On the Glendale Downtown Plan

The Downtown Specific Plan is designed as a development manual

Like many similar midsized American downtowns, the 200-acre center of Glendale (population 195,000) is a tapestry of successive development trends from the past century. The city’s architectural icons—the art deco Alex Theatre, a neoclassical post office, and the Works Progress Administration-era city hall—were built in the boom era following municipal incorporation in 1906, when Glendale boasted it was “fastest growing city in America.” After the Depression and World War II, a series of new modern office buildings housed the expansion of municipal government and local financial institutions during the midcentury.

But in the mid-1960s, urban renewal was inaugurated with the removal of the Los Angeles-Glendale streetcar tracks. During the 1970s, construction of the 134 Freeway bifurcated downtown, and six blocks were leveled for the suburban-style Galleria shopping mall. A “bricks, banners and bollards” attempt to revive downtown’s main street, Brand Boulevard, immediately followed. In the 1980s and early ’90s, the logic of suburban office parks produced a skyline of high-rise office towers and single-purpose parking structures. When a strategic vision for a mixed use downtown was adopted in the mid-’90s without a corresponding change in zoning standards, its implementation was dependent upon specific development deals. By the end of the decade, downtown saw its first mixed use experiments, with projects named the Exchange and Marketplace that combined cinemas, restaurants, and retail. Finally, the construction of The Americana at Brand brought a mature “lifestyle center” to the downtown, with its collage of boutique retail, restaurants, cinema, housing, and a Vegas-style fountain. The cumulative result of this layered history is a downtown that is the functional and vibrant center of the region’s third largest city but still less than the sum of its parts.

2 Downtown Aerial

Designed to incorporate, mend, and unify the disparate development trends and policies that generated the existing skyline, Glendale’s Downtown Specific Plan is a proactive urban design strategy for a mixed use, transit- and pedestrian-oriented downtown. Intended to eliminate ambiguity or confusion about the form of desired development, the plan outlines a comprehensive and integrated framework of policies, requirements, guidelines, and incentives. This is in contrast to the old commercial-only central business district zoning standards, which were never amended to eliminate conflict with the goals of the previous Downtown Strategic Plan and Design Guidelines. Enabled under the unique provisions of California legislation that permit the creation of specialized area plans, the Downtown Specific Plan expresses both the city’s vision for downtown and its implementation standards.

Informed by and respectful of the placemaking concepts articulated by proponents of form-based codes and new urbanism, the plan is free of these ideological constraints or positions. Instead, city staff produced the plan with an eye toward implementation. As a result, the plan itself is an easy-to-read “manual” expressed through an integration of graphics and straightforward, rhetoric-free language. Organized front to back along the typical development and design process—beginning with programmatic concerns, proceeding to issues of building mass, and eventually working toward details and implementation procedures, the plan sets the physical standards and guidelines as well as land-use regulations, and establishes policies for economic development, streetscape improvements, transportation development, parking, pedestrian amenities, open space, preservation of historic resources, and public art.

In contrast to the plans of many neighboring cities, Glendale’s Downtown Specific Plan does not specify development targets or limits as measured by number of units, commercial square footage, or maximum densities, but instead outlines the desired physical vision of the downtown. As such, the plan articulates a number of urban design parameters, including:

  • A new pattern of height limitations to sculpt the skyline with respect towards views to the surrounding mountains and historic landmarks
  • A focus on open space and the ground level of buildings that enhance the pedestrian experience into a coherent network of public space
  • Height and density incentives in exchange for features and uses that expand downtown’s role as an economic center, diverse residential neighborhood, and architecturally exciting environment, including green building, affordable housing, public open space, historic preservation, and adaptive reuse

Shortly after adoption in late 2006, nearly a dozen projects totaling nearly 1,500 residences, of various architectural styles and scales by national and local architects, were entitled under the plan’s standards and guidelines. Most of these projects, which included a number of high-rise luxury condominium and hotel proposals, fell victim to the recession that immediately followed. However, the plan has proved equally adept in guiding the more modest mid-rise studio apartment developments of the post-bubble economy. Since 2010, a mid-market hotel and nearly 600 apartments have been entitled under the plan’s streamlined two-step review process. Unlike the condominium projects proposed during the housing boom, the apartment buildings are now under construction, evidence of the plan’s policy coherency, user friendliness, and flexibility.

