Flamboyant Developer Packs Pasadena Development Hearing With Supporters : Hard Sell for Marketplace

Times Staff Writer

It was supposed to be a meeting of the Community Development Committee but it was clearly John Patrick Wilson's show.

The 46-year-old multimillionaire, who is undertaking his first development project, had packed the room with a standing-room-only crowd of supporters. Wilson had also brought experts armed with maps, diagrams, overlays and a miniature replica of the Pasadena Marketplace, a $42-million shopping arcade that he wants to build in a historic downtown district where a block of crumbling, dilapidated buildings now stands.

His goal was to try to force the committee members to approve the concept of a new, drastically changed set of plans for the marketplace, even though the meeting last Thursday was the first time the committee had formally reviewed them.

Wilson had received concept approval last year for the marketplace, but last week he resubmitted designs that were substantially different. Instead of restoring the buildings, he now wants to gut the structures--most of them built in the 1890s and all but one listed on the National Register of Historic Places--and restore only the facades.

Decision Next Week

Wilson begged. He pleaded. And when that failed, he acquiesced. Saying they were overwhelmed, committee members delayed until next Thursday a decision on whether to approve Wilson's new plan for the 350,000-square-foot shopping arcade.

"If you come in here and try to twist our arm . . . then I tend to say no," committee member Marvin Greer said to Wilson during the meeting.

"I want you to appreciate our concern that we want to be assured that it will be a successful project," Greer said.

The committee voted instead to have a structural engineer study the feasibility of Wilson's new plan and to hire a real estate analyst to review the project. Those studies are expected to be completed before the committee decides the issue at its meeting next Thursday.

Concept approval is the first of many city reviews necessary before Wilson can receive the final go-ahead for his project, touted as one of the largest developments ever undertaken in Pasadena.

Directors Will Decide

The Community Development Committee, however, does not have the final say in granting concept approval. Its decision, in the form of a recommendation, must also be presented to the Board of City Directors, whose seven members also act as the Community Development Commission, a separate entity from the committee that makes final decisions on redevelopment matters.

When first presented, Wilson's plan was praised by politicians and local merchants as the bellwether project of Old Pasadena, a downtown redevelopment area where transients, drunks and seedy bars are slowly being edged out by boutiques, cafes and chic specialty shops.

But now he must overcome something he has not encountered before in Pasadena: opposition.

Local cultural heritage groups do not want Wilson to tear down the interior walls. They do not oppose the overall project, only the new plan to gut the buildings.

The city block that Wilson has bought up over the last five years for the planned marketplace contains the old City Hall building, the Ritz Hotel and several other Victorian-style buildings that groups like Pasadena Heritage and the city's Cultural Heritage Commission want to see restored and kept intact. All of the buildings are now empty and boarded up.

"If we do remove all the walls, we're afraid we'll also loose the facades," said Claire Bogaard, executive director of Pasadena Heritage, a nonprofit preservation group. "If those facades crumble, there's no putting them back.

"He could leave what is there and work with the structures as they exist, leaving all the walls intact."

In an interview this week, Wilson said he was forced to redesign the marketplace about eight weeks ago when informed that his project would not qualify for federal investment tax credits. Losing those credits, which were an integral part of his financing plan, increased the project's costs by 35%, Wilson said.

25% Tax Credit

Under federal tax laws, the rehabilitation of a historic building can entitle the developer to a 25% tax credit if the project is certified by the government. Wilson was told by the state Office of Historic Preservation that his project was not going to be certified, he said, because it did not adhere to certification standards.

Without tax credits, Wilson said it was too costly to restore the crumbling interior walls. His new plan, which calls for gutting the buildings, is far better, he said, because it will open up the inside of the arcade, giving it more light and accessibility. Removing the interior walls also adds 30,000 square feet to the marketplace, Wilson said.

The Pasadena Marketplace, according to Wilson and his staff, is 50% leased and has been given a letter of commitment by Bank of America for a $41-million construction loan.

The marketplace is designed to house a 40,000-square-foot Irvine Ranch Farmers Market, four movie theaters and up-scale shops like Papagallo and Capezio. Plans for a 150-room hotel have been scrapped, Wilson said, because of the lost investment tax credits. There will be skywalks between the buildings and three trolley cars circling the block bounded by Colorado Boulevard, Fair Oaks Avenue, DeLacey Street and Holly Street.

Trolleys Need Approval

The trolley route has yet to be approved by the transportation and public services subcommittee of the Board of City Directors. At a subcommittee meeting Tuesday, discussion on Wilson's proposed route was continued until July 30, pending review of his plan and a preliminary engineering report on the trolleys' impact on traffic.

Wilson has spared little in promoting his project. In April, he threw a lavish party and parade to unveil the trolley cars. Signs heralding the event were displayed in shops across the city. Advertising packages containing a slick, seven-page brochure, maps, photos and press releases were mailed to all local newspapers. KCBS-TV's "Two on The Town" devoted one of its segments to Wilson's trolley cars and the marketplace.

