Pasadena gives away public land in its Civic Center: Guest commentary

Julia Morgan Building

Pasadena’s Julia Morgan-designed YWCA building. (Staff photo by Sarah Reingewirtz)

By Marsha Rood 06/10/16, 1:09 PM PDT Pasadena Star-News

There is growing concern regarding the privatization of public land in Pasadena. Yet more and more public green space and natural open space in its downtown is in jeopardy.

Recognizing the lack of public parks and gardens there, the City Council passed an ordinance in December 2014 to redefine a “park” to include “pocket parks” of less than an acre. Because of this redefinition, residential impact fees from Pasadena’s housing construction can now be used more effectively for public parks 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 downtown.

To add insult to injury, it is being done, to a significant degree, behind closed doors. Although it’s 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 Pasadena, and to the city as a whole.

The proposed 180-room Kimpton Hotel would remove the public green space at Holly Street and Garfield Avenue directly across from City Hall and intrude into the green space with a “Function Area” 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, known as the Bennett Plan, on June 7, 1923. As a result, Pasadena built a Civic Center that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places as one of the few remaining intact 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 known as the City of Gardens. These civic gardens contain the Jackie and Mack Robinson Memorial. The civic gardens were approved by the City Council for refurbishment and funding on December 15, 2003; this garden area has not been improved to date.

The city staff’s position is that offering the civic gardens is required to recoup the $8.3 million the city paid for the YWCA and that the civic gardens are not a part of the voter-approved Bennett Plan and not part of the Central District Specific Plan, and are “dirt” to “sweeten the deal” at no cost to the developer.

It has been a closed-door transaction with no formal City Council approvals in open session. The city of Pasadena purchased the vacant and deteriorating historic building in 2012 through eminent domain, paying $8.3 million. 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.

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 civic gardens are an important part of the Civic Center so valued by citizens. 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.

Later, all planning commissioners agreed it was not appropriate to include the civic gardens part of the project. This process is counter to the city’s policy requiring government transparency in real estate transactions involving city-owned land.

Marsha V. Rood, a fellow of the American Institute of City Planners, was Pasadena’s development administrator from 1982 to 2000.

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