THE TOP 10 STORIES OF THE YEAR

Americana opens to fanfare, recession

1The Americana at Brand, the $435-million mixed-use behemoth that as a proposal divided a community and sparked a bitter war with the owners of the Glendale Galleria, opened in May to a star-studded reception.

With the likes of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Natalie Cole and Tony Bennett there to increase the wattage, Americana developer Rick Caruso, president and chief executive officer of Caruso Affiliated, handed over his latest outdoor retail complex to Glendale.

It was no small feat, even before construction crews broke ground. Community activists campaigned heavily against the city’s land gift, worth $77 million, to get the project rolling.

General Growth Properties, owner of the Glendale Galleria, financed a petition that forced three voter referendums in 2004 that were required to get the Americana off the ground. All three of them won by a less than 2% margin.

Despite the win, legal issues continued. Caruso Affiliated sued the Glendale Galleria for allegedly trying to block potential tenants from moving into the Americana, and the owner of the adjacent Golden Key Hotel Glendale has claimed financial hardships resulting from the 17-month build.

A construction worker was also killed in the early stages of the project when he was accidentally run over by a front-end loader. State officials later cited the on-site subcontractor for failing to provide adequate safety measures.

But in the eight months since the Americana opened, opposition has subsided in the wake of preliminary financial reports indicating sales and property tax increments from the mixed-use center were padding the impact of a worsening economic recession to city revenues.

Even some of the biggest opponents of the project have publicly said they now support the 15.5-acre higher-end shopping complex.

That support waned briefly in November when Caruso Affiliated carried on with a grand fireworks display for a Christmas tree lighting ceremony that drew tens of thousands of spectators.

The fireworks show came as thousands of Southland residents were fleeing out-of-control fires, which had burned hundreds of homes and darkened the skies with smoke.

Several City Council members publicly rebuked the show, which sparked another back-and-forth between Americana supporters and longtime opponents.

Council clamps down on public smoking

2A law that prohibits smoking on nearly all publicly accessible property in Glendale took effect Nov. 6, a move that elicited praise from public health advocates, but grumbles from some restaurateurs who argued the rules would eliminate their outdoor smoking sections.

The ordinance, approved unanimously by the City Council in October after numerous public hearings, prohibits smoking on all city property, including parks, and all publicly accessible private property, such as the Marketplace and Americana at Brand.

Smoking is also banned in all common areas of apartment complexes and in 80% of all hotel rooms.

The regulations also established a 10-foot separation between smokers and nonsmokers in outdoor dining patios, a requirement that many restaurant owners, especially in the downtown area, said would eliminate smoking areas altogether.

And while smoking is still allowed on streets and sidewalks, smokers can only light up when they are at least 20 feet away from a restricted area.

The first-ever citywide restrictions put Glendale in the same company as Burbank, Santa Monica and Calabasas. Pasadena and Los Angeles have also considered tightening their own anti-smoking regulations.

For a city in which 15% of adults were found to be smokers in a 2007 county health survey, the sudden imposition of restricted areas was expected to be a jolt to some, prompting the City Council to set aside $105,000 for a yearlong public outreach campaign.

During the campaign, which officially starts in January, an “anti-smoking” ambassador will be making rounds to business owners and community organizations to disseminate the new regulations.

Code enforcers and police were instructed to focus more on public education when initially enforcing the new regulations, and then to become less lenient as the year wears on.

First-time offenders who fail to heed a warning or request to snuff out their cigarette or cigar are subject to a $100 fine. A second violation within the same year would elicit $200 tickets and then $500 for each violation thereafter. 

Absentee ballot issue divides city’s voters

3A new law limiting third-party access to completed absentee ballot applications tore through City Hall early this year, drawing accusations from immigrant rights organizers that the regulations were meant to limit access to city elections.

Proponents of change rebuffed those claims, arguing third-party groups, such as campaign canvassers and political action groups, would still be able to assist voters, they just would no longer be able to handle completed voter applications for absentee ballots.

The restrictions, proponents argued, would streamline the process and remove any potential future perception of fraud or mishandling.

