PASADENA — A group of residents fighting to save the historic Huntington Sheraton hotel from demolition Wednesday submitted a petition to the city that could put the hotel's fate in the hands of voters.
The petition seeks to force the Board of Directors either to rescind last month's approval of a zoning change needed to raze the hotel and replace it with a replica, as proposed by the developer, or to place the issue before the voters in a special election.
The directors already have indicated that they do not intend to reconsider the vote, so leaders of the petition drive, Defenders of the Huntington Hotel, are depending on voters to reject plans to demolish the 80-year-old building.
The earliest the election could take place would be in May, according to City Clerk Pam Swift. Because no other election is scheduled at that time, a special election would have to be called, which would cost the city at least $50,000, she said.
The city clerk first must verify that the petition has more than 6,626 signatures, representing 10% of the city's registered voters. The signatures are then sent to the county registrar-recorder's office for verification.
Anthony Thompson, spokesman for Defenders of the Huntington Hotel, said he is confident that the petition, with more than 9,200 unverified signatures, will easily surpass the verification process.
"With this enormous support for saving the Huntington, we are eager for an election," he said. "We've collected (signatures from) close to 15% of the registered voters in the city, and we think that in itself is a statement of the deep caring of residents for the hotel."
The developer, Lary Mielke, who formed Huntington Hotel Associates with three partners in April, said a ballot measure would delay but not stop the $38-million project.
"Obviously we are not going to be able to proceed until this is resolved," he said. "But we're here for the long term. We're not leaving."
Mielke said he is planning a campaign to keep the project alive, starting with a telephone poll to assess community attitudes.
"We're really just putting together our options now," he said, adding that he is confident that the city's voters will support his development plans.
The move to seek a referendum is based on a state law that allows voters to act against a city ordinance within 30 days of its approval, according to the Deputy City Atty. Ann Higginbotham. The 30-day period expired at 5 p.m. Wednesday.
The ordinance, which the directors approved by a 4-1 vote last month, changed the residential zoning on the hotel property to special zoning, allowing construction of the replica. Without the zoning change, only single-family homes could be built on the property.
The zoning change was approved after months of discussion and followed the Planning Commission's unanimous approval of the change.
Raze and Replace
Mielke's project would involve tearing down the hotel's main building and replacing it with a modern, 380-room hotel structure that would look similar to the historic building, except that the main entrance would be moved from the eastern to the northern side of the building.
Mielke said demolishing and rebuilding the structure is the only economically feasible plan for the building.
The building, located on 23 acres near the exclusive enclave of Oak Knoll, was closed in October, 1985, after its owners, Keikyu U.S.A. Inc., discovered that it only had 25% of the structural strength required by modern standards to withstand a major earthquake.
Opponents of Mielke's project have contended that the hotel should be renovated to preserve what Thompson called one of the city's major "historic, economic and cultural assets."
Kit-Bacon Gressitt, campaign coordinator for Defenders of the Huntington Hotel, said the petition drive drew more than 100 volunteers and collected nearly $8,500 in donations.
"We have about $200 left for a celebration," she said. "But I think we're going to save it for the referendum."
Signatures were gathered at grocery stores, shopping areas and in neighborhoods around the city, she said. In addition, the group mailed 15,000 petitions to registered voters, she said.
Mielke said he was not surprised that the group appears to have collected more than the minimum number of signatures, citing the highly emotional nature of the issue. He contended that signers got only one side of the story.
"I've had people call me saying they signed the petition believing they were supporting my development," he said.
Thompson countered by saying that signature gatherers were instructed to tell signers that "this is for preservation and not demolition. You can't get any clearer than that."
Thompson said Defenders of the Huntington Hotel plans to continue its grass-roots strategy of going door-to-door to drum up support for its cause.
He said the group expects Mielke to wage a well-funded campaign against them. But, "people will believe their neighbors. They will believe eye-to-eye contact," Thompson said.
"There is no way we can match them dollar for dollar," Gressitt said, "but we can match them in heartfelt effort."
Mielke, who lives a block from the hotel, said he plans to mount his own door-to-door campaign and is confident that if residents understand the type of project he proposes, they will support his plans.
"Our feeling is that we will continue to educate the public," he said. "I'm not from New York or some faraway place. I live in Pasadena and I plan to be here for the long term."
Swift said verification of the petition will begin with a rough count of the signatures.
Then signatures on the petition will be verified against voting records from the registrar, she said, either through through a random sampling of 500 signatures or a complete verification of each signature.