Creating such opportunities for infill housing development within the downtown is one of the key policy features of the Downtown Specific Plan. Faced with mounting political pressure to prevent or limit growth in established neighborhoods and surrounding hillsides, Glendale made a conscious choice to focus future residential development toward the downtown and other transit-oriented infill locations that had previously been zoned for commercial uses only. This strategy is consistent with the Southern California Association of Governments’ regional Compass growth plan (also known as the Compass 2% Strategy Plan), a blueprint for housing the additional five million people expected to live in the greater Los Angeles area over the next 20 years. The plan calls for more than 400,000 new housing units to be built along existing transportation corridors and commercial centers, thus increasing transit use by 50 percent and reducing vehicle miles travelled by 35 percent, but only affecting two percent of the region’s land-use patterns. In Glendale, the downtown plan is expected to accommodate approximately 3,000 new apartments and condos otherwise destined to be built in surrounding neighborhoods, where residents would have had to drive to the downtown’s jobs, stores, and cultural sites.

Underpinning this infill development strategy is Glendale’s Downtown Mobility Study, produced by Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates of San Francisco. It gathers under a single umbrella the full range of best practices in transportation planning. Each of these—a free bus shuttle, parking benefit districts, in-lieu fees, and transit-priority streets, among others—is adapted from an extensive catalog of case studies and local research, and tailored to the physical vision articulated by the Downtown Specific Plan.

The Mobility Study’s recommendations outline a series of incremental steps designed to wean Glendale from its addiction to cars. Following the suggestions of Don Shoup’s seminal 2005 book, The High Cost of Free Parking (APA Planners Press), Glendale began by adjusting its parking management policies. To encourage drivers to “park once” in the city’s public garages, the city installed new digital pay stations and restructured meter, lot, and garage fees to integrate all public parking resources into a single market-based price structure. The first 90 minutes in the garages are free and significantly cheaper thereafter than the more desirable, but less plentiful, on-street parking spaces.

Almost immediately, downtown Glendale became a textbook model of Shoup’s theory, and occupancy rates for the premium on-street parking on Brand Boulevard dropped from always full to 85 percent, quickly ending the perception that downtown Glendale did not have enough parking. In support of this new policy, the city also launched a comprehensive wayfinding program, designed around the internationally recognized blue circle-p parking logo.

Additionally, the city reformed its downtown parking requirements from suburban-based ratios to standards more appropriate to a mixed use urban environment, and codified incentives for developers to reduce their parking demand even further with in-lieu fees, additional bike parking, transportation demand management programs, and other techniques. The city is now taking steps to improve its other mobility options by installing real-time next bus information at transit stops, upgrading streetscapes with trees and pedestrian lights, and building a citywide bicycle network incorporating wayfinding signs, sharrows, and road diets.

For this comprehensive integration of urban design and mobility policies demonstrating a local application of the 2% Strategy, the regional planning association gave Glendale its highest honor during its inaugural award program for exemplifying “how communities can implement Compass Principles to encourage mutually supportive land use decisions and transportation investments.”

Despite this visionary stance, many of the policies adopted with the Downtown Specific Plan were not clearly developed, and the city was forced to create new procedures as developers made proposals utilizing these policies. For example, the plan introduced a “one percent for art” requirement, but the guidelines and the review process for evaluating public artwork were not considered until the design team for a new hotel included an artist. The plan also provides height and density bonuses in exchange for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green building certification, but did not resolve the chicken-or-egg problem of how to grant planning entitlements based on construction techniques that can not be verified until after the building is completed. While these procedural problems were worked out by staff and developers as needed for specific projects, this ad hoc approach introduced an element of uncertainty into the development process that the plan was designed to avoid.

The Downtown Specific Plan also lacked a robust and meaningful economic strategy, perhaps because it was drafted in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century during the heady days of the boom economy. Nonetheless, the plan’s focus on the physical form has proved to be a useable foundation and flexible framework for subsequent planning and economic development initiatives in recent years. With the recent closure of the 15-year-old Mann Cinema and demise of many big-box retailers such as Borders, Tower Records, and Mervyn’s, the two-block area surrounding the “100 percent” corner at Brand Boulevard and Broadway—downtown’s two signature commercial streets—was effectively emptied. Recognizing that the retail market was dramatically contracting, the Glendale Redevelopment Agency decided to recast this area as an “art and entertainment district” through an art-in-vacant-storefronts program and a coordinated re-tenanting and redevelopment scheme. While such cultural districts are common in many cities, Glendale lacks this concentrated mix of theaters, nightclubs, art galleries, music clubs, and spin-off restaurants and bars that create a focus for nightlife and visitor trade.

