SOUTH PASADENA — A proposed 150-suite hotel on Fair Oaks Avenue?
Oh, yes, said the project's architect--"That's the project the city went bananas on."
Some residents are indeed worked up about the proposal, which would use eminent domain to clear most of a block in the city's central business district to build a 4-story hotel.
"It's a cockamamie idea," scoffed former City Councilman Robert Wagner. He and other critics say the downtown hotel would threaten the "small-town charm" of South Pasadena.
Dozens of residents showed up at a City Council meeting this month to protest the plan, and merchants have been circulating a petition against it. Critics talk combatively about taking the proposal to the voters should the city approve the necessary zoning changes.
"Tell (the developer) that we'll see him at the ballot box," said Tom Biesek, a member of the South Pasadena Taxpayers Assn.
The would-be developer of the hotel is Stagen Realty & Management Corp. of Beverly Hills, which built the city's successful Bristol Farms food specialty store.
City officials say all the emotion is premature. The proposed hotel site, bounded by Fair Oaks Avenue, El Centro Street, Mound Avenue and Oxley Street, was designated a redevelopment area more than a decade ago. It includes the Rialto Theater, East West Federal Bank and a row of small stores facing Fair Oaks. The theater and bank would not be condemned by the project.
"We've tried many different (proposals) there and failed," said City Manager John Bernardi.
The preliminary proposal by Stagen Realty, Bernardi said, was unveiled at the July 6 council meeting to elicit an "initial reaction." The five council members, who also sit as the Community Redevelopment Agency, liked the idea enough to give Stagen 90 days to supply more information about the hotel project, including costs and the fiscal benefits it would have on the financially beleaguered city.
"When we get some concrete information, we intend to have community workshops to share whatever information we get with the public," Bernardi said.
The city, which faced budget deficits and service cutbacks last year, is in the first year of a 4% utility tax approved by the voters for two years.
"It has helped considerably," Bernardi said. "Without it, we'd be in very, very bad shape." But the authorization, which was approved in April, places a $1.2 million cap on the amount of revenue that can be collected.
The hotel's bed and sales taxes would be a new source of revenue for the city, Bernardi said. "But dollars alone are not the sole reason for making a determination," he added. "It has to go on its merits as a good project. We might make money from an oil derrick, but there's more to it than making money."
Architect Robert McClellan described the proposed hotel as a U-shaped building whose main portion would be constructed at "the back of the property" along Mound Avenue. It would include 150 suites, a lobby bar, restaurant, two garden areas and parking. There would also be between 3,000 and 3,500 square feet of shop space, he said, although not enough to accommodate the eight stores that would be torn down.
"What we're trying to do is create a residential feel to it," said McClellan, whose Pasadena firm designed both the Bristol Farms store and the Vons shopping center, a block south of the proposed hotel site.
Developer Thomas Stagen could not be reached for comment.
The merchants whose stores would be eliminated contend that the area is a unique street-level commercial center that should be preserved.
"One person said that we're the only Midwestern town left in Southern California," said Marcia Ellinger, manager of Sonnie's, a women's clothing store that has been on the block for 23 years.
She said shoppers at her store are "anti-mall kind of people" attracted by the area's small-town character. "The area is street friendly," Ellinger said. "It encourages people to get out of their cars and shop."
Old-timers in this conservative city of about 24,000 have long bemoaned the erosion of its sleepy personality. For example, a Chevrolet dealership on Fair Oaks Avenue has been replaced by a boxlike, brick office building and a shopping center. Other small stores have given way to changing business conditions, and Gus's Barbecue, one of the city's institutions, was closed because of damage after the Oct. 1 earthquake.
Critics charge that the 2-year-old Bristol Farms store has brought too many out-of-town motorists to an area that gets overflow traffic from the uncompleted Long Beach Freeway.
'Not Enough Parking'
"I know a lot of people who won't go to Bristol Farms because of the traffic jams it creates," Ellinger said. "If you get into the parking lot, there's not enough parking spots."