When Pasadena first began to transform its moribund downtown into Southern California's premier urban destination, neighboring Glendale took a more cautious approach to urban renewal, which is to say that it did very little.
Twenty-five years after Pasadena began its ascent into urban planning textbooks, Glendale, with a population of 207,000, residential neighborhoods stretching from the San Gabriel foothills to the flats of Los Angeles, and a downtown that resembles an edge city more than an Old Town, has plodded along with a decidedly conservative approach to planning.
"There's no sense of arrival in Glendale," said former Pasadena development administrator Marsha Rood. "Glendale has beautiful neighborhoods and homes, but the downtown is a little too single-use driven."
"They fell behind [and] kind of missed the boat on a number of trends," said Glendale area real estate broker Roobik Ovanesian.
After the recent opening of Americana at Brand, the latest ersatz-urban shopping extravaganza from developer Caruso Affiliated, Glendale is turning to a more genuine approach to the public realm. Under Director Hassan Haghani, the Glendale Planning Department is not promoting more mega-developments but rather intends to enhance existing urban character with the establishment of its own Urban Design Studio.
"As a city, Glendale has been more comfortable with a slow, steady evolution without branding itself," said Principal Urban Designer Alan Loomis.
The studio formally convened in May, when urban mobility expert Michael Nilsson joined a team that already included Loomis, urban designer Stephanie Reich, and historic preservationist Jay Platt. The team has been working to bridge the gap between design and planning.
"The city had been struggling with a lot of issues that they had been trying to address through process and codes for two decades," Haghani said. "When you get to the bottom of it, what the communities are demanding is design-related. You need to infuse the planning field with that."
Until Haghani became director early in 2007, the Planning Department had focused primarily on zoning and had little to do with aesthetics. Haghani said the new strategy not only has the support of the City Council but was mandated when the council authorized an update of the general plan in July 2007.
"We wanted to use a design-based plan as a practical tool," Haghani said. "We didn't want to shoot from the hip every time."
The studio is already working on a new update of the general plan in which a form-based strategy and attention to aesthetics and neighborhood context will take precedence. Loomis and his colleagues will also function as city-sponsored consultants to help developers and architects meet the new design guidelines, whether for a second-story addition, the restoration of a ranch-style house, or the next Americana.
The studio intends to make the relationship between developers and the city less adversarial, more predictable, and more focused on the substance of design rather than on the complexity of codes.
"The four of us all come out of consulting firms in the private sector, so we act in a very entrepreneurial, proactive way," said Loomis. "We're easier than hiring a consultant, because we're always here, when you might have to wait a couple days or a week get responses [from a consultant]."
Haghani said early results have been mixed, depending on the type of project. "The larger projects that tend to have the more sophisticated architectural teams respond very quickly and very well," he said. "Sometimes it takes a little more work with the homeowner who wants to build a dream home to explain why we're being restrictive about design concepts."
Everything except for small residential additions, minor façade remodels and buildings of less than 10,000 square feet in redevelopment areas is subject to review by one of two design review boards. Ultimate approval authority rests with the City Council. Loomis said he wants to help developers conceive of projects that will meet with approval rather than languish in negotiations and redesigns.
"It's not just about streamlining the process, it's about getting a better product," said Platt.
"We are challenging the architects who work here to produce better work than they might have been accustomed to when they came to Glendale five or ten years ago," said Loomis. "We're trying to push Glendale into that echelon of cities like West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Pasadena, where architects want to do their best work."
Ovanesian said the design studio members will provide "a major benefit to developers" because they understand the community and the context of individual neighborhoods.
New projects will be nestled within an amiable collection of Craftsman houses, postwar homes, dingbats, and commercial strips that has never had a unifying theme or a single icon around which to rally. The studio seeks to capitalize on this diversity of styles and forms by addressing design on a fine-grain, individual basis without throwing a blanket over the city's 30 square miles.
"We have almost every kind of urban condition in Southern California except an airport and a beach," said Platt.
"We don't have vision of what that product is going to be, and I don't think we want to have a vision of that. We want to be surprised. We want creativity to rule the day."
Transportation planner Nilsson's work involves a downtown mobility plan, plus bike plans and pedestrian plans that are intended to create more intimate relationships between developments and their streets.
All of these changes will be incremental, and no single one of them – even in downtown – is intended to transform the city. The biggest project in the pipeline is Verdugo Gardens, a 24-story mixed-use apartment tower slated for downtown.
The real innovation may lie in the integration of urban design into the city's political culture. With the studio, Haghani and the city are making an effort to wake up the city and give it a sense of identity. This approach is something that Dana Cuff, architecture professor and director of cityLAB at UCLA, said may be the next step in the evolution of planning, as attention increasingly turns away from grand projects and greenfield development to infill and rehabilitation of the existing built environment.
"My feeling is the next phase – the post-suburban phase of urbanism – is much more likely to be a designer's problem than a planner's problem," said Cuff. "When you zoom in closer, the specificity of the problems swamps abstract ideas."
Hassan Haghani and Alan Loomis, Glendale Planning Department, (818) 548-2140.
Planning Department website: www.ci.glendale.ca.us/planning/default.asp
Dana Cuff, UCLA cityLAB, (310) 794-6125.
Marsha Rood, Urban Reinventions, (626) 796-6870.