to reason cutting edge architects will be drawn in to get a piece of the action, he added.

At the same time, the acquisition of the former Rockhaven Sanitarium site, together with a the recent completion of an award-winning resource survey of all Craftsman-era homes in Glendale, ensures the city’s past won’t be left behind, Platt said.

“This community has a deep and meaningful connection to the past,” he said, pointing to current effort of three Glendale neighborhoods to achieve official historic status.

DOWNWARD PRESSURE

Sitting in the empty hall used for Planning Commission and Design Review Board meetings, the planners, together with Haghani, belie a certain air of excitement over Glendale’s new direction. They describe their studio as having an innovation-driven, entrepreneurial spirit.

“It’s a lot of work, but a lot of fun,” Loomis said.

Between the four of them, the planners face the task of cementing Glendale’s status as the “premier” city that city executives and elected officials so often invoke in public addresses. During his state of the city speech in March, then-Mayor Ara Najarian referred repeatedly to Glendale as a premier city, and after his appointment to planning director last year, Haghani said Glendale was “at the cusp of being one of the greatest cities in Southern California.”

City Council members in recent months have publicly said they are trusting Haghani and his design team to carry out the vision that brought sweeping changes to the Planning Department this past year.

“There’s no question that this City Council is putting a great deal of faith in Hassan Haghani,” Drayman said. “It’s a great deal of pressure to put on one person.”

But with that pressure has come support from the council in the way of accolades and acknowledgments.

Councilman Frank Quintero has on more than one occasion dubbed Haghani the “Dr. Phil” of community outreach as the director successfully navigated his staff through numerous contentious planning issues, like the future of the Montrose Shopping Park and establishment of various setback zones through Glenoaks canyon.

“Hassan is strategically focused and very process-oriented, and that’s what we need,” said Arlene Vidor, president of the Glendale Historical Society, adding that “results always tell the story.”


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