Clash of Visions for Future of Pasadena's Historic YWCA Building Pulls Into Sharper Focus

Published : Monday, June 3, 2019 | 5:23 AM

The future of Pasadena’s historic YWCA building one block from City Hall is front and center again Monday as officials polish a new Request for Proposals and Councilmembers consider extending by one year the site’s zoning entitlements from an earlier failed hotel plan.

The new call for ideas for use of the empty landmark designed by famous California architect Julia Morgan could be issued by the City as early as Tuesday, according to the City’s website.

This request for proposals from developers, known as an “RFP,” follows years of turmoil over previous plans and conflicting visions of what should become of the forlorn building, which is slowly disintegrating and in past months faced potential danger from squatters’ fires.

Mayor Terry Tornek’s suggestion the building house homeless has earned widespread support from local housing advocates who fear the City’s new RFP will be skewed towards selling the building or converting it into a hotel, offices or luxury condos.

A public hearing Monday on whether to extend zoning entitlements for now-dead Kimpton Hotel plan heightened housing advocates concerns the City is leaning towards commercial development.

City documents however portray the extension as simply a prudent move since “it is conceivable” viable proposals for the property might be submitted which could use some or all of the previously approved entitlements.

But the draft RFP listed one of its goals is to, “ideally, establish a long-term, fair market value ground lease or sale (as determined by an appraisal) of the YWCA Building/Site” and also a second nearby vacant site across from City Hall owned by the Pasadena Water & Power Dept.

Some say that focusing on the economic viability of different use options unfairly — and perhaps illegally — eliminates social investment uses.

Local housing advocate Anthony Manousos claims California’s Surplus Land Act requires local agencies such as cities and transit agencies to prioritize affordable housing, as well as parks and open space when disposing of surplus land, ahead of commercial uses.

Manousos also claims that when issued, the City must extend the RFP to a 90-day window for developers in which to respond instead of only 60 as proposed, again citing AB 2135.

(City Manager Steve Mermell said Friday that the decision on the RFP’s response window has not been finalized.)

While agreeing with Manousos, activist Marsha Rood also pointed to pending litigation brought by the Pasadena Civic Center Coalition and said the YWCA should only “be offered after the lawsuit has been resolved.”

Finding “the best idea” for the property has proven elusive.

In May 2017 the City Council killed a deal to turn the YWCA into a 181-room Kimpton hotel in the face of mounting public opposition and an oversized subsidy request from the developer.

Councilmember Steve Madison said then that the time-consuming process to develop the Kimpton Hotel/YWCA project had been “a monumental failure.”

Then the City Council created a Civic Center Task Force to come up with ideas for uses of the YWCA. That Task Force ended its mission with a final report which set out general guidelines but no specific use plan.

In April the Council heard a report by Manhattan Beach-based Kosmont Companies which looked at the financial feasibility of the gamut of possible uses, including a hotel, city office building, private office building, and market-rate housing as well as the costs of “supportive” homeless housing.

“There are a lot of good ideas on the table. The question is not, do we have good ideas. The question is what’s the best idea that is also viable?” Councilmember Victor Gordo said last week.

The Kosmont study showed just how difficult it could be to arrive at a project which makes purely economic sense.

“The cost of rehabilitating the YWCA building likely exceeds the value of any project that could be built there, which is why additional building area would be needed to make any project feasible,” Mermell said, referring indirectly to the inclusion of the PWP’s vacant lot in the RFP.

He pointed out that homeless housing is an exception.

“Permanent supportive housing … relies on a far different funding model” but sufficient funds in the form of grants, tax credits, etc. to cover construction costs would have to be identified, Mermell said.

Gordo said the City may decide to make that “social investment” in permanent supportive housing.

“We may determine as a City that there is no perfect idea that pays for itself and that that best idea is to make this a social investment that has a housing component that benefits people who may not otherwise have housing, but at the same time stays true to their civic center,” Gordo said.

But he cautioned against predetermining what the best idea could be or excluding any idea at this point.

“This decision is going to be a decision that generations of Pasadenans have to live with,” Gordo said. “And so we have to make sure it’s the best decision.”

Public input on the terms of the formal Request for Proposals for the YWCA closed last Friday. The wording of the actual RFP will be finalized for issuance on June 4, according to the City.

Monday night’s City Council hearing to extend the zoning entitlements associated with the property begins at 7 p.m. in City Council Chambers, 100 North Garfield Avenue.

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