Before the law change, candidates for office were allowed to distribute absentee ballot applications with a return address to their campaign headquarters. Candidates could then hold on to the forms for up to 72 hours before handing them over to the city clerk for processing. In that time, voter names, addresses and phone numbers could be gleaned from the applications and then used by campaign assistants to follow up and make sure residents actually vote.

In spite of past allegations of that process being prone to undue politicking and influence, opponents argued no fraud case had ever been proven.

The battle drew attention from political leaders and activists from throughout the county and state, and invited the ire of the Armenian National Committee, which in a January e-mail called a vote in favor of the ordinance “a vote for discrimination.”

Then-Mayor Ara Najarian and Councilman Bob Yousefian voted against the measure, citing a lack of evidence to prove it was necessary and fears that it might hinder first-generation immigrant participation in the election system. But then-Councilman John Drayman and his colleagues, Frank Quintero and Dave Weaver, didn’t budge, arguing the change was needed to streamline and preserve the integrity of the voting system. They also lamented the divisive tone of the debate and rebuffed allegations of discrimination.

Distracted driver kills 11-year-old

4An ill-timed turn of the head led to the death of 11-year-old Meri Nalbandyan, who was walking in a crosswalk in front of Toll Middle School when she was struck and killed by a distracted driver Oct. 29.

Meri was crossing the street after her mother dropped her off on Glenwood Road, where about 4,000 students attend classes every day at Hoover High School, Keppel Elementary School and Toll.

The driver, Yurie Park, had just dropped her daughter off at Keppel and had turned to wave to a friend when she hit Meri, police said. Park has since pleaded not guilty to manslaughter charges.

The incident sparked passions about traffic safety around schools and led to a series of new safety measures in the three-school area that will be completed in early 2009.

Among the changes are stop signs with flashing red lights, parking meters, a 50-foot-long median and 3-foot railing, speed humps, sidewalk bump-outs and a total of five new crossing guards to an area that already had nine of the city’s 25 crossing guards before the incident.

All of the additions will come on top of measures already taken after a Hoover student was killed in 2000 in a gang-related stabbing that involved cruising. At that time, the city converted some roads to one-way streets and limited access to others. It also added the crosswalk with flashing lights in front of Toll, crossing guards, speed humps and sidewalk bump-outs.

Permanently closing Glenwood was never a serious option, officials said, because the same traffic problems would have been relocated to other areas.

The major problems with traffic are driving habits and will require a heightened awareness by motorists in school areas, officials said.

Officials hope the physical changes will help put drivers on alert and are still considering other measures, like drastic increases in traffic fines in school areas and police cameras to help enforce infractions.

Budget cuts trickle down

5Closing a $9.9-million budget shortfall for fiscal year 2008-09 produced a range of cutbacks in city services that included reduced library hours, fire and police staffing and other unpopular items.

The rollbacks meant the loss of dedicated police officers at the city’s public middle schools, reduced personnel at the Community Development and Housing Department, and program reductions as the city coped with a drop-off in revenues.

The budget process, which included several public study sessions and hearings over the course of three months, eventually produced a balanced $164.5-million general fund budget for the current fiscal year, but that was before the economy slid into a full-on recession.

Since the budget’s adoption in June, tax and fee revenues to the city have continued to flat-line, while the state budget crisis threatens to lean on municipal finances even more.

Taken together, the City Council faces another round of budget cuts in the spring after “cutting muscle” in the most recent go-round.

A Jan. 27 special budget study session is expected to reveal a clearer picture of the budget gap expected for fiscal year 2009-10, but city officials in December put the preliminary figure at about $8 million.

That could spell the end for the Chevy Chase Branch Library, which was planned for closure as part of the last round of cuts, but spared due to last-minute protests from surrounding residents.

Other city employees’ positions could also be at risk of meeting the chopping block after 42 were cut during this fiscal year, including seven sworn police officers in a city that already has one of the lowest per capita officer rates in the region.

Alvarez convicted after 2-month trial

6Prosecutors said it was a scheme meant to demand his wife’s attention. Defense attorneys argued that their client, Juan Alvarez, underwent severe emotional and physical trauma that explained why the 29-year-old parked his sport utility vehicle on a set of Metrolink tracks in Glendale, setting off one of the worst accidents in the rail line’s history.

