PASADENA — An ambitious plan to turn a complex of bungalows on the grounds of the old Vista del Arroyo hotel into a national center for judicial research and reform threatens to become the focus of the next in a series of public debates on the utilization of the city's historic structures.
The plan for the Western Justice Center, which is being championed by a blue-ribbon panel of jurists, including four federal judges, already has residents lining up on opposite sides of the issue. The bungalows, many of them built by prominent architects during the heyday of Pasadena's resort era, are owned by the federal government.
The central Vista del Arroyo building, a seven-story beige structure with an ornate bell tower, on South Grand Avenue on the bluff above Arroyo Seco, was itself the subject of a lengthy public debate before being rehabilitated to house the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Critics said the $10-million renovation, which was finished last year, was too costly.
At issue now is whether the 14 secondary structures, many of them architectural gems, should be turned over to a nonprofit educational foundation or sold to private developers, who would rehabilitate them and return them to residential use.
"I feel that the justice center would be adding considerably to the prestige of the city," Pasadena Mayor John Crowley said. "Organizations of national stature should be welcomed." The Board of City Directors recently concluded a yearlong public discussion on the fate of the Huntington Sheraton hotel, which is to be torn down and replaced with a duplicate.
"We prefer that the area be maintained as residential," said Tom Siefert, president of the West Pasadena Residents Assn. He described the new federal courthouse as the one "glaring exception" to the residential character of his neighborhood.
Judge Dorothy Nelson of the 9th Circuit Court, who chairs the commission that is pushing the plan, described the proposed law center as a "campus" of national law reform organizations. Groups such as the Commission on the Competency of Lawyers, the Institute of Judicial Administration, the Center for International Commercial Arbitration and the American Law Institute would rehabilitate bungalows at their own expense to house their western operations, she said.
"All the national law reform organizations are now located in the eastern part of the country," Nelson said. "Most legal research is taking place in the East, though there are more judges, both state and federal, in the West. The Los Angeles trial court system is the largest in the country. It seems very appropriate to have a legal research center here."
The commission, which was set up by 9th Circuit Chief Judge James Browning, has received endorsements from a number of jurists of national stature, including U.S. Chief Justice William Rehnquist. "I highly concur in the idea that there should be a center in the West and indeed in the Los Angeles area," Rehnquist said in a letter to the panel.
Support From Law Schools
Nelson, who is a former dean of the USC Law School, has also gained endorsements from area law schools, including UCLA, Southwestern, Loyola and Pepperdine, as well as USC. "They see it as a convenient place for visiting law professors doing research at the center, while teaching at the law schools on a visiting basis," Nelson said.
Browning, reached at his chambers in San Francisco, said the center could become "an institution to rival the Rose Bowl in terms of national recognition for Pasadena."
While Pasadena residents debate the merits of the plan, however, the U.S. General Services Administration is preparing to sell the bungalows, which have been on the federal government's list of surplus properties since 1975. Mary Filippini, executive assistant to GSA Regional Administrator Edwin Thomas, said the "disposal process" will begin around Jan. 1. The bungalows could be sold as early as March, she said.
She said the group proposing the justice center can purchase the bungalows but there are no plans to turn the property over to a nonprofit organization. "At this point, we have no intention of delaying the sale," Filippini said.
But Nelson said the commission plans to make use of federal regulations that permit the donation of surplus federal property to educational foundations. She said such an arrangement would require the approval of both Education Secretary William Bennett and Terrence Golden, the head of the General Services Administration. "Judge Browning, Judge Anthony Kennedy (also of the 9th Circuit) and I plan to go to Washington by early January to make a presentation to Mr. Bennett and Mr. Golden," Nelson said.
She added that the group is forming an educational foundation.
Besides Nelson and Kennedy, the commission includes Federal District Court Judges Terry Hatter and Mariana Pfaelzer of the Central District of Los Angeles; Pasadena's Vice Mayor William Thomson, an attorney; and a number of prominent lawyers.