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With No Meeting This Week, City Council Looks to Familiar Issues That Lie Ahead

Published on Thursday, July 22, 2021 | 2:12 pm

The Pasadena City Council is dark on Monday, but when its members get back to work on Aug. 2 they are scheduled to restart deliberations on an issue that’s been on the council agenda over the past several years: the long-vacant YWCA building built by famed architect Julia Morgan.

On Aug. 2, the council will consider a time extension for a conditional use permit (CUP) for rehabilitation of the 102-year-old structure and construction on the site of a two-to-six-story, 91,000 square-foot building for use as a hotel at 78 N. Marengo Ave., 155 E, Union St., and 95 N. Garfield Ave.

On Aug. 16, 2016 the City Council approved a series of zoning entitlements for a hotel building, which included rehabilitation of the original building.

Approvals required by the Zoning Code on properties in zoning districts outside single-family residential zones are valid for an initial period of three years unless an extension is granted.

The city is seeking an injunction against the former owner of the famous but neglected YWCA building.

Angela Chen-Sabella, who owns Trove Investment Co., contends the city must sell the building back to her on claims that the city has not put the structure into use since it was acquired through 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 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 was unable to contact 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 a public use stated in the resolution within 10 years of its adoption, and/or that Trove waived its right to first refusal to repurchase it.

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 it 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 documents with the court in February seeking the injunction.

“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 suit states.

The building’s designer, 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.

In other action, the City Council on Aug. 9 is scheduled to hear an appeal of the Board of Zoning Appeals decision to reject a CUP that would have allowed a local grocery store to sell a full line of alcoholic beverages.

In May, the BZA upheld a hearing officer’s decision and denied the owner of Linda Rosa Market a CUP which would have allowed customers to purchase a full complement of alcohol and spirits.

The BZA found that the CUP for Linda Rosa Market, located in the 1800 block of East Villa Street, would adversely affect the general welfare of the surrounding property owners; result in an undesirable concentration of premises for the sale of alcoholic beverages in the area; detrimentally affect the nearby surrounding area; aggravate proposed problems created by the sale of alcohol; and not be in conformance with the goals, policies, and objectives of the city’s General Plan.

From Jan. 27 to May 10, Pasadena police reported responding to 55 calls for service within 500 feet of the market, located in the 1800 block of East Villa Street. The calls included complaints about theft, public disturbances, loitering, vandalism, burglary, and public drunkenness — and that was with the store selling only beer and wine.

Last year, police reported a total of 192 calls for service within 500 feet of the store.

In order to receive the CUP, the BZA needed to find that five conditions would be met by selling a full line of alcoholic beverages:

• A substantial net employment gain on the site
• A substantial increase in business taxes
• A determination that the store is a unique business addition to the community
• The store will contribute to long term overall economic development goals of the area
• The project will result in a positive upgrading of the area

When the matter came before a city hearing officer in February, it was determined those conditions would not be met if a full line of alcoholic beverages was sold at the store.

The market is considered “deemed approved” and began operation before owners were required to follow regulations and obtain conditional use permits, which can limit hours of operation and other business functions.

Over the years, the city has fought to bring some “deemed approved” liquor stores into compliance.

Three other liquor stores are located within a mile of the market.

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