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

MYTH #2:  The proposed 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, to our knowledge, were never explored.  Based on its financial assumptions, the City continues to stand by its conclusion that the only known option was to “throw in the dirt [i.e. Civic Center parkland] to sweeten the deal.”  Even assuming recouping the $8.3MM is an appropriate objective, this past summer, it was revealed the City’s plan to recoup this amount is 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 has not answered 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.  Why was there no creative exploration of alternative 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 when the decision was made to turn the YWCA parcel over to a private developer and, in the process, privatize the existing parkland?  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.  Why was the public not consulted when the decision was made to turn the YWCA parcel over to a private developer and, even more shocking, privatize the existing parkland?

MYTH #3:  The city isn’t obligated to follow the voter-approved 1923 Bennett Plan.

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 cannot legally claim that the public open space, paid for by the public, is now surplus and can now be used as land for a private hotel project. In fact, as of this date, no public hearing has been held to surplus this public property.  Subsequent drawings, like a 1925 version of the original plan, cannot replace the one that the voters approved and that was published in the newspaper and displayed in City Hall in 1923 as an exhibit describing what the citizens wanted and were told they were getting. The City is obligated to follow the voter-approved Bennett Plan for the Civic Center, and 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 the setting for City Hall to be sacrificed for a private building betrays the public trust.

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

The voter-approved Bennett Plan and the National Park Service 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 parkland is 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 hotel on the parkland.

According to the City’s own rules, a lease exceeding 15 years us treated as a sale of City property.  Even if the City technically retains ownership of the land via a long-term lease agreement, how is that preserving the setting?    The ability to recover from a tragic mistake in 50 to 100 years is not justification to proceed with a tragic mistake in the first place! 

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

Who are they kidding?? It’s a 6-story addition to a 2-story building, which builds on almost every inch of the parcel, with massive losses of trees, sidewalks, and public landscaping.  The YWCA’s character-defining feature is the front facade on Marengo Avenue, and the project carves up and destroys this ceremonial entrance for a hotel valet parking drop-off. 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.

Not so. No public meetings were ever held to publicly decide whether or not the open space should be “thrown in.”  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 parkland.  Seven months later, the public found out that a closed-session decision had been made that struck the project in stone and stole the parkland. All the “15+” subsequent public meetings have 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.

MYTH #7:  This a “boutique” Kimpton 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.  The current project has morphed into about 180+ rooms and you might be forgiven for mistaking the new addition for an airport Holiday Inn. 

Also, we have learned that since January 2015, Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, has not been the developer.  Rather, the city’s developer-partner is an affiliate of KHP Capital Partners, a private real estate equity firm, newly formed in January 2015 and not affiliated with Kimpton.    In January 2015,   "Kimpton" was acquired by International Hotel Group – an umbrella hospitality firm that owns such brands as Holiday Inn Express, Crowne Plaza, Candlewood Suites and others like that.   So, in fact, for almost 2 years, “Kimpton” has had no ownership interest in the project whatsoever.  "Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants" might be the operator of the hotel, via a contractual fee arrangement.  However, even if Kimpton is the operator, under IHG, what will a “Kimpton” brand hotel be?  Will it be like the boutique hotels created by its founder Bill Kimpton in 1984?  Or something else?  There is no guarantee of a "Kimpton" hotel.

MYTH #8:  The proposed hotel will boost city revenue, stave off the budgetary deficit that is looming for 2017, and recoup the $8.3 million purchase price.

With five new hotel projects planned or currently underway in Pasadena, the City Manager has not performed an absorption (“vacancy rate”) 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. Without this information, how can the City Manager state the project will bring economic benefits, whether from recouping its $8.3MM investment or ongoing city revenue from transit occupancy tax? After almost 40 years, the City’s approximately $90 MM 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. The proposed hotel is no panacea for the City’s financial problems. Promised economic benefits are uncertain and questionable, at best.


MYTH #9:  “Nothing else pencils out." The only economically feasible option for the rehabilitation of the YWCA is to build a six-story, 180+ room new hotel on the adjacent parcel and public parkland along Garfield Avenue and Holly Street. 

“It won’t pencil out” is standard developer claptrap.  At the same time, the City Manager states the City staff does not know what the estimated construction costs are and what the sources of construction financing are.  To our knowledge, the City has not performed a market analysis upon which to estimate hotel occupancy rate, room rates, or operating expenses. With no supporting financial data and analysis, how can the City Manager make any statement about project economics?  And, importantly, the National Park Service reports in 2015 alone 870 historic properties were rehabilitated totaling $4.47 billion in development costs, and they were compatible in design and scale with the original historic buildings and settings.

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

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!