PASADENA — Residents fighting to stop the planned demolition of the historic Huntington Sheraton hotel and its replacement with a modern 380-room replica launched a petition drive this week that could put the future of the hotel in the hands of the voters.
Anthony Thompson, spokesman for Defenders of the Huntington Hotel, announced the petition drive Monday just hours before the Pasadena Board of Directors gave final approval to a zoning change that cleared the way for the project.
Thompson said that if his group can collect 6,626 valid signatures, representing 10% of the city's registered voters, in the next 30 days, the board will be forced either to rescind its approval or to put the issue on the ballot.
The move to seek a referendum on the hotel, on 23 acres near the exclusive enclave of Oak Knoll, is based on a state law that allows voters to petition to reject a city ordinance within 30 days after its adoption, according to Deputy City Atty. Ann Higginbotham.
'Mood of the City'
"We hope the board will understand the mood of the city that this project is not appropriate," Thompson said. "But if not, it will go to the voters and I think they will sustain our petition."
The developer of the project, Lary Mielke, who formed Huntington Hotel Associates with three partners in April, said he believes that in a vote, residents will support his plans to raze and rebuild the hotel's main structure at an estimated cost of $38 million.
The main structure, built in 1907, was closed in October, 1985, after its owners, Keikyu U.S.A. Inc., discovered that the building had only 25% of the structural strength required by modern standards to withstand a major earthquake.
Under Mielke's proposal, the new building would look the same as the existing tower, except that the main entrance would be moved from the eastern end to the northern side of the building.
"It's going to delay things, but that's about it," Mielke said. "We believe there is broad support for this project."
He added that if voters reject the zoning change, "there's always another alternative, but I don't know what it would be at this time."
Pasadena Heritage, the major preservationist group that had long fought for renovation rather than demolition of the building, said it would stick to its earlier commitment to work with the city and the developer on the project.
"We feel the building can be preserved, but we are not participating in the referendum in any way," said Edward Garlock, a member of the board of Pasadena Heritage.
Garlock said that joining the referendum movement would only jeopardize Pasadena Heritage's ability to influence the project if it continues.
"A referendum is a highly political and antagonistic process," he said. "We want to maintain our voice and influence."
But Garlock added that while the group will not join the petition drive, many members probably will participate as individuals.
The petition aims to overturn the ordinance changing the zoning, which received final approval Monday on a 4-1 vote, rezoning the hotel property from residential to a special zone, allowing construction of a new hotel. Without the zoning change, only single-family homes could be built on the property.
The board gave initial approval to the zoning change Nov. 11, capping months of public hearings and discussions about the issue.
Director Jess Hughston cast the lone vote Monday against the change. He said he welcomes the possibility of a referendum.
"I'm anxious to see if it validates my opinion," Hughston said.
Mayor John Crowley and directors Loretta Thompson-Glickman, William Thomson and Jo Heckman voted for the zone change.
Director Rick Cole abstained and newly appointed Director William Cathey did not vote, citing a potential conflict of interest because he has worked as an attorney for the Sheraton Corp., which operates the portion of the hotel that is still open.
The four directors who voted for the rezoning said that even if the petition drive is successful, they will stand by their vote.
"We made a fair decision," Heckman said. "If they get the signatures, the voters should have a chance to decide."
Thompson, the spokesman for Defenders of the Huntington, said the referendum is the last hope to save the 80-year-old hotel that has housed presidents, foreign dignitaries and movie stars.
"I don't think we will fail, but if we do, the project will go ahead as planned," he said. "There are no other alternatives."
He said that the Planning Commission and the Board of Directors made their decisions with incomplete information and failed to fully consider the possibility of renovating the hotel.
"The Huntington hotel is a historic, economic and cultural asset to the city and it's not being treated so," Thompson said. "We're talking about something in the heart of Pasadena that deserves better, and once it's gone, it's gone."
Crowley countered that no issue in recent memory has been as thoroughly scrutinized as the future of the Huntington.
"Good Lord, this went on for months," he said. "I don't remember any subject that got more paper, more visits or more meetings. I don't know what more we could have done."
City Clerk Pamela Swift said the group will have until Jan. 14 to submit its petitions and the clerk's office will have until Feb. 13 to validate the signatures.
She said state law requires the Board of Directors to rescind its decision or call a special election within a "reasonable" length of time. The earliest that a special election could be held is May, she said.