Big plans downtown are getting smaller

CITY HALL — With the flood of iconic high-rises that were supposed to transform downtown having been halted by the economic recession, Glendale's skyline won't be changing anytime soon.

During a 2008 hearing on Verdugo Gardens, a planned 24-story luxury condominium complex, city officials predicted the project would help transform downtown into a bustling residential area.

"It's going to be a signature building," Councilman Frank Quintero said at the time. "This is going to introduce a new type of residential living in the city."

Two years later, that introduction is a long way off.

The tower was one in a string of planned high-rise condominium projects intended to carry out a vision outlined in the city's Downtown Specific Plan, a planning guide adopted by the City Council in 2006 that called for establishing a residential base for the downtown business district.

The planned high-rises — which made their way through the pipeline following the plan's adoption — would have added nearly 900 residential units to the immediate downtown area. They included:

— Verdugo Gardens, slated for the intersection of Central and Sanchez avenues overlooking the Ventura (134) Freeway, featured a 24-story, 287-unit condominium tower with ground floor commercial and retail uses.

—The Alexander was an Intracorp project slated for the current site of Joann Fabrics & Crafts at the corner of Wilson Avenue and Orange Street. It was to feature Art Deco style with two 16-story towers housing 201 condominiums and 2,250 square feet of commercial space.

—City Center II, an Amidi Group development planned for the corner of Brand Boulevard and Wilson Avenue, featured 184 condominiums and a 172-room, four-star hotel in towers of 18 and 20 stories.

—Another Amidi project at the corner of Milford and Orange streets would have housed 142 residential units within a 24-story tower, while an eight-story project slated for the corner of Central and California avenues would have added another 72 units.

As a consultant hired by the various developers, Rodney Khan helped shepherd all of the high-rise projects through the entitlement process.

"None of them have been built," Khan said. "None of them have been financed. And most of them are being redesigned."

That also means the city has yet to see millions in revenues associated with the new developments, including construction permits, impact fees and property tax income.

In increased property taxes alone, the projects were expected to generate more than $5 million in earmarked revenue for Glendale's central redevelopment project area, which is set to expire in 2015.

"The effect is pretty clear," said City Councilman John Drayman, former chairman of the Redevelopment Agency. "The basic pillars of city revenue that supply services throughout the city are slowed because they are tied to some of these in-lieu fees and tax increments and etcetera."

Some projects — like the Alexander — have been scrapped altogether. Others have been put on hold indefinitely. And those projects that do move forward, officials say, will likely be scaled down and reconfigured as either retail complexes or luxury apartment buildings.

Mark Nathanson — of Mapleton Investments, the developer behind the Verdugo Gardens project — said they are now considering the site for a retail or rental complex.

"We believe in the area, in the location, but right now a condo project just is not in the cards, and we are exploring other avenues," he said.

But Mayor Ara Najarian warned that he will be looking at redesigned projects carefully if they reach the City Council since the project sites are prime downtown locations.

"I don't want to be desperate," he said. "I don't want to in a sense of desperation approve any project. Just something isn't good enough. We need a very good project in each of those sites."

In the meantime, Glendale officials are taking a new approach by laying the framework for future residential development with plans that include a downtown arts and entertainment district.

"It's just less about building buildings and more about economic development," Drayman said.

While city officials blame the stalled building plans on the recession, some in the development community say downtown could already have a bustling residential base if Glendale had passed the necessary zoning regulations earlier.

"They missed the boat," said local real estate broker Roobik Ovanessian, who was involved in two residential projects built in the East Broadway neighborhood near City Hall after the city established new zoning standards there in 2003. "They didn't have zoning in time."

While nearby Pasadena has also seen downtown projects stalled in the current financing climate, it already has achieved about 3,000 of the 5,000 downtown residential units forecasted in the city's 1994 General Plan.

"For a long time, there has been a long-term strategy to have more people living close to Old Pasadena, to have more ownership and to have a more 24-hour presence," said Pasadena Senior Planner Laura Dahl.

In Glendale, city officials say they still hope they can catch up once the economy recovers.

"We have a vision for our downtown. These are part of that vision," said Community Redevelopment and Housing Director Phil Lanzafame. "So it's disappointing that maybe in my career I won't see it. But we know that the framework is in place to allow it to happen, and we hope that the Downtown Specific Plan is the guide."

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