Design Commission Urges a More Pasadena-Like Look for South Lake Ave. Project

Published : Monday, May 6, 2019 | 5:14 AM

Pasadena’s Design Commission has asked the architects of a proposed mixed-use building on South Lake Avenue which set off neighborhood activists’ alarm bells to return to the drawing board after seeing preliminary plans.

The Commission made 14 separate advisory comments which mostly urged a design more in character with the neighborhood. The project envisions 62 residential units above 9,885 square feet of retail at the 540 South Lake Ave. site, a clumsily-shaped patch which manages to bind together frontages on South Lake Avenue, Granite Drive and California Boulevard.

The project was reviewed during the Design Commission’s last meeting.

Erika Foy of the Madison Heights Neighborhood Association (MHNA) told the Commission’s April 23 meeting that her group was concerned approval of the project “will set a precedent throughout our entire city that it’s okay to build big elephants in our backyards adjacent to bungalow courts like Mentor Court.”

Mentor Court is a historically registered property on an adjacent parcel.

The Design Commission’s advisory suggestions included refining “the massing and architectural character of the development so that it is more compatible with the surrounding context and the architectural legacy of Pasadena.”

Another emphasized the need for “incorporating unique and Pasadena-specific” design styles.

LCRA Architects are designing the project for the parcel’s owner, China-based Dongdu International.

Such is the first preliminary consultation step in the review process at the City Community Planning and Development Department, and it is followed by a concept design review and then a final design review.

In a post-meeting email Foy said that MHNA is “very pleased the Design Commission agreed with many of our concerns of massing, lack of architectural character, and the need for the development to be more contextually sensitive to the historic Mentor Court.”

She said the commission’s April 23 letter to LCRA, which contained the comments, did fail to address her group’s main concern, which is the loss of mountain views resulting from construction of buildings at the proposed heights.

The MHNA further holds the city process of entitlement to be flawed and in need of correction.

“The entitlements given through the zoning process is the next step for this project,” she explained, “and may possibly make the preliminary design review comments almost impossible to uphold if they are given what they are currently asking in height and mass.”

Richard McDonald, a real estate attorney with Pasadena-based Carlson & Nicholas has suggested the South Lake Avenue district might be transformed by the project were it to “activate” the street by putting more people residing on it.

McDonald put the commission’s language and suggested changes in context.

“It really is the place where the applicant’s architect gets to have a dialogue with the design commissioners about what makes the most sense in terms of where the building sits, the orientation, heights, massing,” he explained.

From an applicant’s point of view, the review and approval gauntlet is an educational process, he said. Better to get 14 comments that change things earlier in the process than later, he said.

“It gives you upfront feedback before you spend millions of dollars on architectural renderings and drawings and elevations, construction drawings and the like,” said McDonald.

Different architects see things differently, he said, and the process is one of dialogue and debate with the design commission.

In a situation like the one at 540 South Lake Avenue, the presence of locally iconic structures and atmosphere raise the question of fitting something new into the context of something old.

“Do you try to complement what’s around you do?” he asked. “[Or] you can try to try to stand out and distinguish from it. Those are tough architectural design questions to ask. And I don’t think there’s any right or wrong. I just think creative minds can differ.”