Governmental Transparency and Stewardship

The YWCA Building

The YWCA Building

There is growing concern regarding the privatization of public land in Pasadena. Yet more and more public green space and natural open space in Downtown Pasadena is in jeopardy. Recognizing the lack of public parks and gardens in Downtown Pasadena, the City Council passed an ordinance in December 2014 to redefine a “park” to include “pocket parks” of less than one acre. Because of this redefinition, residential impact fees from Pasadena’s residential construction can now be used more effectively for public parks in Downtown, in addition to other areas of Pasadena. Counter to these efforts, however, a city-backed real estate project threatens to take what little public green space there is in Downtown Pasadena. To add insult to injury, it is being done, to a significant degree, behind closed doors. Although being done for a good cause – rehabilitating the derelict YWCA building, designed by the renowned architect Julia Morgan – the removal of this Civic Center public green space would be a sad loss to those living and visiting Downtown Pasadena and to the city as a whole.

The proposed 180-room Kimpton Hotel will remove the public green space at Holly Street and Garfield Avenue directly across from City Hall, abutting the YWCA on its east elevation, and intrude into the green space with a “Function Area” on the north elevation of the YWCA building along Holly Street. This public park space has been a part of Pasadena’s Civic Center for over 90 years and, in fact, was purchased as the result of a voter-approved $3.5 million bond issue and city plan for the Civic Center (or “Bennett Plan”) on June 7, 1923, with an 80% passage rate. As a result of these actions, Pasadena built a Civic Center that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the few remaining “intact” national “City Beautiful” civic centers in the United States. The National Register designation includes the civic gardens as well as the tree-lined Holly Street allee, the major ceremonial entrance to the Civic Center. In accordance with City Beautiful principles, this public green space is symmetrical to the public park that abuts the east side of the YMCA building to the north. These two parks are part of what makes Pasadena the “city of gardens”. These civic gardens, each less than one acre, are now known as the “Sister City Gardens”, and contain the Pasadena Robinson Memorial. The Sister City Gardens were approved by the City Council for refurbishment and funding on December 15, 2003, as part of the Pasadena Civic Center/Mid-town Design Development Plan. In spite of the City Council action over a decade ago, the Sister City Gardens have not been improved to date.

The Kimpton Footprint in Pasadena' Civic Center

The Kimpton Footprint in Pasadena’ Civic Center

Although the RFP’s purpose was to rehabilitate the YWCA building, it also included the two city-owned Sister City Gardens as part of the rehabilitation of the building. Staff’s stated position is that (a) offering the Sister City Gardens is required to recoup the $8.3 million the City paid for the YWCA, and (b) the Sister City Gardens are not a part of the voter-approved Bennett Plan, not part of the Central District Specific Plan, and are “dirt” to “sweeten the deal” at no cost to the developer.

Although the City of Pasadena is currently negotiating a long-term lease with a private developer for the Sister City Gardens, it has been a closed-door transaction with no formal City Council approvals in open session. This transaction is being done counter to the intention of the Pasadena Municipal Code Section 4.02 which states that “…the process by which the city land is determined to be surplus, and is sold, leased or developed, and the records relating thereto, shall be open to public examination…” In fact, to long-time Pasadenans, this transaction is counter to the “Pasadena Way”.

The City of Pasadena purchased the vacant and deteriorating historic YWCA building in April 2012 through eminent domain, paying a settlement cost through the court of $8.3 million.  The Request for Proposals (“RFP”) was developed by the City Manager’s Office with no input from the Planning and Community Development Department and issued on July 22, 2012, without a vote by the City Council. An “Advisory Review Panel” was assembled to evaluate the proposers and a developer selected for further negotiation.  The City has deemed the names of the Panel members and the evaluation rankings not to be public information. On February 11, 2013, the City Council met in a closed session and presumably selected a developer for further negotiation because on May 1, 2013, an Exclusive Negotiation Agreement (“ENA”) between the City and the selected developer (Kimpton Hotels) was signed by the staff. Neither the selected developer nor the ENA were presented to the City Council in open session for a vote. Finally, other than Kimpton Hotels, the City is withholding the names of the other five proposers as well as the ENA as not public information.

The proposed Kiimpton Hotel

The proposed Kiimpton Hotel

  The first time there was a City Council open session regarding the project was on March 17, 2014, two years after the redevelopment process began. It was the first time the City Council informed the public that the Project Site included the Sister City Gardens. At that meeting, a member of the public raised objections to including the Sister City Gardens as part of the project. A year later, on March 25, 2015, the Planning Commission held a public Scoping Session on the Initial Study for the Environmental Impact Report. All of the speakers and the letters received objected to the fact that the Sister City Gardens were part of the project.  Issues raised included the loss of park space, the damage to the Civic Center’s historical setting, possible loss of National Register of Historic Places listing, the imposing nature of the hotel on the Civic Center, and the disrespectful encroachment of the new hotel onto the Pasadena Robinson Memorial. All of the Planning Commissioners agreed that it was not appropriate to include the Sister City Gardens as part of the Project, and were very concerned about the impact on the City’s civic “sacred space”, including the Mack and Jackie Robinson memorial. 
Based upon public record, the voter-approved Bennett Plan, as well as recent City Council approved plans, it is clear that the public green space “Sister City Gardens” are an important part of the Civic Center and valued by the citizens of Pasadena. It is also clear that the YWCA/Kimpton Project has been and continues to be closely held by the City, not allowing the public to participate in a meaningful way except to raise objections and concerns. This process is counter to the City’s policy as set forth in the Pasadena Municipal Code that requires governmental transparency in real estate transactions involving City-owned land.

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