PASADENA — After months of often acrid debate among city officials, developers and preservation groups over the fate of the historic Huntington Sheraton hotel, voters will have the final say in a special city referendum May 19.
The referendum will ask voters to decide whether to overturn the Board of Directors' decision in November to change the zoning on the hotel property from residential to commercial. The zoning change was needed to continue with plans to demolish the hotel and replace it with a modern 380-room replica.
If voters overturn the change, developer Lary Mielke's controversial $38-million project would be stopped in its tracks, a prospect cheered by preservation groups, which contend that the hotel is too valuable a cultural and historic asset to destroy.
But if voters back the new zoning, Mielke could go ahead with his proposal to build the replica, a plan preferred by some residents, who say a new hotel is better than the vacant and decaying Huntington.
Both sides are predicting victory in the campaign and have begun to mobilize their resources.
Anthony Thompson, spokesman for the Defenders of the Huntington Hotel, which is working to preserve the hotel, said his group plans to wage a grass-roots campaign focusing on the strong sense of history in the city.
Mielke said he plans to mount his own door-to-door campaign to educate residents about the economic benefits of his project, which he said is the only way to put the hotel back into operation.
City Director Rick Cole said he fears that the campaign will end up in emotional appeals and mudslinging that ignore the advantages and disadvantages of the project.
'Find Myself Skeptical'
"I continue to find myself skeptical of resolving this through an election campaign in which the voters will be forced to decide on simplistic rhetorical stands," he said. "But despite my feelings, I don't see any alternative."
State law allows residents to act against a city ordinance if they can collect on a petition the signatures of 10% of the city's registered voters, or 6,626 signatures in Pasadena.
If enough voters sign the petition, the municipal agency that approved the ordinance must either rescind its vote or send the issue to the voters.
The hotel petition, which was sponsored by Defenders of the Huntington Hotel, was turned in with 9,500 signatures and, based on a random sampling of 500 signatures, had an estimated 7,300 valid signatures, said City Clerk Pam Swift.
Defenders of the Huntington Hotel had asked the board to rescind its approval of the zoning change at its meeting on Monday to "save both sides the waste of time and money," said Tim Matthews, a member of the preservation group.
However, despite the estimated $55,000 cost to the city for a special election, the board refused, saying it was time for voters to take a stand on the issue.
The main building of the 80-year-old hotel was closed in October, 1985, after its owners, Keikyu U.S.A. Inc., found that the building did not meet modern earthquake standards. The hotel is located on 23 acres in the exclusive enclave of Oak Knoll.