Sid Tyler Photo by: Bettina Monique Chavez Sid Tyler

Settling down

A settlement ends the legal battle over the controversial IDS Playhouse Plaza, but a small group of state lawmakers wants to shut the public out of such fights entirely

By Jake Armstrong 03/31/2011

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More than a year of legal wrangling over the impact the IDS Playhouse Plaza would have on the historic Playhouse District came to an end last week, with the developer and a citizens’ group that formed to fight the project inking a settlement agreement reducing its size.
 
Developer IDS Real Estate, the city of Pasadena and Pasadenans for a Livable City — which in October blocked the project’s environmental impact report in court after the City Council approved it, ignoring a recommendation that it be downsized — last Monday settled on a scaled-down project that shaves 14,500 square feet from the 160,000 initially planned with a design that should be more considerate to buildings in the historic area, chiefly the Pasadena Playhouse across the street.
 
Former City Councilman Sid Tyler, a founding member of Pasadenans for a Livable City, would not comment because the settlement agreement prohibits the parties from discussing the agreement outside of a carefully worded statement that announced the settlement last week. David Saeta, a senior vice president for Los Angeles-based IDS Real Estate, also could not comment.
Councilman Terry Tornek, who campaigned against the project and now represents the council district in which it sits, called the settlement an improvement, but said how well a new design will fit in the area is still unknown. 
 
“What’s going to come of it is there will be a better project,” he said. “We still have to see what that project is going to look like. Clearly, it will be an improvement over what the council had approved originally.”
 
But if a group of five Republicans in the California Senate gets its way in state budget negotiations, citizens’ groups like Pasadenans for a Livable City would be barred from fighting environmentally flawed projects in court entirely. Those lawmakers — the five GOP votes Gov. Jerry Brown needs to get his tax-extending budget proposal on the ballot — are demanding amendments to the California Environmental Quality Act that would prevent anyone but the state attorney general from challenging a project’s environmental impact report in court, according to a review from the state Legislative Analyst’s Office.
 
Tyler called the amendment ridiculous, saying CEQA exists in part to let the community challenge projects that squeak by with inadequate review of potential environmental impacts, and of the alternatives to lessen those impacts, as the CEQA process requires.
 
“The idea that there would be no redress through a local agency such as Pasadena and we would therefore have to go through the state is ridiculous,” he said. “It basically eviscerates a significant amount of protection that the people have now with CEQA.”
Tornek, who called the proposal “nuts,” said recent laws have already made it more difficult to file lawsuits simply to stall a project. He said environmental reviews help decision-makers identify and potentially mitigate the impacts a project may have, be it traffic, pollution or otherwise. “We may make a bad decision anyway, but at least it is an informed bad decision,” Tornek said.
 
Lawsuits against City Council-approved environmental impact reports have helped shape other projects in Pasadena, one being a development on South Lake Avenue. Currently, the City Council faces a lawsuit from a labor union over its approval of the environmental review of a plan to renovate the Constance Hotel, at Colorado Boulevard and Mentor Avenue, as the first stage of a sprawling complex that would stretch west to Lake Avenue. 
 
LA County Supervisor Mike Antonovich also interceded earlier this month and demanded an environmental review of LA County Public Works’ plan to remove 1.6 million cubic feet of accumulated debris from Devil’s Gate Dam. The review, due in less than 90 days, will examine the impact of trucks carrying that debris through nearby neighborhoods, among other topics.
“I think that’s good public policy,” Tornek said.
 
The Playhouse Plaza settlement agreement ostensibly ends a year-and-a-half-long struggle over the project.
After the council approved an environmental impact report against the Planning Commission’s recommendation in December 2009, triggering the lawsuit, the project, at 680 E. Colorado Blvd., was at the center of controversy both in court and before the Design Commission, where it twice failed to gain enough votes for final approval on its design. 
 
But Councilman Steve Madison in May 2010 brought the deadlock before the council, which ordered a subcommittee of the commission to hammer out a compromise with the developer.
 
Those talks produced a scaled-down version of the project that finally gained enough votes to clear the Design Commission in September. But in late October, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Thomas McKnew sided with Pasadenans for a Livable City and struck down the environmental impact report just as the project was nearing final approval of its design. The judge also criticized the council for giving the project the go-ahead even after the Planning Commission recommended it be scaled back.
 
Under the settlement agreement, the project will be held to the maximum established limits on square footage for the area, which reduces the project’s square footage from 160,000 to 145,428, a 9 percent reduction. Additionally, the developers must add off-site parking and include parking spaces in the subterranean lot that will be available to the public on weekends and after weekday business hours. The elevation and scale of the building’s design, which in a previous version caused it to loom over the Pasadena Playhouse, must blend with that of the historic buildings surrounding it, according to the agreement. An architect with expertise in historic building compatibility will help with the redesign.
 
The sheer mass of the project’s initial design was one of the chief concerns among its opponents, prompting Councilwoman Margaret McAustin, the lone vote against the project when it was before the council, to deem it “too damn big.”
 
To comply with the court’s order, the project’s environmental impact report will be rewritten and recirculated before returning to the council for consideration of land use entitlements, then onto the Design Commission for public hearings on the design. Dates for the meetings have yet to be set. 

CLICK HERE to see City Manager Michael Beck’s letter on the application of CEQA and the design approval process.

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