The Swiss Army knife is the ideal present for boys, especially those from nine to eleven years old. That's the age when every boy believes that all he needs to be a consummate survivalist is his natural pluck and one of those elegant, red, compact tools bouncing jauntily on his belt.
Far from a mere blade, even a fake version of the Swiss Army package contains a pair of scissors, a nail file with a screw-driver tip, tweezers and a toothpick. With a tool like this, you could fight off an assailant, clean a fish or even assemble a desk from IKEA. Without one, you're a wallflower among the Webelos.
If any building has earned the right to be called the Swiss Army Knife of urbanism, it would be the ingenious, five-level structure in downtown Burbank known as Media Village. Under a single roof, the building combines a low-income senior housing complex with 147 apartments, a public parking structure for 500 cars, a popular nightclub with live music, a ballet school, a Brazilian restaurant, and a store that sells golf equipment.
Additionally, architect Mark Gangi — vice president of design of the development firm, Gangi Development of Glendale — has carved out several sensitively-scaled plazas just off the sidewalk that should fill up with people when the area has enough pedestrians. In short, the Media Village building is a "city in the box" that contains damn near everything you need for a lively downtown area.
Media Village is a centerpiece of the restoration — perhaps creation is more accurate — of downtown Burbank. Making downtown happen in Burbank has been slow and difficult; Johnny Carson's infamous jibes at "beautiful downtown Burbank" were inside jokes. Everybody in the NBC Studios knew that Burbank had virtually no downtown at all, except some diners, a retail strip and a few civic buildings. The main retail attraction was the Golden Mall, which had the novelty of being a pedestrian-only shopping street. Like the old Third Street mall in Santa Monica, it failed from a lack of foot traffic. In his Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, the late Reyner Banham predicted the mall would fail because it was a single, linear strip, rather than an entire urban district; perhaps the mall seemed too anomalous or too inconvenient in a landscape of park-in-front retail.
Even without the Golden Mall's unique problems, making a downtown for Burbank meant overcoming extraordinary obstacles. The map of Burbank is radically decentralized; the city has at three different grids. Interstate 5 and the Metrolink commuter-rail line plow through the center of town, disrupting much of the street continuity, except for a small number of major thoroughfares, most of which change direction several times. (The present writer, who is dyslexic in way-finding and easily disoriented in the car, actually refused to drive in Burbank for many years.) The city's business culture is also split. The film studios are located to the south, and the aerospace industry and the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport to the west. The civic center is not close to either business cluster. Worse, Interstate 5 isolates downtown from much of the rest of the city. Visitors must cross a freeway overpass to reach downtown, which feels of isolated.
If downtown is isolated, the city has had both the tax base and the active civic leadership to hang in there with a quixotic project like making a downtown nearly from scratch. Burbank is one of a number of self-made California communities that could be called "redevelopment cities." (San Jose, Long Beach and Anaheim also fall into this category.) These are cities that have big dreams of being important places. Sometimes such cities have big chips on their shoulders; they feel slighted for being seen as industrial, or outdated or otherwise unglamorous. They seem almost hell-bent on making something happen in their downtown areas and tourist destinations.
Burbank's downtown is an early case history of entertainment-driven redevelopment. After the failure of the Golden Mall in the early 1980s, the city in the mid-1980s opened one of the first multiplex cinemas in the region, which became a "destination" and which has added screens incrementally ever since. By the late 1980s, the city had won voter approval to build a regional mall to compete for what the city perceived as lost sales-tax revenue flowing to malls in nearby Glendale and Sherman Oaks.
The second phase of downtown redevelopment, equally commercially but friendlier to people on foot, was a power center anchored by IKEA and Virgin Records. While obviously designed for cars, this power center also had sidewalks and tried to approximate something like a shopping street. The third phase of downtown (I am simplifying the sequence here somewhat) has been the transformation of the Golden Mall into an eight-block, mixed-use district known as Burbank Village, which is the setting of the Media Village building
Located immediately east of the power center, the village is built on the vestiges of the original downtown Burbank, and, as such, has the built-in advantages of a traditional street grid and existing commercial structures. Cartoon Network, for example, occupies a four-story building originally used by the telephone company.
Ironically, Burbank officials made the area more attractive to pedestrians by re-introducing vehicular traffic to the formerly vacated streets, and supplying public parking, most notably in the present project. Parking, the bane of urbane design, once again becomes an engine of pedestrian activity.
Media Village itself has a rational design that some people find hard-edged and lacking in charm. It is a large building, covering most of a city block with 55,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor alone, yet it is not out of scale with its multi-storied neighbors. For all its many uses, the building feels very much like one building. If anything the architecture is too unified.
Still, Media Village, which opened in 1999, has a number of architectural features that are praiseworthy: Built on the former site of a Pic 'N' Save store, the project avoids boxiness. As mentioned above, the building shrinks back at certain points from the sidewalk to provide open air plazas. In other areas, the architect provides towers that lend a distinctive form to the housing portion of the project. Even in the alleys, the developer showed creativity by locating a ballet school at the rear of the project and providing floor-to-ceiling glass walls that allow passers-by to watch girls at their barre exercises. A small crowd is gathered in front of the window at most times of day.
If Media Village could be more charming, the project has proven to be a catalyst for pedestrian movement and, possibly, for further investment in the area. The project has been a versatile tool for activating downtown Burbank. Perhaps a good mixed-use building is not quite as glorious as a Swiss Army Knife, but it still makes a great gift for the right city.