Conflict Mounts Over Pasadena Design Panel

Times Staff Writer

The tenure of architects William W. Ellinger III and Michael Salazar on the city’s Design Commission has been one that has left few standing on neutral ground.

Supporters say Ellinger and Salazar, the commission’s chairman and vice-chairman, respectively, have been dogged fighters in the effort to preserve the city’s architectural heritage and ensure that modern projects meet its strict design standards.

But to opponents, the pair have been nit-picking obstructionists who have needlessly delayed projects, such as the One Colorado project in Old Pasadena.

This year, both Ellinger’s and Salazar’s terms expire, and their reappointment has sparked a political battle between members of the city Board of Directors.


Mayor William E. Thomson, who has the power to appoint five of the eight commission members, has nominated architects Frank T. Sata and Eugene Flores to replace Ellinger and Salazar.

Thomson said he chose the two architects in the hope they will work to speed up the design-approval process.

‘A Purge’

“Of all the commissions, the Design Commission is the only one that receives consistent complaints about getting through the process,” Thomson said. “It’s all due to the commission not focusing on its mission and getting involved in the minutiae of design.”


Ellinger could not be reached for comment. Salazar, however, said: “It’s pure and simple a purge. When the records are looked at, our performance has been exemplary. The board is giving in to the political desires of the development community.”

The Board of Directors was scheduled to make a decision on Thomson’s nominations Tuesday, but the mayor reluctantly agreed to delay action for at least a week.

Thomson said Sata and Flores have been through the design-approval process before and understand the frustrations of seeing a project delayed and tampered with.

But Director Rick Cole said Thomson’s nominations are an attempt to remove the most vocal preservationists on the Design Commission.

“I think this approach is destructive and wrongheaded,” Cole said. “We should transcend petty political considerations.”

Lewis Phelps, a member of the preservation group, Pasadena Heritage, added: “I think the decision not to reappoint the chairman and vice chairman is an outrageous decision. It is an effort to subdue any voice of dissent by removing the current leadership.”

Ellinger, a restoration architect with the Los Angeles firm of Woodford Parkinson Wynn & Partners Architects, has served on the commission for four years.

Salazar, who is best-known as a co-chairman of the slow-growth group, Pasadena Residents in Defense of their Environment, has served on the board for two years. He is an architect with the Los Angeles firm of Beckson Design Associates.


Both Ellinger and Salazar are members of Pasadena Heritage.

One of the Design Commission’s most recent conflicts with the board concerned the One Colorado project, a shopping area proposed for a block of historic buildings in Old Pasadena. The proposal has been opposed by preservationists.

The commission decided in June to delay a decision on the project.

In an unusual move, the board decided to take up the issue and approved the project over the objections of the commission.

Thomson denied that his decision to nominate Sata and Flores was politically motivated.

‘Not Retaliation’

“It’s not retaliation,” he said. “I’m not quite clear what I would be retaliating against.”

He said he sees the change as bringing new vision to the commission and speeding up a time-consuming approval process.


There may be room for compromise, since Design Commission member Alexander Tan officially resigned Tuesday, freeing a third seat on the commission.

Not surprisingly, Cole and Thomson disagree about how that compromise would work.

Cole would like to see Ellinger and Salazar reappointed and the third seat go to either of Thomson’s nominees.

Thomson would like to see both his nominations approved and the third seat go to either Ellinger or Salazar.

“I am not prepared to back down, and I don’t think Rick is either,” Thomson said.