City Hall Plans to Air Out 10 YWCA Building Proposals, Despite Initial Closed Door Meeting

Published : Wednesday, October 16, 2019 | 4:44 AM

Civic Center Task Force shown touring the YWCA building in 2017.

In a Tuesday interview with Pasadena Now, Mayor Terry Tornek said public meetings regarding the redevelopment of the Julia Morgan YWCA building will be scheduled after city staff decides on how to proceed with 10 proposals from developers.

On Monday, the City Council met in closed session to discuss the proposals and some local activists worried that a deal was being made without public input.

“People misunderstood the point of all this,” Tornek said, of the closed door session.

“We had I think 10 proposals submitted. Staff needed some guidance about how to respond. You know, what were the key points? What are the business things that the Council was concerned about? They were looking for general guidance with regard to terms and conditions, but people thought somehow that we were going to winnow it down and pick a winner in closed session. That that was never the intent.”

The closed-session agenda item that was legally posted and distributed within the 72-hour period before the meeting described the meeting as a “conference with real party negotiators” and listed the 10 developers that have responded to the city’s request for proposal. The reason given for the meeting was “price and terms of payment.”

Councilmembers were not allowed to keep copies of the proposals although the elected officials can view them at City Hall.

According to Terry Francke of CalAware, who regularly helps journalists understand the Brown Act, which regulates when elected officials and their subcommittees can legally meet in open and closed session, city officials can meet in closed session if the “city is either acquiring, selling or renting property.”

“A legislative body of a local agency may hold a closed session with its negotiator prior to the purchase, sale, exchange, or lease of real property by or for the local agency to grant authority to its negotiator regarding the price and terms of payment for the purchase, sale, exchange, or lease,” according to Government Code Section 54956.8

Despite the legality of the meeting, one local activist said the developers and elected officials consistently use these meetings to negotiate behind closed doors.

“‘Under Negotiation: Price and terms’ is a blanket phrase used for closed session in which development deals are done behind closed-doors,” said Marsha Rood, who formerly worked as a development administrator in the city.

Tornek said the Council wants to get the best deal for the city.

“Everybody will get to see exactly what we got to see,” Tornek said. “We didn’t even read all the proposals. They were just summarized for us. And we identified key questions that we need answers for in order to be able to make a judgment between them.”

The building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and sits across the street from City Hall, was designed by famed architect Julia Morgan designed in the 1920s.

It fell into serious decay after it changed hands in 1996 in a $1.8 million purchase. That owner once described as the “daughter of a Hong Kong billionaire” balked at the city’s initial offer of about $6.43 million leading to a court battle that resulted in the city purchasing the dilapidated property under eminent domain in 2012.

Sue Mossman of Pasadena Heritage called on the Council to secure the building.

But even after the City acquired the building there was no clear plan for its future. In 2017, it looked as if the building would become a hotel. Preservationists opposed the idea, and it was eventually scrapped after the developer asked for a $30 million subsidy to help cover increasing costs on the proposed 127,912-square-foot, 60-feet high, 181-room hotel project. The subsidy would have granted the developer decades of free rent and parking.

In her letter Rood called on the Council to use the building for homeless housing.

“I join others in urging reuse of the YWCA primarily to house those who are without homes and live daily on the streets of Pasadena,” Rood said. “People living on the streets with few resources find it extremely difficult to overcome their circumstances.”