Dubbed “Maryland Off Broadway,” the district is an economic development, planning, and urban design strategy for reimagining Maryland Avenue, one block from the Brand and Broadway intersection and home to the city’s first, but now largely vacant, mixed use complexes. Endowed with a luxurious and well-designed streetscape, Maryland is both relatively narrow and short at two blocks long. This compact scale is ideal for creating the sense of congestion that gives entertainment districts their energy or “buzz.” Additionally, the street is anchored at either end by existing civic and cultural venues—the Alex Theatre to the north and the Central Library at the south. Conveniently, both buildings are located at sites that, as a result of shifts in the downtown street grid, terminate views up and down the street, further enclosing the district’s activity and creating unique opportunities for prominent entrances or landmark architectural features. Although neither the theater nor the library have obvious pedestrian connections to Maryland today, improvements planned for the district are designed to give both buildings a more prominent presence.

To the north, the Downtown Specific Plan and the Maryland Off Broadway strategy envisioned that new development in the parking lots surrounding the Alex Theatre would connect its historic Brand Boulevard forecourt to Maryland Avenue with uses complementing the theater’s programming. Through a public-private partnership, the city enticed Laemmle Theatres, a popular Los Angeles-based art-house cinema chain, to anchor a mixed use building on this site. Translating a $2.6 million public subsidy into $11 million of private investment, the Cinema Lofts project will incorporate new back-of-house facilities for the Alex Theatre, 42 apartments, a restaurant, five movie screens, and a prominent theatre marquee designed create a visual icon for the district.

Laemmle Cinema Lofts by Withee Malcolm Architects

Views south on Maryland Avenue currently end in the side facade of the Central Library, a brutalist-style building designed in 1972. A $10 million library renovation plan will remake this view into a prominent public plaza, with grand stairs leading into the library’s main reading room through a new north entrance. A site for public art, street performances, or temporary exhibits, this plaza will improve pedestrian crossings from Maryland to the library and serve as a gateway between the art and entertainment district and the Central Park further south.

The city is also investing more than $5 million to completely rebuild Central Park, removing and consolidating surface parking lots, driveways, and alleys and replacing them with new pedestrian promenades between Maryland Avenue and other destinations in the area. The cornerstone of this project is the Museum of Neon Art, an independent institution with one of the largest collections of vintage neon advertising and artwork in the nation. After decades of operating out of temporary locations in downtown Los Angeles, the museum will find a permanent home at the midpoint of a new paseo between The Americana at Brand and Central Park. The paseo is designed to showcase the Museum’s collection, and its signature neon “diver” sculpture will be poised to leap off the building into a reflecting pool, fed by dripping neon water from a vintage plumber sign in the shape of a faucet.

Hoping to expand the presence of the Museum of Neon Art with inventive applications of neon, LEDs, and other contemporary lighting effects, the city also adopted a “creative sign” ordinance to encourage unique and playful signs. Additionally, the city enacted a series of legislative incentives and code amendments to facilitate and promote the district, removing discretionary conditional use permits with over-the-counter standards for specific uses supported by licensing procedures for entertainment operators and promoters. Attempting to cut through the red tape, the Maryland Off Broadway strategy aligns the city’s planning permits and procedures with its expressed urban design and economic development policy.


MONA: Museum of Neon Art by Shimoda Design Group

Although the city committed more than $18 million for public improvements and subsidies to launch the Maryland Off Broadway district, the response from the private sector is more than double this investment. The first private development in the district, Broadway Lofts, is under construction for completion in 2013. A $30 million, six-story building located at a site formerly occupied by Circuit City, it includes a full-service, entertainment-oriented restaurant along with 208 residential lofts and studios marketed toward a young urban professional population. Other projects, from the Cinema Lofts to new restaurants, total another $15 million of private money.

Because of the foundational policies provided by the Downtown Specific Plan, the Maryland Off Broadway district strategy jumped from concept to groundbreaking within the four-year time frame of a single council election cycle. This fleet-footed response to changing economic conditions is possible because the Specific Plan was drafted around broad-based goals and open-ended use regulations, but precise urban design and architectural standards. The plan’s easy-to-read graphic format makes the document a practical tool for aligning varying development proposals with the vision and requirements of the city. Instead of attempting to manipulate project density and uses through a lengthy and expensive discretionary entitlement process, design review in downtown Glendale is based on how effective projects are in furthering the city’s policy goals for an economically vibrant, mixed use, pedestrian-oriented downtown. Additionally, as the region’s and country’s assumptions about mobility shift, the Downtown Mobility Study offers an outline for incrementally building the integrated multimodal transportation system necessary to support this vision.

More important for Glendale, the implementation of the Downtown Specific Plan has pioneered urban design-based planning policies. Its ongoing success establishes the precedent for an ambitious Community Plan program, which is extending similar placemaking strategies to all of Glendale. As with other cities in greater Los Angeles or nationwide that are largely built out, almost all planning issues in Glendale are also urban design problems, and the city is creating new planning polices to recognize its diverse mix of suburbs, hillside subdivisions, village centers, industrial districts, urban housing, and commercial corridors.

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