PASADENA — The campaign to decide the fate of the historic Huntington Sheraton hotel has become a hairsplitting war of words that has sent both sides scurrying for their dictionaries.
On the surface, the issue in the May 19 referendum appears clear-cut: Should a zoning change that would let developer Lary Mielke demolish the hotel's main building and replace it with a new building be allowed to stand?
But after only a few weeks of campaigning, both sides say that distortions, inaccuracies and legal jargon have obscured the issue to the point where no one is sure whether voters understand what a "yes" or a "no" vote means.
In the volley of charges between the Defenders of the Huntington Hotel, which opposes the project, and the Yes on the Huntington Hotel Committee, which supports it, the definition of a number of words, including "replica," "preserve" and even "hotel," has been debated.
Further complicating the issue is the wording that will appear on the ballot, which both sides say is not only confusing but downright unintelligible.
The ballot, which under state law must follow the exact wording of the original zoning change, states:
"Shall Ordinance No. 6188, an ordinance of the city of Pasadena reclassifying the Huntington Hotel property located generally at the southeast corner of Oak Knoll Avenue and Wentworth Avenue, from RS-2 (Single-Family Residential, 20,000 square feet minimum lot area) and RS-2HD (Single-Family Residential, 20,000 square feet minimum lot area; Hillside Development Overlay District) to PD-15 (Planned Development 15), be adopted?"
A "yes" vote would approve the zoning change and allow Mielke to proceed with his project. A "no" vote would overturn the zoning change and stop the project.
"People are very confused," said Ted Coleman, co-chairman of the Yes on the Huntington Hotel Committee.
Mielke said he has been meeting daily with civic groups interested in seeing his 30-minute presentation, which details the $38-million hotel project.
1,000 See Slide Show
Mielke shows "before" and "after" slides and answers questions. He said about 1,000 people have seen the presentation.
The harshest criticism has come from the Defenders of the Huntington Hotel, which recently has taken issue with Mielke's use of the word "preserve."
Mielke has made the word a cornerstone of his campaign, saying that although he intends to tear down the hotel's six-story main building, the remaining 90% of the 20-acre complex, including the adjacent Viennese and Georgian ballrooms, the surrounding bungalows, and the Picture Bridge, would be restored or retained intact.
"I don't know how anyone can say we're not preserving it," he said.
But Kit-Bacon Gressitt, the Defenders' campaign coordinator, contends that Mielke is using the word "preserve" in campaign brochures in an obvious attempt to mislead the public about the scope of his project.
Gressitt said Mielke plans to demolish, not preserve, the main building.
"It's so obvious what they're trying to do," she said. "I'm infuriated."
Gressitt said the problem with the use of the word "preserve" is complicated by differing interpretations of what is meant by the word "hotel."
Gressitt said most people associate the Huntington "hotel" with the six-story main building, which she called the most important historical structure on the site.
"What's worth preserving is exactly what they want to tear down," she said. "I think it is an unfair propaganda campaign."
But Mielke said the word "hotel" should encompass the entire 20-acre site, located in the city's exclusive Oak Knoll neighborhood.
He said most residents associate the hotel with the public areas, including the ballrooms and the gardens, which will be preserved. The main building, he said, may be historically important, but is beyond repair.
He added that the Defenders' fixation on saving the hotel's main building has also misled the public about the entire project.
"They're making it sound like the whole property is going to be taken down," he said. "There is simply a lot of information that is not put on the table."
To make matters worse, the two sides are also at odds on the meaning of the word "replica."
Since he first proposed the hotel project last spring, Mielke has used the word "replica" to describe the 380-room structure that would replace the original 80-year-old main building.
The original building was closed in October, 1985, after engineering studies showed that it did not have the structural strength to withstand a major earthquake.
Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language defines a "replica" as a "very close reproduction or copy."
Same General Appearance