School Board Examines Future of District Property—Again

South Pasadena City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe (right) presents options for the development of the district office property at the School Board meeting alongside School Superintendent Dr. Geoff Yantz, May 14. Photo by Skye Hannah

The School Board of the South Pasadena Unified School District (SPUSD) recently heard a presentation on the existing conditions of the district office on El Centro Street and the future possibilities for the property which could include residential, commercial, dining, hospitality and mixed-use options. This discussion has been ongoing for months now.

Superintendent Dr. Geoff Yantz shared that the 16,000 square foot district office is currently around 100 years old and is struggling with a multitude of workspace constraints, structural issues and numerous safety upgrade needs.

“The condition is just not acceptable,” said Yantz during the board meeting on May 14.

Yantz detailed the options for the property as sell, lease, keep as is or exchange. In an assessment made in 2015, it was calculated that it would cost the district $6 million to restore and recondition the property. He pointed out that cost would be greater today. Board President Dr. Suzie Abajian noted that the district also used a considerable amount of funds set aside for the upgrade for school site improvement.
“The moneys that we initially were allocating for the upgrading and the expansion of the district office is no longer there because we’ve used a
portion of it to put into the rest of the building projects at the school sites…hence the need for a different way of dealing and financing the upgrades at the district office,” said Abajian.

Board Member Dr. Ruby Kalra spoke to the infeasibility of keeping the property as is for those who work in the office and those who visit with the current maintenance and space challenges.
“As time goes on, it’s going to be less and less of an option, and more expensive,” said Kalra.

Board Member Zahir Robb noted a need for balancing the support between the district office and schools, as a well-functioning office that assists programs at school sites.

“If our employees are working in better facilities and opportunities and options, it will just help support those instructional programs,” said Robb. “So while it may seem as, ‘well, what do they need larger offices for, etc.,’ all these things go back to our students and our programs. I think keeping that focus in mind, that’s there a way we can service both and support those goals.”

City Manager Stephanie DeWolfe provided a magnifying glass on the possibilities for developing the district property and how it would relate to zoning within the city. The five options include residential, commercial, dining, hospitality and mixed-use, which would entail a combination of residential and commercial uses.
“The context of being in a middle of a historic district, a walkable retail center and just a block from the gold line are all tremendous amenities to the redevelopment of this site,” said DeWolfe.

DeWolfe made note of the importance of property to the city at large, from a land-use urban planning perspective and from an economic development perspective. She shared that under the proposed general plan for the city which is expected to integrate in the fall, the city will be shifting from a traditional zoning code, based on land-use and separation of usage, to a form-based code, which serves as a “more modern land-use tool” that focuses more on the quality of buildings and less at what their internal uses involve.

“It’s much more of an urban design focused planning strategy,” said DeWolfe.

Under form-based codes, the property could contain different buildings of different heights as well as courtyards and paseos between the buildings. DeWolfe noted that the maximum height of buildings in South Pasadena is 45 feet, which was set in the 1980s and would require a ballot measure to change. Within city regulation, the maximum height of buildings can be two stories unless a community benefit is included, which would permit a third story to be added. A community benefit “is not defined in any detailed manner” and could include public parking, green space, a hotel or affordable housing.

For the residential option, DeWolfe noted that there’s a high demand for housing within the city and the property could integrate single or multi-family housing. Affordable housing could also be integrated, which would help the city avoid fees that are currently being imposed due to statewide requirements that cities offer it.

“Urban housing is extremely popular these days, very much in demand,” said DeWolfe. “It’s also a very good economic development tool to help strengthen our business district.”

Under commercial options, additional retail stores, personal services such as salons and trainers or professional services like office spaces would be considered. The new market opportunities would also fit well with the Gold Line proximity and generate sales tax.
“Having people stay in town also is an environmental sustainability issue—less driving, less greenhouse gases, also just good for our residents [with] less time in the car,” said DeWolfe.

With dining and restaurant options, new dining opportunities would become available, nighttime pedestrian activity would be supported and sales tax would be generated. DeWolfe also noted the popular request of adding nightlife.

“This is one of the issues that we’ve heard the most about—that people would like to see more evening entertainment options, a jazz club or something along those lines, so this would also respond to economic development issues and some community demands,” said DeWolfe.

Under hospitality options, a hotel could be added which would create the most revenue with the transit occupancy tax, or bed tax, which adds 10 to 14 percent onto a guest’s bill, according to DeWolfe. As the city doesn’t currently have a hotel, many visitors leave the city which creates a “leakage” for potential city funding.

And finally for mixed-use, the property could contain any combination of residential, commercial or hospitality. DeWolfe noted this would provide the greatest value with the greatest allowable square footage, number of residential units and commercial square footage. It would also be encouraged by the proposed Downtown Plan.
“Having a variety of uses is always a strengthening tool for a business district,” said DeWolfe.

The development review process for a project would first involve the city negotiating the public benefit with the developer, while taking in input from the community.

“Whether it’s housing or public parking, we would look at the priorities and needs of the community and try and find a balance that works best for both the developer and the community,” said DeWolfe.

From there, a full-on environmental impact review would be conducted followed by a review by the Cultural Heritage Commission, Design Review Board, Planning Commission and then to the City Council. DeWolfe shared the city would spend considerable time working with the developer to ensure the facilitation of development and investment in the city while making sure the correct investment for the community was made. She expected the process to take 12 to 18 months, depending on the complexity of the project and the responsiveness of the developer.

The city plans to have another round of community meetings on the proposed projects before plans are brought back to the City Council in the fall.

“The earlier and the more we can engage with the public on this, I think the more successful we will be,” noted DeWolfe.

Board Clerk Dr. Michele Kipke said the board would look forward to participating in the community conversations as the district moves forward in the process.

“If we learned anything the last round of looking at development of this property, the community has a real emotional attachment to this project and they have an awful lot to say about it,” said Kipke.