Reversal on Third Street project catches developer by surprise

A close vote by the Burbank City Council last month approving a retail-and-residential development project proposed for downtown Burbank swung the other way this week, leading to a 3-2 rejection of the proposal on second reading of the ordinance.

Council members had green-lighted the project, which proposed constructing a six-floor, mixed-use building on slightly less than 1 acre at 550 N. Third St. during its last meeting in December.

Joy Forbes, director of the city's Community Development Department, called the initial hearing "a developer's dream" Tuesday, what would typically have been a second reading and vote approving the project. But it could possibly be described as a developer's nightmare when Councilman Jess Talamantes withdrew his support.

In a surprise vote, he sided with Mayor David Gordon and Vice Mayor Bob Frutos in opposition and left the developers without the entitlements needed to proceed with the project, though they could return to seek approval on a modified proposal in the future.

Council permission was needed to allow the development to exceed density limits at the proposed site by 20 apartments while providing 15% less parking than city code requires. In exchange, the developers had proposed widening sidewalks and an alley on the property, providing a recreational space for public use and increasing the size of the water main to gain council approval.

They had argued that the development would attract residents more likely to bike, walk and use alternative transportation. The project had received letters of support and testimony in its favor from neighbors, including the Burbank Community YMCA and the Colony Theatre, as well as the Downtown Burbank board of directors.

It's not yet clear what the developers, Los Angeles-based real estate investors Fred Wehba Jr. and Lilian Hanna, plan to do now that the permission has been revoked. They initially walked out of the meeting following the vote, but returned to plead unsuccessfully for the council to reconsider.

Talamantes' swing on a second reading caught other council members off guard and may be unprecedented — Councilman Gary Bric said he had never seen it in eight years on the council and Gordon shook his head when asked if he'd seen it in 25 years as a council member.

FOR THE RECORD: This story should have stated that Mayor David Gordon indicated he had not seen such a reversal in 25 years of closely following of Burbank government as a private citizen and in public service.

When prompted by Bric, Talamantes didn't offer an explanation, though he had called the development "a very good project for the community" when he voted to approve it last month.

Talamantes had not been reticent in his support then, saying "It's going to just increase the activity in that area, which, that's what we want."

He added at the time, "That's what pays for fire, police, all the services we provide in the community."

His change of heart this week seemed to surprise Gordon, among others, who mistakenly declared that the ordinance had passed at first.

Hanna said she and Wehba were "very surprised and disappointed" by the vote and were still considering its implications on Friday, including the time and cost involved in developing alternative proposals.

Chris Baer of Colliers International, who represents the property seller in a deal contingent on the project's approval, expressed bewilderment about the vote and what message it was sending developers.

"It's hard to make changes when you don't know what's wrong," Baer said.

After the meeting, Talamantes said that he was "just listening to the people," who had complained about the density and traffic impacts. He said he would welcome a "fine tuned" project that's less dense.