Opponents of North Madison Ave. Project to Tell Council They Are Unmoved by Developer’s Concessions

Published : Monday, September 9, 2019 | 5:16 AM

Local preservation and neighborhood groups successfully appealed the approval of a proposed North Madison Ave. project, whose developer reacted by listening to complaints and altering the plans in response. But tonight before City Council, the developer will learn those changes fell short and the opposition is unmoved.

That, in a nutshell, is where things stand as the Pasadena City Council once again is faced with considering the appeal of a developer whose project earned affordable housing concessions only to face community backlash.

The last such Council showdown came July 22 about a South Los Robles Avenue development. That hearing bogged down in a two-tie vote, five-and-a-half-hour debate which ended up blocking the building. (But now that non-approval is up the air after the Council agreed to rehear an updated proposal from its developer.)

On Monday the project in the crosshairs spans 127 and 141 North Madison Avenue.

The overriding issues are whether height and size variations from the City’s General Plan should be permitted. These can be earned by developers in exchange for concessions arranged for through state law, which can override local zoning laws to reward a developer for including affordable housing in the project’s mix.

As part of this planning process, the City has granted the project an “infill exemption” from review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

That decision is what has been appealed. Local activists want, at the very least, CEQA level scrutiny, though they did not prevail before the City Zoning Board of Appeals.

The last step, before the developer considered heading to court, is an appeal of the Zoning Board’s decision to the City Council, which had been docketed for July 22.

Perhaps the spectacle of a 4-4 City Council vote effectively burying the South Los Robles project impressed the Madison Avenue project’s developer, Mike Balian of Toledo Homes, because, after the deadlocked July 22 City Council meeting he went back to the drawing board and made some changes identified as necessary by the appellants.

According to city staff, the project, “has undergone significant modifications in response to issues raised on appeal.”

The overall height and massing have been reduced, staff noted, and a greater setback is provided to the historic Blinn House property to the west. At-grade parking has been eliminated, and the ground floor commercial office component has shrunk, to enumerate a few, but not all of the developer’s adjustments.

In exchange, the concessions sought by Toledo Homes include exceedance of the maximum floor area ratio from 1.5 to 2.22, and another to exceed the maximum height from 50 feet to 60 feet.

The developer would also like a green light for the removal of four protected trees, to be replaced with, “trees that emphasize a tree canopy that is sustainable over the long term…” the staff report said.

Despite proposing these changes, Toledo Homes is still getting a thumbs down from project opponents polled by Pasadena Now.

The biggest stumbling block appears to be where the developer wants to put the project, which is between two National Register Historic Districts: Ford Place and Pasadena Playhouse; as well as being adjacent to the Edmund Blinn House.

Opponents think projects sited in the area should be compatible with the historical elements surrounding, with the General Plan, and with design guidelines for the district.

“Despite revisions to the project since our initial appeal, Pasadena Heritage believes that the project at 127-141 North Madison Avenue is too big, and does not comply with the General Plan,” the group said in an email to its members last Friday.

Specifically, Pasadena Heritage said, the floor area ratio requested “far exceeds” what is allowable in the Zoning Code.

“Though meaningful revisions have been made,” Pasadena Heritage conceded, “we feel that they do not sufficiently address our concerns about contextual development and compatibility.”

Erika Foy, Vice President of the Madison Heights Neighborhood Association, noted that City staff has recommended the City Council uphold the Zoning Board of Appeals decision to grant the concessions.

She accused the City of “hiding behind” the fact the state is granting a density bonus in exchange for the inclusion of affordable housing units in the project.

The City, Foy said, has “some wiggle room,” because of the adjacent, historically registered resources.

“They can say ‘no, this is not exempt. You must do some studies,’ but the City is not requiring that,” she asserted.

Andrew Saliman, preservation director, Pasadena Heritage, said the developer did make meaningful concessions… just not enough.

“The main issue is the trees,” he told Pasadena Now. “There’s not enough adequate space for trees.”

That issue, coupled with the historical context of the site mean the project’s opponents will continue to push for a more thorough CEQA review,” said Saliman.