A massive housing project proposed for the Ambassador College site in Pasadena--perhaps the largest ever considered in the city--also is shaping up as Pasadena's most divisive development imbroglio.
Two well-organized local groups have drawn a line in the roses over a proposal by Legacy Partners, a Foster City, Calif.-based real estate developer, to build 1,727 housing units on the 48-acre campus southwest of the Old Pasadena shopping district.
The intensifying debate over the Ambassador site occurs at a time when Pasadena residents are struggling with the growing urbanization of their once-quiet city. The success of Old Pasadena and the opening of the Paseo Colorado mall have flooded West Pasadena streets with traffic, and developers plan to build an additional 1,500 housing units in the city's downtown.
The strategic battle over the future of the Ambassador College site is a snapshot of growth control, circa 2002. Neighborhood groups have become more sophisticated about the esoteric rules of city planning. And both the developer and its opponents seem to be playing the controversy like a game of chess, anticipating each other's moves.
Opponents claim that the proposed housing more than doubles the existing density found in surrounding neighborhoods. They also claim that the project does not respect the city's planning policy on either traffic control or urban design. Some opponents hint they will file lawsuits if the developers do not scale back.
To support their statements, the 600-member West Pasadena Residents Assn. has issued a series of white papers studded with planning details. They have hired an independent consultant to challenge the conclusions of the developer's traffic plan. And the group has proposed a development alternative it claims will satisfy the developer's basic financial needs while taking pressure off the neighborhoods west of the Ambassador campus.
"We are not in the litigation business," said Vince Farhat, president of the homeowners' group. "We are working with the city to be strong advocates [for the neighborhood] and to make the project better."
The property owner, the Worldwide Church of God, and the developer, Legacy Partners, have opened by offering to preserve many of the site's historic homes and gardens, as well as the nine-acre "great lawn" at the center of the campus.
The developer also announced a complex plan to finance the re-opening of the long-shuttered Ambassador Auditorium, considered by many to be the finest concert hall in Southern California.
The church has issued a warning, which opponents view as a veiled threat: If the City Council fails to approve the project, the church will sell the property piecemeal to developers, resulting in potentially greater densities than those outlined by Legacy.
Starting in 1947, the Worldwide Church of God assembled the Ambassador campus from 138 properties, including several stately houses along Orange Grove Boulevard that had become dilapidated.
During the 1960s and '70s, the church built a number of college buildings, industrial facilities and the concert hall, while filling in several streets to create two large campuses on either side of the 710 Freeway spur.
At its peak in the late 1980s, Ambassador College had 1,200 students, and the church and college together had 1,000 employees. In the mid-1990s, however, the Worldwide Church of God experienced a schism brought on by doctrinal changes, and the church lost much of its membership. Ambassador College closed in 1995 as revenue fell.
"We have only 15% of the money that we generated at our height in 1989," said Bernard W. Schnippert, the church's director of finance and planning.
The Worldwide Church of God spends about $12 million annually to maintain its large complex of buildings and elaborate gardens. "Some people expect this push and pull and tug to last for another five years, but that is false," said Schnippert. "We can't sustain it."
After considering two other development concepts for the site--one for a hotel and conference center with housing, and the other for a 1-million-square-foot building for dot-com incubator Idealab--the developer settled on a residential plan. Some of the tallest and densest buildings will be on St. John Avenue, next to the 72-foot-tall Ambassador Auditorium. The developer plans a mix of single-family houses, town homes, condominiums and apartments.
The church plans to sell the property to Legacy for an undisclosed amount, after the developer gets the go-ahead from the city.
Schnippert said the price is set and would not be affected by how much, or how little, could be built on the Ambassador site, but hinted that without a certain number of homes the developer could not afford to proceed.