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City Suing Former Owner of YWCA Building

Local officials seeking to reaffirm rights to historic building

Published on Wednesday, April 28, 2021 | 4:08 pm

The city is seeking an injunction against the former owner of the famed Julia Morgan YWCA building.

Angela Chen-Sabella, who owns Trove Investment Co., claims the city must sell the building back to her on claims that the city has not put the building into use since it was acquired by eminent domain 10 years ago.

In November, the City Council unanimously voted to allow City Manager Steve Mermell to enter into an exclusive negotiation agreement (ENA) with HRI Properties to develop a hotel at the dilapidated and long-shuttered site on North Marengo Avenue.

“As a result of the wrongful conduct of the defendants, and each of them and because real property is unique, an injunction is therefore necessary to allow the city to continue its efforts to pursue an ENA [Exclusive Negotiating Agreement], lease and development agreement with potential developers in regards to the YWCA building,” the lawsuit states.

According to section 1245.245 of the code of civil procedure, seized property is to be offered back to the original owner if it is not put to its public use – or the taking is not reauthorized – within 10 years.

The city is suing for quiet title and declaratory and injunctive relief. Pasadena Now could not locate a phone number for Chen-Sabella or Trove Investments.

According to the lawsuit, the city is asking for “issuance of a temporary restraining order, preliminary injunction, and
permanent injunction restraining and enjoining Defendants from interfering with City’s attempts to pursue an ENA, lease and development agreement with potential developers in regard to the YWCA Building.”

The city is also asking for a declaration that the city used the property for the public use stated in the resolution within 10 years of its adoption, and/or that Trove waived its right to of first refusal to repurchase the subject property

The city originally claimed it was seizing the building for historic preservation, but attorneys contested that claim in 2010.

According to the lawsuit, the city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on studies, rehabilitation and preservation of the building.

Chen-Sabella acquired the building in 1996 for less than $2 million. She was forced to sell the building to the city in 2010 for $8.3 million.

According to reports Chen-Sabella is the daughter of Din-Hwa Chen, a Hong Kong billionaire and philanthropist who died in 2012.

One month before the City Council vote, lawyers for Trove Investment Co. sent the city a letter again demanding officials offer the building back to Chen-Sabella.

In January the city notified the company that its position has not changed and demanded that Trove rescind its demand and formally waive and release Trove’s asserted rights to repurchase the building.

The city filed court papers for the injunction in February.

In Rutgard v. City of Los Angeles, the city of Los Angeles was forced to sell a building back to its original owner after failing to build a constituent service center within the 10-year period between 2007 and 2017. Although the city of Los Angeles adopted a resolution reauthorizing the 2007 seizure, it was completed after the 10-year window, about a month too late.

“Unfortunately, given the Court of Appeal’s decision in the Rutgard case last year, it looks like a bad situation is about to get worse as the City gets bogged down in more litigation,” said localLand Use Attorney Richard McDonald. “Why the City did not adopt a reauthorization resolution before the 10-year deadline is a mystery to me; but, in the meantime, the YWCA sits unrestored, unrehabilitated, and unused. Incredibly sad; particularly given that we could have had a Kimpton hotel there by now.”

“A judicial declaration is necessary and appropriate at this time under the circumstances in order that the city may ascertain its rights because the city is actively negotiating the terms of an ENA with HRI regarding the rehabilitation of the YWCA Building and the lease of the Subject Property,” according to the lawsuit.

“These negotiations are being threatened and negatively impacted by Trove’s demand that the City offer Trove the right of first refusal to purchase the Subject Property.” the suite states.

The building was designed by famed architect Julia Morgan. Morgan was the first woman admitted to the architecture program at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. She designed the YWCA building in the early 1920s. The building was completed in 1923.

Morgan arrived in Paris in 1896 to attend the École des Beaux-Arts, the most respected architecture school in the world. Up until that point, no woman had gained admittance into the school. The diminutive Morgan, who designed Hearst Castle for publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst starting in 1919, took the entrance exam three times before she was admitted in 1898.

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