Guest Opinion | West Pasadena Residents’ Association | Why We Care About the Pasadena Civic Center

Published : Monday, June 18, 2018 | 5:19 AM

“Pasadena today possesses a certain character which is unique among American cities. Located as it is on a plateau framed by a great range of mountains to the east, and favored with a wealth of tree and plant life throughout the entire year, it has assumed a type of development almost purely residential. This character must be preserved. The social and commercial life of the city is based on it.” – Excerpt from “A Plan for the City of Pasadena,” 1925, by urban planner firm Bennett, Parsons and Frost

Now, more than 90 years later, many Pasadenans continue to strive to preserve our city’s character and fulfill the long-ago promise we made to ourselves. Part of that promise, perhaps its core, resides within the heart of our home, our Civic Center, embracing the proud grace of Pasadena’s famous City Hall. The structural completion of the central plaza area, including the rehabilitation of current buildings; the size, placement and use of proposed new ones; and the open spaces that surround them, has yet to be resolved.

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In 2003 the City bought the dilapidated YWCA building, which was designed by famed architect Julia Morgan. The City expected to rehabilitate the structure with city funds. As City finances waned, that hope became impractical. Consequently, developers were sought to refurbish the YWCA and also create a project that could add revenue to the City’s coffers.

The City selected the Kimpton Group with the intention of restoring the YWCA as part of a larger hotel complex to be sited opposite City Hall, extending all the way east to the Robinson brothers sculptures facing Garfield.

On August 15, 2016, City Council approved the YWCA/KHP Hotel Project in concept. However, strong public resistance to the hotel development (including opposition letters from WPRA), along with escalating construction costs and the subsequent need for unintended City subsidies, prompted City Council to unanimously suspend the KHP III project on May 22, 2017 and recommend the creation of a task force to reevaluate all the issues in play.

On July 17, 2017, City Council approved the Task Force’s purview in a City Staff report titled: “A Process to Implement the City’s Desired Vision for the Civic Center.” The scope of recommendations were to include:

  • Allowed uses: Examine all desired uses for the area, both public and private
  • Building envelope: Identify the key development standards, including maximum floor area ratio/density, maximum height and appropriate setbacks
  • Parking/loading: Identify the appropriate range of options and overall needs of the Civic Center
  • Public accessibility: Identify the appropriate locations and amount of public space and the accessibility or public spaces within the area
  • Public improvements: Consider landscape and hardscape improvements, and revisions to streets, sidewalks or other areas including Centennial Plaza

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The WPRA considers City Hall to be a monumental work of art and believes no other structures should compete with it in scale, height or importance of place; nor should any new buildings encroach on, crowd or diminish the visual impact of City Hall. With that in mind, the WPRAdeveloped its own recommendations:

  1. The Julia Morgan YWCA building should be rehabilitated according to the Secretary of Interior standards.
  2. The Civic Center Plaza area should be completed as a symmetrical and integrated whole. New building facades on the north and south corners of Holly Street and Garfield Avenue should be symmetrical and complementary in shape and height, responding to the proportions of City Hall to create a sense of coherence and harmony.
  3. All new buildings should be stylistically compatible with City Hall.
  4. All new buildings adjacent to Garfield Avenue, facing City Hall, should be no higher than four stories or 46 feet high.
  5. No new structures should be built on the grassy open spaces that currently exist opposite City Hall. The 107-foot setback extending west from the Garfield Avenue curbs must remain a park-like setting.
  6. Regarding the use of the Civic Center buildings: Try to keep the Civic Center “civic.”

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On May 3, 2018, the Civic Center Task Force convened its last meeting and subsequently completed its report, which began with six Guiding Principles:

  1. Preserve/restore/rehabilitate the YWCA.
  2. Preservation of public open space is a high priority.
  3. Planning should be symmetrical across the YWCA and YMCA sites.
  4. Bring life to the Civic Center.
  5. Preserve and enhance the pedestrian experience.
  6. Inspire a sense of civic pride.

The WPRA agreed with this general direction and believed that citizen input and an open process would permit the Task Force to address and resolve the flashpoints of contention that emerged during the KHP hotel project. However, the Task Force has, in our opinion, failed to address or evaluate most of the specific elements originally outlined by City staff. Instead, the Task Force refocused the planning directives into the bold-type headings below.

  • Setbacks/open space. The Task Force could not agree on setbacks.
  • Building height. The Task Force set limits for building heights on the west side of Garfield to the cornice height of the City Hall wings (approximately 54 feet), stepping down to a more compatible lower height next to the YWCA building. (The rejected Kimpton Hotel project height was 60 feet.)
  • Land use. The Task Force encouraged public and private use of the Civic Center area to ensure rehabilitation of the YWCA, with a priority on public access.
  • Public improvements. The Task Force recommended that the City address the expanse of pavement in Centennial Plaza, which it found to be dangerous, confusing for pedestrians and motorists, as well as unattractive, but could not agree on shape, materials or traffic flow mitigation.
  • Parking/Loading. The Task Force could not agree on or define parking and loading rules because it had not defined specific land use for the YWCA and potential building addition.

Further, the Task Force sidestepped the issues by recommending that the City contract with third-parties for independent studies to determine the best compromises for the Civic Center’s proposed building designs, massing, height, open space/setbacks, proportional spacing between buildings, sustainability, the pedestrian experience, and the cost of preserving the YWCA. City staff, commissioners and Council members, wrote the Task Force in its report, would determine the eventual use of the YWCA along with other existing and new Civic Center buildings.

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From its very beginning, the City of Pasadena birthed a visionary soul. There was something special about this place, something different that was never meant to sprawl, but to evolve. And so, by 1925 this town of only 48,000 residents agreed to create a civic center and city hall to express what they viewed the city would become.

As custodians of our forefathers’ dreams, we are compelled to imagine as they did, and to go beyond the present fiscal and related growth pressures. If we truly believe that our city is special, if we deserve to be the heirs of that special vision, then we must accept that a city’s expression of success is not always based on what it can build, but also its privilege to keep its land free.

Our Civic Center and the open spaces around it must stay as they are – wide and deep expanses that help showcase our striking and majestic City Hall. This space, we believe, is precious, even fragile. If we chip it away for any quick fix, just to fill it, we will smother that initial vision.

The WPRA urges City Council to think in these terms and refuse to compromise this principle, and our sacred ground.

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