It's Back to the Drawing Board After Civic Center Task Force Report Fails to Galvanize Consensus

City staff will return to Council later this summer with all new set of recommendations for City’s treasured City Hall area

Published : Tuesday, June 19, 2018 | 5:46 AM

Pasadena City Hall (1929); architects Bakewell & Brown

Pasadena’s City Council sidestepped a Task Force’s final report recommending proposed guidelines for the future of the City’s historic Civic Center Monday night, deciding instead to go back to the drawing board and ask City Staff to draw up alternative recommendations.

The City Council directed City staff to return to Council later this summer with a new set of proposed ground rules for Pasadena’s stately City Hall area.

Much of the debate centered around the notion that the YWCA building and Civic Center should not be made available once again to developers, but that the City should keep the “Civic Center civic,’ and not permit hotels and restaurants in the space.

Pasadena City Manager Steve Mermell spoke to that issue, saying that the City could rehabilitate the YWCA for city offices, but that it would “cost millions,” far more than the City now pays for renting offices.

Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek and City Manager Steve Mermell during Monday night's City Council meeting, June 18, 2018.

As more than a dozen speakers commented on the program and argued over cornices and building heights, suggestions varied as to the development or non-development of the historic Julia Morgan-designed YWCA building.

While Jeannette Mann, of All Saints Church, for example, proposed a youth home for transitional foster children, others agreed that such a use would not be a “public” use of the building.

Meanwhile, activist Nina Chomsky reaffirmed her support of ongoing litigation over the Civic Center/Kimpton project, which asserts that the City violated various land use laws in that development.

“We have done the work,” said Chomsky, “and now here come the hotels. Put City offices there in the YWCA building. Do it right this time.”

Marsha Rood, a member of the Civic Center Association, which fought the Kimpton project, reacted testily to the Task Force recommendations, saying, “We’re back where we started from. The City had its thumb on the scale this whole time.”

Activist Mick Hansen, also of the Civic Center Association, took a loftier view, saying to the Council, “We have been gifted by our far-sighted forebearers with public spaces and buildings of beauty and substance. They envisioned a great city that Pasadena has become….I hope we have not become so nearsighted that we are willing to surrender what remains of previous public land for another building —not just anywhere but across from our venerable City Hall.”

Avram Gold, of the West Pasadena Residents’ Association, echoed Hansen’s comments, telling the Council, “Standing near City Hall is experiential and emotional, especially when observing our incredible dome from Ramona, or walking out of the foyer to the front steps to gaze down Holly, and then left and right across the expanse of park-like settings…we all deserve this luxury of old world precious space in the heart of our own Pasadena.

“Surely we can keep it and still build the buildings we need to build. It just takes the decision to do that,” he concluded.

While the Task Force agenda item called for the City Manager to direct preparations to once again reach out to developers, this time, based on recommendations for the Civic Center, the task will now return to the Planning Department for a new set of recommendations, based on Monday’s discussions.

All speakers seemed to acknowledge the weight and significance of their decisions, whether in rehabilitating the property again or making it available to developers, as part of the Task Force report suggested.

The current Task Force, the fourth since the early 1990s, had been established in July of 2017 to prepare recommendations to the City Council regarding new construction or development and land-use standards consistent with the Central District Specific Plan for the YWCA and YMCA blocks near Pasadena City Hall.

The Force’s inception followed the collapse of a plan for the Kimpton Hotel chain to build a luxury boutique hotel from the historic Julia Morgan-designed YWCA building and adjacent property, between Holly and Union Streets, as well the future development of the portion of the Civic Center adjoining Centennial Plaza, including the YWCA and YMCA sites and adjacent City-owned properties east of .those buildings.

The Task Force concentrated on “New construction/development and land-use standards for the YWCA and YMCA blocks consistent with the existing Specific Plan; an examination of possible programming of public rights of way within Centennial Plaza, Holly Street and Garfield Avenue; and potential landscape and/or hardscape improvements.”

During the review process, the vast scope of the Task Force project was reduced to four distinct areas—Setbacks/Open Space, Building Height, Land Use, and Public Improvements.

“I’m chastened by this process,” said Mayor Tornek. “We acquired this building because the previous owner was guilty of neglect. We are now as complicit as those previous owners were.”

“We don’t want to screw this up. This is too important to this City,” said Councilmember Margaret McAustin.

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