Burbank’s Pickwick Gardens, an 8½-acre property housing a bowling alley, bar/lounge/restaurant, ice rink, banquet facilities and landscaped gardens, has been a destination for Angelenos since the late 1950s. Located at the corner of Riverside Drive and Main Street in the city’s horse-friendly Rancho District, Pickwick is directly across the street from the Los Angeles Equestrian Center and the popular Mexican restaurant and live-music spot Viva Cantina, behind which passing riders have been tethering their mounts and cutting the dust with margaritas since 1962.
On Sept. 14, owner-CEO Ron Stavert, citing Pickwick’s declining revenues, hosted an open neighborhood meeting where he, along with representatives of Aliso Viejo–based real estate developers Shea Properties, stunned attendees by announcing his intention to demolish the property and build several hundred townhouses and apartments, a four-story parking structure and bocce ball court. A Shea rep added that the “restaurant across the street” — Viva — also would be razed and replaced by “a place to get a drink.”
The crowd erupted in boos, and the presentation immediately ignited a campaign opposed to the plan. Spearheaded by Rancho residents Brian Watson and Bitten Heine, who argue that “Pickwick and Viva Cantina are historically significant landmarks that must be protected for future generations to enjoy,” the campaign has organized volunteers who've canvassed the neighborhood, started a “Save Riverside and Main” Facebook group and created an online petition that gathered more than 10,000 signatures in 72 hours.
A major concern of Watson and Henie is the planned demolition of Viva (disclosure: I have been presenting my monthly no-admission musical revue the Messaround there since 2010), one of the Valley’s most active venues, with two stages hosting live music seven nights a week. Co-owner Cody Bryant has a diversified booking policy that welcomes jazz, country, blues, rock and more, featuring such artists as John Pisano, Bruce Forman, Bob Bain, The Texas Tornados, the Gears, Mau Maus, Laurence Juber, Keith Morris, Evie Sands, Waddy Wachtel, Red Simpson and Big Jay McNeely, along with a regular sit-down roster of big bands, country and bluegrass acts.
In contrast to the bowling alley and ice rink’s dwindling clientele, Viva has the opposite problem. “We are doing 800 shows a year at Viva, and we can’t keep people out of this place,” Bryant says. “Most of the shows are free, but even when the ticket prices are $100 we sell out. We bring a lot of joy to a lot of people in trying times. People feel safe at Viva. There are no velvet ropes, no attitude, and we don’t turn anyone away. If you have $2 in your pocket, you are welcome here.”
As Watson puts it: “I was out on the patio eating enchiladas and having a margarita, and inside a band was playing Charles Mingus’ ‘Moanin’ and horses were walking by. Please tell me another place in L.A. where this is possible.”
Stavert first announced that Pickwick was struggling in 2016 and called for community suggestions for future uses of the facilities. Stavert stated in an email: “The complex itself suffers from increased maintenance and operational costs, combined with decreasing revenues, creating a business model for our family that is no longer sustainable. In terms of the petition, it is disheartening that some would seek to stop any discussion at this point, especially since we have no official project or request before the City Council or staff. Debate is part of the process. To discontinue any community dialogue leaves the Pickwick to an uncertain future.”
The city’s 2013 Master Plan specifically provides for “low-density residential” zonings in both the hillside and rancho neighborhoods, requiring they remain “free from adverse effects from surrounding land uses.”
It is a point of contention whether the Riverside and Main setting would be appropriate for Stavert and Shea’s vision. Opponents of that vision have pointed out that there are 1,750 new units either planned or under construction within a 2-mile radius of the site.
To which Stavert responded: “The bigger picture is this: Housing has not kept pace with this job growth, and this imbalance creates commutes from long distances into and out of Burbank that further exacerbates traffic conditions.”
The Rancho’s residents are notoriously protective of its unusual character. In 2007, they succeeded in thwarting a plan by Whole Foods to open a store at nearby Alameda and Main, citing traffic and congestion concerns.
“Any plan that we introduce will go through the requisite studies to determine traffic impacts, environmental impacts and more,” Stavert wrote. “Again, we aren’t there yet. Step one is for us to listen and find a solution that works for the community and my family.”
As for Viva Cantina, Stavert responded: “Again, we offered a suggestion. What we heard back from the community is that they like Viva, albeit it needs a little paint and better food. Maybe we explore an upgrade to the existing Viva? Again, we have to study the options that will work for the community.”
According to Heine, it could be a long time before any of this is resolved.
“The developers may have an inkling as to how the equestrian community will band together and fight their … proposal,” she says. “But they underestimate the massive community of artists, preservationists, multigenerational residents, hockey players, ice skaters and bowlers who are rallying to stop this proposal.”