Published : Tuesday, April 9, 2019 | 5:08 AM
[Updated] A majority of speakers who addressed the Pasadena City Council during public comments on Monday said they would like to see the iconic Julia Morgan-designed YWCA building be used for homeless housing.
“This is a perfect opportunity to restore this building for housing,” said Union Station Homeless Services Executive Director Anne Miskey. “That is what Julia Morgan wanted. We need housing. We need housing quickly.”
Other suggestions included using the building for youth transitioning out of foster care.
Morgan, California’s first registered female architect, built the YWCA building in 1921, six years before nearby City Hall was completed. She went on to design numerous structures throughout California, including Hearst Castle, owned by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. She also designed other YWCA buildings on the west coast.
In 2012, the City purchased the building for $8.3 million. The building has remained unoccupied since then and continued to decay.
In 2017, the City Council voted 5-2 to suspend a Kimpton Hotel project after KHP Capital Partners sought waver on rent and parking for 99 years.
A task force was formed to devise suggestions on new construction, development, and land-use standards for the YWCA and YMCA city blocks. It concluded its work in May, 2018 with a set of general guidelines, but no specific design or construction ideas.
“Talking about maybe this or maybe that at this point is shameful,” said Councilman Steve Madison. “We spent $8 million seven years ago. We had a project I supported and we said no, let’s let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Then we appoint a 15-member task force and surprise, we got 16 opinions.”
The Council also heard from two consulting firms, OLIN Partners and the Kozman Companies, asked to study design and economic impacts of using the site in several different ways.
“It’s of supreme importance it be taken care [of,] renovated and be brought back to life. It would be a shame to lose this jewel of a building,” said Tiffany Beamer of OLIN Partners.
Beamer recommended the Robinson Memorial be preserved and any new project not infringe upon the busts of Jackie and Mack Robinson. Giving them “space to breathe.”
She also said no new building should be taller than City Hall, 60 feet.
“We do not want another massive building there,” said West Pasadena resident Nina Chomsky. “Why are we talking about 60 feet?”
Chomsky and local architectural historian Ann Scheid called for Cultural Landscape reports of the Civic Center to document its history, significance and treatment.
The consultants’ economic study examined costs for using the building variously as a hotel, private office space, office space for Pasadena Water and Power, and housing for the homeless.
In every scenario the lack of parking in the area was an issue.
“One of the reasons the building is so costly to be put in reuse is it was built for a specific purpose,” said Will Soholt of the Kosmont Companies.
“While the YWCA building is appealing and historically significant, it is expected to cost more to rehabilitate than the revenues from any of the reuse options studied will support,” according to the economic analysis.
“I have always believed this was a community space,” said Victor Gordo, who likened it to the plazas in Mexico that are destination locations.
Gordo said the reports did not include proposals that would activate the plaza space and said he was surprised they did not include mixed-use projects.
Pasadena Heritage Society Executive Director Sue Mossman called for the City to take steps to protect the building now.
“No matter what decisions you make it will be two or three years before you can go forward,” Mossman said. “It needs to be protected. It needs to be secured. It has cost the City $1 million in the seven years since we have owned it.”
According to City Manager Steve Manager, people are now living in the building and lighting fires to keep warm. Mermell showed Councilmembers pictures he took inside the building on Friday.
“I didn’t venture upstairs because I knew I was not alone,” Mermell said.
[Editor's note: This article was updated at 7:47 a.m. to correct a quotation by Councilmember Steve Madison.]