How Burbank is leading the Valley’s urban transformation

When Burbank’s Ikea moved into its new 22-acre digs, making it the largest in the country, it looked as if the city would be left with yet another vacant box store occupying a prime location. Instead, Burbank is trying something new: It’s planning to convert the former Ikea site into 765 housing units, creating a brand-new walkable community in the heart of downtown. 

It’s a sign that the easternmost city in the San Fernando Valley is quietly doubling down on smart growth, sustainability efforts, and innovative transportation solutions, turning Burbank into a place that’s defining the region’s future.

Just 17 square miles with a population slightly over 100,000, Burbank has amenities that most cities its size can’t boast:

As a journalist, Burbank’s Mayor Will Rogers spent 17 years covering Burbank’s local government as well as the city halls of Glendale and Pasadena, getting a first-hand look at how Southern California’s mid-sized cities are becoming the region’s most desirable residential areas. As the mayor is the first to admit, even Burbank’s stereotypically suburban residents are stepping up to big-city challenges.

“This is a population that expects no change or insists on no change,” he says. “At the same time, when it came time to conserving water, we scoffed at the governor’s goals and far exceeded them. Same with electricity. The people really like to get involved in that way, contributing what they can. Our people pay a little more for power because we really focus on renewable resources.”

Rogers says after the U.S. formally backed out of the Paris agreement, even he was surprised to learn how progressive the city’s climate policies are. “I asked the utility companies to measure our ability for reaching those standards ourselves in the near future,” he says. “The answer I got back was, ‘We’re already there.’”

Burbank has been internationally renowned since 1940, when Walt Disney famously relocated his animation studio to the northern bank of the Los Angeles River, and later as “beautiful downtown Burbank” when it was beamed into living rooms in the openings of Laugh-In and The Tonight Show.

Yet being home to major studios like Disney, Cartoon Network, and a booming community of gaming companies has created some growing pains.

The city’s population jumps to 250,000 during work hours, and many of those employees would prefer to live closer to their jobs—if only they could afford it. “In rental properties we have a 1 percent vacancy rate,” says Rogers. “We have landlords who are thrilled with that and raising rent by $100 at every opportunity, and more than a few who are issuing 60-day evictions.” 

Which is why Burbank is leveraging new developments like the arrival of North America’s biggest Ikea—every time I mention the Swedish retailer, Rogers responds with a chorus that sounds like heralding angels—to address its housing shortage

The old Ikea location will be overhauled into a mixed-use development where the city will be imposing requirements to build new workforce housing (which in Burbank means housing for residents who make between $40,550 and $103,515 per year) as well as subsidized housing. The adaptive reuse of Ikea’s former footprint is representative of the way Burbank wants to convert more aging commercial spaces, says Rogers.

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