YWCA building brings Pasadena officials back to the drawing board … again

Julia Morgan YWCA

Article published by the The Pasadena Star-News.

Julia Morgan, the state’s first licensed woman architect, may be best-known for her design of Hearst Castle in San Simeon, but she also designed the former YWCA building in Pasadena, pictured Jan. 17, 2012. Potential rehab projects have come and gone, but city officials are hoping to find one that sticks this time around. (SGVN/Staff Photo by Walt Mancini/SXCity).

At Pasadena City Hall, officials look across the street, toward the historic YWCA building, and figuratively scratch their heads: They’re still trying to figure out what to do with the site the city purchased in 2012.

During Monday’s City Council meeting, officials approved further study into five newly proposed projects for the Julia Morgan-designed building — the only structure in town by the state’s first licensed female architect who also designed Hearst Castle — retreading old ground in a new debate which centers around how to best rehabilitate the tired building.

Most of the proposals also addressed the nearby Water & Power site for potential construction as well.

After years of discussions, the ultimate goals are well-defined: renovate and preserve the building, improve its surrounding area, reflect and respect the Civic Center District’s existing architecture, and figure out a way for the city to make a few bucks off the proposition, according to a staff report.

Already, the city has sunk nearly $9 million into the property, including its purchase price, and staff estimates indicate an “economically viable project” could cost a healthy eight figures.

Staff reviewed 10 proposals submitted to the city over the summer; five were approved for further analysis during Monday’s council meeting. All were potential hotel projects, and some included an affordable-housing component, including one — a proposal from the Los Angeles-based Ratkovich Company — which suggested it could also be used as office space, pending further analysis.

All of the projects involve restoring the old YWCA building but differ in how they’ll ultimately use the property. Here’s how each project breaks down:

  • Boston-based Carpenter & Company Inc. pitched a “reuse and restoration” of the YWCA building, then constructing a new building next door, according to the staff report. “The entire facility will be devoted to one use: a 125- to 150-room, full-service Four Seasons hotel,” it says. The company would turn the Water & Power site into a “luxury property” with about 25 full-time residences.
  • Arcadia-based Continental Asset Management suggested converting the YWCA building into a “premium four star 167-room hotel” while using the Water & Power site for either a five-story, 120-unit apartment building or a six-story, 139-unit affordable housing building.
  • South Pasadena-based Edgewood Realty Partners would restore the YWCA building and turn it into a 164-room boutique hotel. Another 70,000 square foot, five-story building would go on the Water & Power site, but the staff report was unclear about its ultimate use.
  • New Orleans-based HRI Properties LLC would “adapt the hotel functions as closely as possible to the original (YWCA) building for a 179-room hotel,” the report says. 165 of those rooms would be in a new 83,000-square-foot building. It didn’t specify what the Water & Power site would be used for.
  • Ratkovich Company partnered with affordable housing nonprofit National Community Renaissance to propose two options, pending further analysis: One involves turning the YWCA building in an office building, the other would see the historic site as a hotel. For the Water & Power site, one plan would see a new 94-unit building for affordable housing, including 46 units “for permanent supportive housing” for at-risk and already homeless households. Another alternative envisions the same number of affordable units but also introduces “up to 15,000” square feet of government office space for lease.

More than a dozen activists rallied around the Ratkovich Company’s proposal, calling on the city to increase its affordable housing, some arguing that was the intended purpose of the YWCA building.

But out of the 10 total proposals, only two — both of which were selected for further analysis — included an affordable housing option.

City Manager Steven Mermell said that was “no surprise” given the enormous price tag for rehabilitation.

“The economics don’t work there,” he said. “You need a project that can … recoup that investment.”

Mermell said staff expects to do a “much deeper dive” on the five proposals council selected, an effort which would include hiring a consultant to look at the economic viability of each.

He emphasized the process, which was “different than normal,” given that it was coming to the council and the public much earlier in the process than previous attempts.

Memories of the spiked Kimpton Hotels project were still fresh for some members of the council. The 181-room hotel was slated for the YWCA site in 2017 when the City Council approved it, then later scrapped following public outcry and the possible need for subsidies.

Councilman Victor Gordo asked when the public would have an opportunity to weigh in on the project outside of City Council meetings. Mermell responded, saying the city was considering holding public meetings to solicit more feedback.

“It’s clear … that we’re going to need a process that engages and involves the public, but ultimately the council will have to make a decision as to how to best restore the building,” he said.

But that’s not the path envisioned by Councilman Steve Madison: “Process is what got us into this mess,” he said. “We don’t need anymore bloated processes.”

Madison argued that the city needed to “pick a great project, save the building,” and recoup the city’s investment.

He said officials should be looking at three projects, not five, and picking the best of those.

“Life is a depreciable asset, and so is this vote,” he said. “We’re letting (the process) get away from us in the vote.”

By BRADLEY BERMONT, [email protected]

PUBLISHED: November 6, 2019 at 2:24 pm, UPDATED: November 7, 2019 at 12:55 pm


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