Pasadena Now has learned the former owner of the Julia Morgan YWCA is claiming she now has the right to buy back the building under eminent domain law.
Angela Chen-Sabella is claiming the city did not put the building into public use within the 10-year window required under the law.
“The property was acquired for historic preservation purposes, and we have expended considerable funds and resources in furthering historic preservation of the building, the use for which it was purchased,” said Pasadena Public Information Officer Lisa Derderian. “The former property owner’s assertions have been looked into and we have concluded that the City is in compliance with applicable laws and did not have to offer to sell the property to the former property owners. We are proceeding with continuing to further historic preservation of the building, following the process we have previously outlined.”
Sabella was forced to sell the building in 2010 for $8.3 million when the city acquired it through eminent domain. According to media reports, Chen-Sabella purchased the building in 1996 for less than $2 million, but over the next 16 years, it fell into serious disrepair.
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.
“Property acquired by a public entity that is not used for the public use stated in the [original] resolution of necessity within 10 years of the adoption of th[at] resolution shall be sold unless the governing body adopts a resolution reauthorizing the existing stated public use of the property by a vote of at least two-thirds of all members of the governing body of the public entity or a greater vote as required by statute, charter, or ordinance…
“If the public entity fails to adopt a reauthorization resolution . . ., and that property was not used for the public use stated in [the property’s original] resolution of necessity between the time of its acquisition and the time of the public entity’s failure to adopt a [reauthorization] resolution, the public entity shall offer the person or persons from whom the property was acquired the right of first refusal to purchase the property [a]t the present market value.”
A public hearing for the adoption of a reauthorization resolution for the former YWCA at 78 N. Marengo Ave., was scheduled on the Sept. 14 City Council agenda, but Mayor Terry Tornek announced that item had been canceled without explanation at the start of the meeting.
The city originally claimed it was seizing the building for historic preservation, but attorneys contested that claim in 2010.
In a similar case, Rutgard v. City of Los Angeles – August 2020, 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 LA adopted a resolution reauthorizing the 2007 seizure, it was completed after the 10-year window, about a month too late.
On April 12, 2010 in its Eminent Domain Resolution of Necessity, the city said the site would be used “for historic preservation purposes.” That same day, the Peterson Law Group, representing Trove Investment Corp. objected for, among other reasons, that “preservation is not a defined project.”
On Jan. 17, 2012 the city changed the project from “restore the building and lease it out” to “looking to private developers” to complete a development project.
It was not immediately known whether the 2012 date had restarted the clock on the city’s 10-year window.
“The State Code of Civil Procedure [1230.010 – 1273.050] regarding eminent domain law says that if property subject to a resolution of necessity is not used for the public use stated in a resolution of necessity within 10 years of the adoption of a resolution of necessity, or a new resolution of necessity is adopted, then the public agency has an obligation to offer the property back to the original property owner,” said Marsha Rood, who previously worked at City Hall in the city’s Community Development Department. “In Rutgard v. City of Los Angeles (2020) , the court held that the statute requires a public agency to adopt a reauthorization resolution within 10 years of the “adoption” of the original resolution of necessity. Because the City of Pasadena did not adopt such a reauthorization on or before April 12, 2020, then the property must be offered to the original owner.”
Housing advocates have called on the city to build affordable housing at the site.
The site 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.
Last week, local residents listened to plans by five developers for the site.
Approximately 150 people participated online, with some longtime Pasadena housing activists praising the projects, but some members of the public expressing concern over the encroachment of the new buildings into the open space.
Many of the same activists had aggressively led the previous battle against a proposed Kimpton Hotel project in 2017.
When Pasadena Now inquired the day after the meeting about the former owner’s efforts to reclaim the building, City Manager Steve Mermell would only say “The city is proceeding with the process to identify appropriate projects for the Civic Center and we appreciate all the public participation in yesterday’s presentation.”