In the end, jurors deliberated for less than four hours, sending Alvarez to prison for the rest of his life for his role in the 2005 incident that left 11 dead and more than 180 passengers and crew injured.

The two-month trial in downtown Los Angeles highlighted a pattern of abuse that Alvarez allegedly underwent as a child growing up in Mexico. Defense attorneys trotted out family members who testified of frequent beatings and a pattern of neglect Alvarez experienced at the hands of his father that led to suicide attempts on more than one occasion.

An ensuing cycle of drug use and a rocky relationship with his wife — combined with hallucinations that played to his worst fears — eventually sent him over the edge, they said. Shortly before 6 a.m. Jan. 26, 2005, Alvarez parked his Jeep Cherokee perpendicular to the train tracks that cut through Glendale and Los Angeles.

Metrolink train No. 100, filled with early-morning commuters, collided with the SUV, derailed and hit a parked Union Pacific freight train on an adjacent track. The locomotive then smashed into Metrolink train No. 901, setting off a fiery melee in which nearby businesses set up triage centers and local hospitals were pressed into service.

Prosecutors had claimed Alvarez was in his right mind and sought the attention of his estranged wife in the most spectacular way possible. They said he never intended to commit suicide, something defense attorneys opposed. Many family members attended the trial, some nearly every day, seeking closure to an incident that had haunted them for more than three years.

After the jury reached its verdict July 16, choosing to forgo a death sentence that prosecutors had called for, Ty Romero reflected on the conflicted feelings felt by many relatives of the dead and injured.

“I am relieved he is never going to breathe fresh air again,” he said. “But it’s never going to bring my uncle back.”

Metrolink crash claims local lives

7The Metrolink train derailment in 2005 may have been Glendale’s worst rail disaster, but it was the Sept. 12 head-on collision with a Union Pacific freighter in Chatsworth that claimed the lives of five men who either lived or worked in Glendale and Burbank.

They included Roosevelt Middle School counselor Ron Grace and La Crescenta resident Robert Sanchez, the engineer for the Metrolink 111 train that slammed into the Union Pacific train, killing 25 people and injuring 135 others.

Burbank Public Works mechanic Alan Buckley and Bob Hope Airport traffic control manager Walter Fuller also died in the crash, as did Dean Brower, an employee at Burbank’s water reclamation plant.

The crash, which railway officials said was the worst state train catastrophe in modern history, eclipsed the 2005 Glendale derailment that killed 11 people and injured hundreds more.

It also sparked a massive legislative response to shore up potential safety deficiencies on the Southland’s railroad network — an effort that continues to unfold.

A safety review panel set up by Metrolink’s Board of Directors recommended the agency implement myriad top-down improvements in how staffing subcontractors are monitored and how control measures are enforced throughout.

Federal legislation pushed through by Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer already required rail authorities to install the so-called positive train control systems that crash inspectors said would have prevented the Chatsworth collision.

The technology acts as a fail-safe stopping mechanism for wayward locomotives that fail to heed red-light stop signals on tracks shared by passenger and freight trains.

Despite the steep price tag that experts said was sure to come with implementing the additional safety measures, Metrolink board members said cost would not be an issue as they sought to improve the agency’s safety record.

Faced with yet another round of wrongful death and injury lawsuits that could dwarf the millions claimed as a result of the Glendale derailment, Metrolink in October filed a lawsuit in federal court against its staffing subcontractor, Connex Railroad LLC — a move that starts the judicial review process of who will ultimately bear responsibility for the crash.

A spokeswoman for Paris-based Veolia Transportation, which owns Connex Railroad, said the company was acting in full compliance of its Metrolink contract and would continue to do so.

Investigators have been focused on why Sanchez failed to stop the Metrolink train to allow the Union Pacific freighter to divert onto a parallel track.

The National Transportation Safety Board released a report in October that alleged the engineer was sending and receiving cellphone text messages seconds before crash.

And a county coroner’s report, released Dec. 2, determined Sanchez was not under the influence of any drugs, alcohol or medication at the time.

