A Look Inside the Empty YWCA Building: Pasadena’s Civic Center Task Force Takes a Tour

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By EDDIE RIVERA, Community Editor

6:32 am | December 4, 2017

Pasadena’s Civic Center Task Force – formed after the City Council effectively slammed the door shut on a luxury boutique hotel project across from City Hall, then decided to embark on a “robust public discussion … of the Civic Center as a whole” – held its second meeting Saturday to review the history of Civic Center Plaza and, importantly, to visit the long-shuttered historic Julia Morgan-designed former YWCA building at the heart of the plan.

Saturday, the group heard a presentation from Senior Planner Kevin Johnson which detailed the history of Civic Center Plaza, beginning in 1921, when State law changed to allow the issuance of a single bond for several municipal improvements in one group, if a city planning commission and voters determine that the improvements constitute a “City Plan.”

In April 1922, the Pasadena City Planning Commission was created and then, in, January 1923, Bennett, Parsons & Frost prepared a conceptual plan for the Civic Center for the Planning Commission. The plan came to be known as the “Bennett Plan,” (although there are actually two Bennett Plans, with minor but significant differences.).

The plan has since come to be known as the “Bible” of local planning and has been referred to ever since, as a number of Civic Center plans have come and gone. It was also, in its early stages, a plan for the entire City, not just the Civic Center.

Since its inception, the City has developed a number of plans for Civic Center, including the Pasadena Central District Improvement Program in 1971, The Downtown Pasadena Urban Design Plan in 1983, which accounted for the new Police Building and Plaza Las Fuente to the east, and the City Specific Plan, adopted in 1990 and amended in 1994.

The YMCA and YWCA buildings on opposite sides of Centennial Square facing west along Holly Street were designed by renowned architect Julia Morgan as part of the plaza’s original design. Morgan was the first woman architect licensed in California and designed, among hundreds of projects, portions of Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California.

The former YMCA building is currently occupied by Union Station Homeless Services and is located at 235 East Holly Street. The former YWCA building is unoccupied. It is located at 18 North Marengo Avenue.

A number of suggestions were made for the project Saturday, including municipal office space and affordable housing along with community “work spaces” for young entrepreneurs to use as business incubator spaces.

In April, the City Council voted to “pause” a project to rehab the City-owned, 40,570-square-foot historic YWCA building, and construct a new two-to-six-story, 87,342-square foot new building, both of which would become an 127,912-square-foot, 181-room Kimpton Hotel with restaurant and banquet facilities totaling 1. 93 acres, on a site bounded by Garfield Avenue on the east, Union Street on the south, Marengo Avenue on the west and Holly Street on the north.

The total project cost to the developer was estimated to be approximately $81.7 million, including approximately $14-$16 million to rehabilitate the city-owned historic YWCA Building, along with the construction and operation of a new building.

The total construction cost per room eventually increased from $289,900 to $451,459, as market rate wages for construction, along with other costs, added $8.9 million to the total costs.

By April of 2017, a request by the developers for 50 years of free rent and 136 parking spaces owned by the City, amounted to a $7 million subsidy for KHP, while the 136 parking spaces represented another $3.7 million. A projection from the City staff report also reported that the City would receive $44 million over the first 20 years. The City would also share in room revenue, and 20 percent of the hotels’ income proceeds after a 14% internal share to KHP.

But the City Council, at its April 3 meeting, failed to approve or disapprove the project, essentially “pausing” the project.

The City Council then developed a 15-member Task Force to develop recommendations on new construction, development and land-use standards for the YWCA and YMCA blocks, consistent with the existing Specific Plan, along with an “examination of possible programming of public rights of way within Centennial Plaza, Holly Street and Garfield Avenue; as well as potential landscape and hardscape improvements,” according to a City report.

The Task Force is currently gathering data, convening public meetings, and will eventually develop recommendations with support from the Planning Department staff. The Planning staff will then forward the Task Force recommendations to City Council, for approval.

City Staff will then develop and release an RFP for developers, “consistent with the new vision,” according to the staff recommendation.

But it was the building visit that held the most interest and intrigue for the Task Force members. The three-story Mediterranean-style building has been locked and shuttered for more than twenty years, before which it saw its share of neglect, following the departure of the YWCA in the late 1990s. Its sister YMCA building across the street to the north, has since been rehabbed for affordable homeless housing.

Following a search for the correct keys, and a preliminary walk-though with a Pasadena police officer, the task force members entered the darkened, powerless building. Ceiling tiles and broken wooden doors littered the floor of the building’s foyer, while most of the walls were peeling and were dotted with holes.

A small auditorium and gymnasium were both eerily intact, with the wooden gym floor smooth and worn from thousands of sneakers. Grafitti covered some of the walls of hallways and doors, with most of it on the upper floors.

The once magnificent swimming pool was intact as well, though broken plaster has piled into its deep end. The original wooden beams were also intact, as afternoon light shone through the skylights. An observatory section sat high above the pool, as did another above the gymnasium.

Kimpton hotel plans had called for both the gymnasium and pool to be converted into ballrooms.

The building also showed obvious signs of vandals and squatters, with coffee cups and Red bull cans strewn about the lower floors. One grafitti message said plaintively, “This is f–ed up. I had to sleep last night with no candles. I knew you were going to take off. Skip.”

Meanwhile, the Task Force is still gathering data and suggestions and is due to present recommendations to the City Council in March.