There are about 50 people, including consultants, engineers and architects, on Wilson's staff. He and his two partners, Al Ehringer, president of Grand American Fare and the Omelette Parlor restaurant chain, and Robert Morris, proprietor of Gladstone's for Fish restaurants, have spent between $9 million and $10 million on the project thus far, Wilson said.

And despite the opposition to his new plan, Wilson said he is confident it will go through.

Political Repercussion?

"I know the Board of City Directors wants my project," he said. "I believe that anyone who votes against this project will never be reelected in this city again."

City directors, however, do not agree.

"I don't know enough about it," Director Rick Cole said Wednesday of Wilson's new plan. "It seemed awfully drastic. I didn't expect it be an absolute, total gutting of everything. I have to be convinced that it's workable."

In response to Wilson's prediction that city officials who voted against the project would not be reelected, Cole laughed. "All of us want John Wilson to succeed," he said. "I think it's more likely that we'll all be thrown out if we have another Stanley Sirotin fiasco on our hands."

Former Pasadena developer Sirotin was responsible for several development projects on South Lake Avenue, many of which failed over the past few years. The Commons, a retail and office center, went bankrupt last year. Sirotin left the country last year amid a flurry of lawsuits from creditors who claimed they had been defrauded of millions of dollars in various Sirotin projects. Sirotin, now living in England, has said he has no money to repay his debts.

Concern for Success

Director Bill Thomson echoed many of Cole's concerns. "The city needs to be very careful that it doesn't have another occurrence of the Stanley Sirotin type of development," he said.

"This is an extremely important project for the City of Pasadena," Thomson said. "We are going to work very carefully with John to try to have a successful project."

Wilson said that he does not look forward to facing "2,000 screaming preservationists" at the committee meeting next week. And he says his lawyers are looking into what he thinks is a conflict of interest concerning Bill Cathey, an attorney and chairman of the Community Development Committee who also counsels and is a member of Pasadena Heritage.

"We just really feel that the city has a serious, serious conflict of interest because he's the lawyer for Pasadena Heritage," Wilson said of Cathey.

"There's clearly not any economic conflict of interest," Cathey said this week. "I'm also a member of the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce. Does that mean I should abstain from voting on issues the chamber takes a stand on?

Finance, Construction Issues

"The preservation issue is important to me as a citizen. But I think it would be a mistake on the part of John Wilson or the city to say that this is about preservation. The issues are financial issues, structural issues and how the project fits into the Pasadena redevelopment program. Is it structurally sound or are the walls going to fall down? Is the project financially feasible? That's what we want to know."

During the last committee meeting, about half a dozen engineers, architects, consultants and employees of Wilson's firm, Pasadena Marketplace Ltd., spoke before the committee. Each carried the same message: The marketplace is too good an offer to refuse.

The committee was told that the project's license and permit fees alone are expected to bring the city more than $1 million. The city's yearly share of sales tax revenues is projected at $975,000. And the shopping arcade, according to Wilson's staff, would create 2,800 jobs, most of them entry-level positions.

When asked where all the employees would park, given that the parking structure under construction for the marketplace will hold only about 900 cars, Wilson said, "Entry level people don't drive cars; they ride the bus."

Wilson is known for being outlandish.

Auctioned Antiques

A college dropout from Yreka, he became a multimillionaire in the l970s by auctioning antique furnishings and real estate.

He started with toilets. In l968 he bought 1,037 pull-chain toilets from the United States government for $2.10 each.

His auctions became legendary. At his Golden Movement Emporium in Santa Monica, Wilson sold everything from toilets to Tiffany stained-glass ceilings and entire rooms. Dancing girls gyrated onstage during the bidding; pretty young women in slinky dresses offered drinks. Lobster, shrimp, steak, pastries, cheeses and fruit were served.

He was called "the P. T. Barnum of auctioneering."

He has since given up auctions, he said, in favor of developing. Until now, Wilson's only experience with development projects was in the late 1970s when he and Ehringer paid $12 million for about 22 buildings on Santa Monica's Main Street. The pair refurbished the buildings and resold most of them. Ehringer still owns a few of the buildings, Wilson said.

Gets What He Wants

His style remains the same. In various publications and by several acquaintances, he has been described as arrogant, pushy, charming and affable. He admits he is a man who is used to getting what he wants.

That was evident during last week's meeting of the Community Development Committee. Chairman Cathey was forced several times to admonish the crowd to be quiet. Wilson admits that he packed the room with about 150 people to try to force the committee to approve his revised plan, even though its seven members had never formally reviewed it.

"He's convinced most people that we're holding him up and that we're holding him up unfairly," Cathey said Tuesday. "And that's just not true. I think it's important to make our developers spend their time developing instead of promoting. What we need to concentrate on, and what John needs to concentrate on, is getting the project built and making sure that it's going to work. Not blowing whistles and beating drums and ringing bells."

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