Top 10 Civic Center Myths

MYTH #1:  The Julia Morgan YWCA building is in urgent danger and if construction doesn’t begin SOON, we’ll lose the historic building forever.

The City has had ownership of the building since 2010, but has done little to secure it against vandalism or to protect it from water penetration, leading to further deterioration of the building. Certainly, we should rehabilitate it sooner rather than later, but we shouldn’t sacrifice the Civic Center itself to rush a poorly-designed solution, as we did with Plaza Pasadena (now called Paseo Colorado). 

Why not insist on the best plan and the best team to get a good project that will last for generations?

MYTH #2:  Massive commercial development is the City’s only option to recoup the $8.3 Million it paid to purchase the YWCA, and  the only feasible option to rehab the YWCA.

Other options, especially one that prioritized civic uses, were never fully explored.  Instead, with only partial data, the City continues to stand by its conclusion that the best alternative is commercial development, even if that would require that we “throw in the dirt [the Civic Gardens] to sweeten the deal.”  Recouping the $8.3M is an appropriate objective, but only if done in a way that preserves the integrity of the Civic Center.

In the previous Kimpton Hotel project, the City’s plan to recoup this amount was woefully insufficient.  According to the City Manager Steve Mermell, this amount would be repaid over a period of 12 to 27 years!  Furthermore, “if everything went right,” the City would receive $2.1MM per year (from rental payments, property tax, and transient occupancy taxes.)   What the City did not answer is: "what exactly has to go right?"  And, what happens if things don’t "go right?"  

When the City obtained the YWCA parcels via a stipulation agreement with the previous private owner, it obtained control over that entire block for the first time in history.  Sadly, to date there has been no substantive exploration of alternative civic-oriented uses for the YWCA block in the context of the Civic Center as the public’s space and Pasadena’s seat of government.

Why was the public not consulted prior to issuing the Request for Proposals when the decision was made to turn the YWCA parcel over to a private developer and, in the process, privatize the existing historic Civic Gardens?

The City currently leases office space for its Water & Power, Transportation, and Housing departments; it may own other properties that could be reused, and government offices and other civic uses could be consolidated in the Civic Center.

MYTH #3:  The city isn’t obligated to follow the voter-approved purpose of the 1923 Bond Measure.

The citizens of Pasadena voted 80% in favor in 1923 for the bond measure that purchased the land upon which to build the Civic Center. This land includes public open spaces that form the garden-like setting of City Hall and the other buildings in the Civic Center. The City legally claims that the public open space, paid for by the public, is now surplus and can now be used as land for a private commercial project.

The City should not cheat the public out of precious open space that was bought and paid for with public money by the citizens in 1923. Allowing the land that was intended to provide our civic buildings in a garden-like setting to be sacrificed for a private building betrays the public trust.

MYTH #4:  The City Manager claims the Civic Gardens are just surplus land (“remnant parcels”) of no value to the City and its citizens, and that there would be no giveaway of public land, just a "lease".

The nomination for listing of the Pasadena Civic Center on the National Register of Historic Places cite not only the Civic Center buildings but also the park-like setting and “grounds, approaches and appurtenances” belonging to City Hall as having significance.

The Civic Gardens are an “approach” to City Hall; those "approaches" provide a setting for City Hall, making the height of the soaring rotunda even more monumental by providing a space – a lush garden setting – to view and admire the entire façade of City Hall unobstructed by competing buildings.

This project will destroy the setting of City Hall by building a large commercial project in the Civic Center Gardens. 

MYTH #5:  An ‘impartial’ EIR was conducted and the Project has no impacts on the historic setting of the Civic Center, traffic, and parking.

This is unacceptable. Like the Kimpton Hotel before, developer proposals under review, all include buildings that are simply a 6-story addition to a 2-story building, and sits on almost every inch of the YWCA parcel, and YMCA parcel, including the Civic Gardens, with massive losses of trees, sidewalks, and public landscaping.

The YWCA’s character-defining feature is the front facade on Marengo Avenue, and another hotel project could likely again carve up and destroy this ceremonial pedestrian entrance to make way for a hotel valet parking drop-off driveway. Also, did we mention that the project has no parking and is solely dependent on nearby maxed-out garages in the Civic Center area?

