Neighbors to this parcel of land in the Raymond Hill area of South Pasadena object to the removal of trees to make way for a new development. Photos by Steve Whitmore

Neighbors of a small parcel of property in the Raymond Hill area of South Pasadena are up in arms over a development that they say is destroying mature trees and adding to an already cramped space of apartments.

“We are residents of Raymond Hill and are very upset by the pending destruction of mature trees on Raymond Hill (Mockingbird Lane), and the construction of buildings that will further crowd and congest an area that is already packed with apartment buildings,” Christopher Taylor, a neighbor to the parcel at 203 Cedar Crest and 204 Mockingbird Lane, writes in an email.

Taylor goes on to ask several questions of the city about the project that is a 2,475 square-foot duplex house on a privately owned 8,044 square-foot lot that is zoned for high density residential development, according to city data.

“Has an Environmental Impact Report been completed,” Taylor asks city officials. “Has a traffic assessment been completed to address how these winding roads and limited parking are going to be affected by even more residents? Can emergency vehicles gain access to all current apartment buildings, and how will this access be affected by even more parked cars and new buildings? Has the City understood the severe consequences of continuing to build in a congested area that lies between two earthquake faults, the Raymond Fault and the Eagle Rock Fault? Were residents of Raymond Hill given proper reasonable notice of this construction and the destruction of mature trees? How can South Pasadena honestly call itself the ‘City of Trees,’ and continue to remove trees all over the place?”

Taylor, who apparently speaks for many of the Raymond Hill residents, calls on the city to cease and desist immediately.

“This construction and destruction of mature trees needs to immediately STOP until these questions have been thoroughly answered and the community has been involved,” Taylor said.

According to city officials, that’s what has happened since June 22, 2015, when the project was first proposed. Those questions have been answered, city officials say.

“Over the last two days the City has received questions and concerns from several residents in the Raymond Hill area about a development project located at 203 Cedar Crest and 204 Mockingbird Lane that is now in the early stages of construction,” John Pope, city public information officer, said in an email to The Review. “Specifically, concerns were raised about pending tree removals and whether the removals had been reviewed by the City as part of a public process.”

Pope provided The Review with background on the project, gleaned from the city’s website, southpasadenaca.gov.

As an example, the project has been reviewed by several city commissions, including the Planning Commission, and has been modified and changed but has been approved to move forward.

“The project has been reviewed multiple times before by several City commissions since it was first introduced in 2015,” Pope said. “Like all meetings of City commissions, these were public hearings. Residents near the project received postcards in the mail informing them that the project was going to be discussed at a public hearing. Concerns were raised by residents, and the project was modified in response to those concerns.”

At the June 2015 meeting, residents provided input to the Planning Commission that resulted in changes to the proposed project, including reduced height, changed setbacks from the street and neighboring properties as well as changes to the slope of the driveway, according to information provided by Pope.

The modified project was reviewed by the Planning Commission at additional public hearings on July 27, 2015 and again on August 22, 2015, where additional public comment was provided, according to city data provided by Pope. The modified project  was approved by the Planning Commission at the August 2015 hearing. The Planning Commission also approved the initial environmental study as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The initial study covered a range of concerns including traffic, air quality, seismic safety and a variety of other issues, according to city data. 

The removal of trees was reviewed by the Natural Resources and Environmental Commission on September 29, 2015.

“The NREC received tree inspection reports from a city arborist, an independent professional arborist and the developer’s arborist,” Pope said. “Based on the arborists’ reports, the NREC approved the removal of two unhealthy oak trees–on the lower portion of Mockingbird Lane–and four pepper trees, which were also determined to be unhealthy. An oak tree on the upper portion/Cedar Crest side of the property was preserved but approved to be trimmed. All of the removed oak and pepper trees will be replaced using the City’s tree replacement formula.”

Residents are still not buying the explanation and also brought up the issue of a historic tunnel once connected to the Raymond Hotel that runs underneath the property.

“There is also a tunnel running under that property,” said Linda McDermott, a neighbor to the proposed development. “It ran from the street to the Raymond Hotel elevator and the tunnel was later sealed up but not filled in. It would be dangerous. My source is the book ‘South Pasadena’s Raymond Hotel’ by local South Pasadena resident and historian Rick Thomas.”

So Pas Mayor Dr. Marina Khubesrian responded to the tunnel issue, saying safety is the city’s top priority.

“Construction documents will have to be submitted to the city showing where the tunnel is and how they will mitigate any potential risk with construction,” Khubesrian said in an email to McDermott. “Those plans will then be reviewed by our licensed engineers to ensure there is no danger, now or in the future. That engineering review does not take place as part of the planning commission review or the CEQA review, it happens after those steps have been approved and when they are ready to build. I don’t want people to think that we trust the developers to manage the site conditions appropriately, we have a full engineering review that must be complete before they are issued building permits. And the site will be inspected multiple times during construction. We will not allow an unsafe condition to be created.” 

The historical aspect of the project also was vetted by the city, according to Pope.

“In early 2016 the City was made aware of historic resources, specifically the remains of a wall from the historic Raymond Hotel and a former (now sealed) pedestrian tunnel. A supplemental environmental review was required,” according to information provided by Pope. “As a result of the historic findings, the project went before the City’s Cultural Heritage Commission and required that the developer prepare additional studies to address these issues. The CHC approved a supplemental study that found that there was no impact on historic resources. However, they added conditions of approval to protect the wall during construction. The developer has integrated the wall into the approved landscape plan. There are no visible remains of the tunnel and it appears to have been destroyed in 1964 with the construction of the apartment building at 1625 Raymond Hill Rd. The project underwent an additional review by the Planning Commission on June 4, 2018.”

Councilmember Michael Cacciotti has been informed of the situation because it falls within his District 4. Cacciotti visited the site and has passed on the information to City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe, Khubesrian, Interim Director of Planning and Building, David Begman, among other city officials.

Meanwhile, Nextdoor.com, an online community bulletin-board, has been active with several conversations regarding this South Pasadena issue.

Furthermore, the Raymond Hill neighbors are seeking out their own experts to analyze the situation. Also, they’ve called for meetings in the neighborhood to address the issue.

And, if this activity is any indication, this fight over a small parcel of land is far from over.

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Steve Whitmore is the editor for the South Pasadena Review. Steve has spent more than four decades as an award-winning print and broadcast journalist with a 16-year stint as the senior media advisor for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Steve comes to us from the Keene Sentinel in Keene, New Hampshire, where he covered politics and was a columnist.

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