For the first time since the 1920s, the city of Pasadena has an opportunity to complete our historically significant Civic Center, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. With its 2012 purchase of the historic Julia Morgan YWCA building at 78 N. Marengo Ave., the city now owns both blocks facing City Hall and flanking Holly Street, the major street in the Civic Center leading to City Hall.
But what is happening? Instead of taking this opportunity to enhance the Civic Center in the spirit of the 1923 original voter-approved and financed city plan, the city is moving forward with KHP Capital Partners, successor to Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants, to build a proposed hotel whose scale and design would overwhelm and compromise Pasadena’s nationally celebrated and locally beloved Civic Center. The district consists of City Hall,
Rehabilitating the long-neglected Julia Morgan YWCA building is to be applauded. The problem is that the restoration of the YWCA building has become the justification to build a 184-room, six-story hotel encompassing both the YWCA site and public open space across from City Hall. Most of the publicly owned open space surrounding the YWCA building, along Holly Street and facing City Hall would be lost. Instead of enhancing the Civic Center in the spirit of the original voter-approved plan, the city is moving forward with a project that threatens to overwhelm and compromise Pasadena’s locally beloved Civic Center. If approved by the City Council, the hotel would take over the Civic Center public open space, encroach into the Robinson Memorial sculptures, introduce an incompatible new building design to the Civic Center and turn its back on City Hall.
This would be an irreversible mistake that ignores Pasadena’s tradition of design excellence and the original intent of the City Beautiful-inspired Civic Center plan, approved in 1923 with 80 percent of the vote, including a $3.5 million bond to fund the plan and purchase the land, including the public open space.
The public open space has been a character-defining feature of our Civic Center for over 90 years, and is recognized as part of the National Register of Historic Places designation of the Civic Center. Importantly, because the proposed hotel would “materially impair” the immediate surroundings of the YWCA to a significant degree, the National Register status of the Civic Center and the YWCA historical resource, no doubt, would be affected. To build what is proposed on this public open space would greatly diminish Pasadena’s attractiveness and the quality of life for downtown’s over 20,000 residents as well as for businesses, tourism and visitors.
To make matters worse, as part of the city’s sale negotiations, the city proposes to give to KHP Capital Partners all of the public open space on the entire YWCA Garfield Avenue/Holly Street block for free. This decision was made with no identification and analysis of alternatives and no community outreach. This inappropriate gift of public assets lacks the transparency we expect from City Hall. In fact, the city’s Municipal Code specifically requires the City Council to approve the sale of city-owned land before it is offered.
Public open space in downtown Pasadena is scarce. Research shows that public open space has economic value and that successful cities have a range of public open spaces — parks, plazas, natural or landscaped — that are used for recreation, health, tourism, natural beauty and views.
Why are we building on it? Why are we giving it away?
The city’s stated key objective — to recover its costs of $8.3 million to purchase the YWCA building site — must be secondary to enhancing the design integrity of the Civic Center, including the rehabilitation of the YWCA building and an appropriately designed new hotel building. As part of the environmental impact review process, such a design has been developed which respects the longstanding public open space and the YWCA building. This design should receive serious consideration by the city and KHP Capital Partners. The city, as the current landowner, must provide an opportunity for its citizens to see all project alternatives and offer input on this Civic Center project.
An important step in the right direction was the Design Commission and the Planning Commission holding public workshops on the proposed project this week on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively. Please contact your commissioners and City Council members to express your views about this important threat to the historic Civic Center.
The City Council must lead this Civic Center design effort by clearly defining what is important to the people of Pasadena — preserving and enhancing the Civic Center, the heart of Pasadena.
Christine Fedukowski, vice president of the Downtown Pasadena Neighborhood Association and a member of the Civic Center Coalition, was fund manager of the National Trust Community Investment Corporation Historic Tax Credit Fund.