MYTH #6:  The City claims that it held 15+ public meetings about the project, and the public has provided lots of input, and there will be more public input.

Perhaps, if you consider public comment at Planning Commission, Design Commission, and City Council, after the fact, public input. No public meetings were ever held prior to issuing the RFPS, and upon receipt of RFPs, to publicly debate whether the open space should be “thrown in.”

For the defunct Kimpton Hotel, a request for proposals was initially developed by the City Managers' Office, in cooperation with Pasadena Heritage, without the Planning Department’s involvement and City Council approvals. Closed door meetings in City Hall were then held to evaluate and select a developer, as well as approve the exclusive right to negotiate which the City claims is not a public document.  The public saw a preliminary plan three days before Christmas in 2013 that already sacrificed the Civic Gardens.

All the “15+” subsequent public meetings had been exercises in “designing the box”.  The key decisions to ‘throw in the parkland’ and to choose this developer were made without any public involvement or debate.

Today, with minimal input prior to issuing the second RFP, the city is following the same flawed process that resulted in the failed Kimpton Hotel.

MYTH #7:  This will be a “boutique” hotel.

A “boutique” hotel is small, with big personality. It’s petite and unique! It should not be much bigger than 100 rooms, with intimacy of size and scale that creates its personal feeling and ambiance. That’s what was promised in Kimpton’s original proposal and by the City of Pasadena in the newspapers. That project morphed into about 180+ rooms and might be  mistaken as new addition to an airport Holiday Inn.

The proposals currently under review are likely to result in the same thing: by using the current EIR, all have the potential to destroy the Civic gardens, with the same large footprint, and rely upon the approvals of the failed Kimpton plans.

MYTH #8:  The proposed hotel will boost city revenue, stave off the budgetary deficits, and recoup the $8.3 million purchase price.

With six new hotel projects planned or currently underway in Pasadena, the City Manager has not performed an adequate analysis to show the impact of additional hotel rooms in the Civic Center on existing or projected city-wide and Civic Center hotel occupancy and room rates. With all these additional new rooms, will existing hotels suffer?

Without this information, how can the City Manager state the project will bring economic benefits, whether from recouping its $8.3M investment or ongoing city revenue from transit occupancy tax? After almost 40 years, the City’s approximately $90M investment in the Plaza Pasadena shopping mall (and the now renamed the “Paseo Colorado”)  that wreaked such destruction on the Civic Center has failed to live up to its promise of revitalizing retail activity in the Civic Center area. 

Another massive hotel or other commercial development is no panacea for the City’s financial problems. Promised economic benefits are uncertain and questionable, at best.

MYTH #9:  “Nothing else pencils out." According to staff, the only economically feasible option for the rehabilitation of the YWCA is to build a six-story, 180+ room new hotel (or similar development) on the adjacent parcel and public Civic gardens along Garfield Avenue and Holly Street. 

“It won’t pencil out” is standard developer City claptrap. At the same time, the City Manager and staff, just as with the Kimpton Hotel, make this claim without knowing what the construction costs or possible financing sources are.

Also, as yet there is no current market analysis and appraisal to support occupancy rates, room or lease rates, and operating expenses. So how can the City Manager make any statement about project economics?

It is important to consider, the National Park Service reports in 2018 alone, 1,013 historic properties were rehabilitated totaling $6.9 billion in development costs, which were compatible in design and scale with the original historic buildings and settings.

While apparently daunting to Pasadena City staff, rehabilitating historic properties is being done with great success in other cities across the nation.

MYTH #10:  The Downtown area, including the Civic Center, has sufficient open space and parkland.

The most important reason for preserving Civic Gardens is that they are the historic, ceremonial approaches to City Hall, and the core of the garden-like setting in which our monumental civic buildings sit. Important, too, though, they provide people with much desired public parkland in which to rest, play, and gather.

In fact, City Council-adopted policies call for an additional 4–7 acres of parkland in the Downtown, and encourage the retention and enhancement of open space and parks. Specifically, these adopted policies call for the “protection of open space from loss to new development”, “spaces that support community activities and celebrations as a necessary part of the public life of the community”, typically those “closely associated with the City’s major civic institutions, namely City Hall, the Central Library and the Civic Auditorium”.

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  • Dalton Perry
    commented 2016-08-12 00:09:30 -0700
    Excellent piece!