Royal Boulevard gets historic status

8After more than a year of review and maneuvering, a 30-home stretch of Royal Boulevard in October became Glendale’s first official historic district, blazing a trail for two other applications that are scheduled to come before the City Council early next year for similar consideration.

Most of the homes in the district between 1400 and 1520 Royal Blvd. were built from 1923 to 1947 as one of the first major housing tracts that expanded the city’s reach north.

But the unanimous decision to approve the historic overlay zone, which restricts changes to home facades as a way to preserve neighborhood character, did not come without some resistance.

Six of the affected property owners filed a petition opposing the district, arguing the zone change would be an infringement on their property rights.

The argument found a sympathetic ear with Councilman Ara Najarian, who said he was reluctant to impose the will of the majority on the minority.

Typically, a zone change requires a supermajority vote, but the opposition petition increased that threshold to a required unanimous vote. Despite his misgivings, Najarian joined his colleagues in supporting the application, with 80% of the affected property owners signing on.

The Planning Commission in December unanimously recommended two other historic district applications — one for a 14-home stretch on Cottage Grove Avenue near Adams Hill, the other an 87-home area in Ard Eevin Highlands in North Glendale — to the City Council, which is scheduled to consider the respective zone changes in January.

No formal opposition has been filed against either of those applications.

Rockhaven acquired by city

9History buffs and open space advocates were left salivating in April when the City Council closed escrow on the $8.25-million purchase of the historic Rockhaven Sanitarium.

It was also a political coup for then-Councilman John Drayman, who led the early push to make the deal happen. Preservationists hailed acquisition of the 3.3-acre site at 2713 Honolulu Ave. as one of the most significant land purchases in recent memory.

At its prime, the sanitarium was a haven for Hollywood celebrities and one of the last remaining examples of the treatment facilities that once dotted the Crescenta Valley area.

The property includes 14 “potentially significant” buildings, surrounded by what were once extensive gardens. Over the years, the site fell into disrepair, requiring an extensive overhaul of the landscaping and buildings. A renovation plan is still under development.

A Montrose library could easily be built on the property, freeing up room for the adjoining fire station to expand — a major selling point for Drayman’s pitch. A vacant lot across from the library and fire station could also provide the city with tax revenue-generating capital to fulfill the two projects if a retail anchor, such as a grocery store, moves in, city officials said.

In the meantime, crews are working to clean up the landscape and remove potential hazards so that limited public tours, and outreach on how to use the buildings, can begin.

Already, suggestions for a museum and public meeting space have emerged as possible uses.

Oldest home in Montrose razed

10Developers and homeowners repeatedly clashed last fall when residents sought to save a 94-year-old Craftsman home in Montrose from destruction and eventual transformation into a five-unit townhome complex.

The lengthy back-and-forth pitted residents on Glenada Avenue and beyond, who argued that the townhomes would increase traffic and drive down property values, against developers Razmik Tahmasian and Gevorg Voskanian, who own the property.

On Oct. 27, the relic was demolished after a string of civic groups, such as the Crescenta Valley Town Council, asked officials to step in and stop the destruction.

Residents were elated Oct. 16, when Supervisor Michael Antonovich called for a review of a previous decision by the County’s Regional Planning Commission decision, who had permitted the construction.

However, the move only temporarily delayed demolition of the 2128 Glenada Ave. home, offering a brief respite for distressed residents on the quiet street lined with Craftsman-style homes.

Tahmasian and Voskanian, based in La Crescenta, said they were forced to tear down the home after the aging structure presented an insurance risk and safety hazard. Both developers hoped to avoid controversy and offered the intact home to anyone willing to shuttle the residence away.

A few jumped at the chance to own a historic home, but the costs of transportation and lack of available land to accommodate the structure proved too formidable for all interested parties.

In the end, residents feared the worst of their suspicions would come true while developers sought to downplay concerns by increasing the number of parking spaces in the planned complex and saying the architectural renderings are consistent with the design of nearby homes.

That did little to assuage Camille Waferling, owner of one of the remaining Craftsman-style homes on Glenada Avenue.

“I wish I could just pick up and move to another neighborhood now,” she said. “God knows who he’s going to rent to now just to [anger] us.”


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