A Startling Delay in Old Town : Developer Expected Approval for Newest Proposal

Times Staff Writer

Historical preservationists were cautiously optimistic last year when developer Douglas L. Stitzel took over the ambitious Marketplace project, long considered the cornerstone of rejuvenating historic Old Pasadena.

Stitzel had a reputation as a builder of high-class shopping areas and he said he was willing to work with preservationists to end the rancorous debate over the fate of the block of 16 historic contiguous buildings.

New Design Unveiled

But whatever good will existed last year disappeared in a puff Monday night when Stitzel unveiled a new design for the project before the city's Design Commission.

True to the promise he made last year, Stitzel abandoned the idea of building a contemporary-style mall, by boring an atrium through the middle of the turn-of-the-century buildings.

Preservationists, however, say that despite that improvement, Stitzel's design is no better and in some areas is worse than previous proposals because of its effect on parts of the historically important buildings.

"It is as damaging and in some cases more damaging than before," Claire Bogaard, executive director of the preservation group, Pasadena Heritage, told the commission. "Let us direct the developer to go back to the drawing board."

Although three members of the Design Commission were prepared to approve the project, the four other members voted to delay action until next month so the commission could receive an initial environmental review of the project.

It was a seemingly benign decision, but Stitzel, who expected approval Monday night, said he saw the delay as a sign that the project may face tough opposition from some in City Hall as well as from preservationists.

Battle Stage Set

Supporters and opponents agree that the commission's decision has set the stage for a battle that could be as bitter as the one that has raged since the mall concept was proposed in 1983.

Bogaard said Pasadena Heritage has begun considering a lawsuit to force the project to undergo a more strenuous environmental review, which would include an assessment of the damage to historic structures.

Stitzel appealed the Design Commission's decision to the Board of Directors on Tuesday, asking it to step in approve the project, which he has renamed One Colorado Boulevard. The issue is scheduled to be taken up next week.

But he said he has no desire for a protracted war in court or City Hall.

"I want to build a project and I have the financial wherewithal to do it," he said. "But I'm not into spending months fighting through the bureaucratic process. The fear is of eternal bureaucracy."

If his new design is not supported, he said he may resurrect the idea of building the same mall, which the city approved last year over the protests of historical preservationists.

"We have worked for the better part of the last 4 1/2 months to come up with a better project," Stitzel said. "But if they want a Marketplace, they may just end up with one."

Some Aspects Better

Opponents agree that Stitzel has improved on some aspects of the original Marketplace design, which was proposed by developer John Patrick Wilson in 1983.

Wilson believed the only way to attract shoppers and get them to browse on the hard-to-lease second floor was to build a mall atrium through the buildings. The facades of the buildings would be left in place and restored.

The idea of a 350,000-square-foot mall in Old Pasadena, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, provoked an outcry from preservationists, who called it glitzy, phony and historically outrageous. (The nearby Plaza Pasadena has 584,485 square feet of leasable space.)

Thus began the six-year battle over the block of 16 buildings, bounded by Colorado Boulevard, Fair Oaks Avenue, De Lacey Street and Union Street.

Wilson's plans began to crumble in 1987 because of problems in securing financing for the $60-million project.

The project was sold to CMC Capital Corp. and then Pierce/Lange Development. Both groups adhered to the mall concept and both ran into similar financial problems.

The project was sold last December to Stitzel and his partners, Berisford Capital Corp. and San Francisco developer Leslie Schilling.

Design Details

Unlike a mall, Stitzel has proposed a design that would keep the interior walls of each building intact. The design calls for ground-floor entrances to shops on both the first and second floors using a plan that even some preservationists have called the plan ingenious.

To accomplish this, the front entrances of several buildings would lead down a few steps to a first floor several feet lower than the street. The rear entrances would lead up a few steps to a second floor slightly above the street.

Because the floors would be lowered by a few feet, the buildings could accommodate a third floor for offices, storage or retail shops.

The design not only allows an extra floor in a building, but it also doubles the amount of valuable space accessible from the street.

The plan also includes a new three-story building on Union Street housing restaurants, shops and six movie theaters.

Changes Raise Concerns

Preservationists argue that the design requires too many changes to the floors of the buildings, the rear facades and a cobblestone alley--all historically important features, they say. The changes could result in the block being dropped from the National Register of Historic Places, according to Pasadena Heritage.

The changes include burying Hugus Alley under 2 1/2 feet of dirt and pavement to meet the new heights of some rear entrances. The floors of some buildings would also have to be adjusted to accommodate the double ground-floor scheme.

Preservationists also say the size and design of the new three-story building overwhelms the architecture of the rest of the block.

"When I first saw this, I thought it was intriguing and ingenious," said Sue Mossman, program director for Pasadena Heritage. "Now I find it to be an artificial and phony concept for Old Pasadena. It is artificial Old Pasadena, not real Old Pasadena."

Barbara Nyberg, a business owner in Old Pasadena, said the One Colorado project will hurt businesses in the area because it is too focused on a central plaza located behind the buildings.

'Interior Focus'

"This project is designed to have an interior focus," she said. "That is not what Old Pasadena is about. All the energy will be drawn off Colorado Boulevard."

Stitzel's lead architect, Jeffrey Horowitz, said the design requires far less demolition of walls and floors than Wilson envisioned and the vast majority of the facades would be untouched.

By abandoning the mall idea, the project also would fit in better with the rest of Old Pasadena.

The proposal has won the backing of the Chamber of Commerce, Board of Realtors and the Old Pasadena Business Improvement District, an association of Old Pasadena business people.

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