At 65,000 square feet, a proposed expansion sought by the YMCA of the Foothills for its location in La Cañada Flintridge is a big undertaking — too big to be resolved in just one city Planning Commission session.
The commission met Tuesday night to discuss a planned expansion that would have two phases, including construction of a three-story building. The main phase of discussion Tuesday concerned construction of a parking deck above the front parking lot, and commissioners approved an adjustment in the line dividing the YMCA lot from private property next door. But eventually, they voted for a continuance of the hearing because of neighborhood disgruntlement.
There were rumblings from commissioners about technical variances, from neighbors concerning traffic congestion and residential driveways, and even from Earth itself as a 4.4-magnitude earthquake shook the room at City Hall.
“I am moved by your speech,” Commissioner Jeffrey McConnell said jokingly to John Pride, landscape architect for the Y, after the earthquake was felt during Pride’s statement to the commission.
The meeting ultimately came to no major conclusions, as a number of the YMCA’s neighbors called for more information, more opportunity to give feedback and formal environmental and traffic reports.
YMCA Chief Executive Tyler Wright presented the need for the project.
“This expansion will increase accessibility both to and inside the facility, create multi-generational community space and expand the youth creative program,” he said.
Project architect Stephen Finney, president of Glendale-based firm CWA AIA Inc., emphasized the importance of safety and access throughout the project. Finney said the YMCA’s limited parking was contributing to traffic congestion on Foothill Boulevard, with Y members often parking across the street and then darting across Foothill to reach the facility. The planned parking structure, the main point of Tuesday’s meeting, is intended to alleviate overflow traffic and dangerous parking situations.
The parking garage would have two stories and 268 spaces, 67 on the new upper level. This structure would be 38 feet tall, well over the city standard of 15 feet. But given the 25-foot setback at the structure’s highest point and the scale of other buildings on the street, commissioners said they would have approved the necessary height variance. The overall project would need several variances requiring the city’s approval, and commissioners did not have major objections but did not approve them based on the need for further YMCA communication with the neighbors that may alter plans.
Phase 2 of the project includes replacing the old East building with a new three-story structure. It would not be taller than the previous building, but the addition of a basement would increase the technical height of the building, necessitating a height variance. Commissioners said it could be approved given that the building would not have an actual increase in height.
With new structures being built, the YMCA has also requested the approval of a five-foot setback from Foothill; commissioners said it could be approved because of the irregularity of the lot and necessity for that space along the hillside.
The length of the new parking spaces would need to be reduced to 2 feet below city standards in order to accommodate the parking spaces required as well as two-way traffic aisles to reduce parking congestion that flows off the site. Commissioners seemed willing to permit that as well since LCF requirements for parking stall sizes are irregularly long.
To complete Phase 1 of the project, 48 trees would need to be removed. Most of them are mature pines. Pride said such trees are particularly flammable and in a year with so many fires, are hazardous to the community; he plans to replace them with 53 new trees native to Southern California. Commissioners said they would be willing to approve this due to the fire concerns and the regeneration of green growth that 53 native trees would provide.
Additionally, YMCA would need to comply with mitigation measures such as bird nest avoidance, noise during construction, traffic management plan, and construction management plan.
These technical sticking points with the city were paired with neighbors’ passionate opinions. Neighbors and YMCA members packed the room, many with opposing views.
“I was a board member of the Pasadena Y and I witnessed its demise. Today there is no Pasadena YMCA. They are irreplaceable and if we don’t support the Y now, we will never get it back,” Tony Schwarz, a YMCA member and neighbor, said in support of the project.
Sun Choi, a senior at La Cañada High School and part of the YMCA Youth Government program, encouraged approval of the YMCA proposal.
“The Y is not just a place about working out and lifting weights. It’s a place for children to learn about respect, responsibility, healthy lifestyle and friendship,” he said.
Not all of the neighbors, however, supported the expansion. Main points of contention included congestion of the residential driveway of Rancho Cañada road, construction obstacles and lack of information about the new design that they felt should have been shared. These neighbors encouraged the commissioners to delay the decision so that the Y could either shift the main entrance east, or simply “stay within their limits” as to the scope of the project, as Anita Susan Brenner, who lives to the west of the YMCA, put it. She also voiced a long-held wish by neighbors living in that section of LCF: their own private residential driveway.
“Commissioners, come out and walk through it with me. The solution is if you remove the Y’s west entrance and redesign that entrance to the parking lot and have a signal there and at Palm [Drive], but give us our driveway on Rancho Cañada Road. It is a minimal cost to give us our private driveway.”
Neighbors on the west side of the Y share their driveway with the west entrance of the Y, which has caused many altercations and car accidents, neighbors reported. Those neighbors propose moving main entrances to the east side and adding a traffic signal there while leaving the west side to the residents along Rancho Cañada.
“I only heard about the expansion project two weeks ago. We understand the need for more parking, but there are some concerns. We share a driveway on the west exit and there have been altercations and car accidents,” said resident Vin Seong. “The parking structure will increase traffic on the west entrance. The east entrance is not shared with private residents.”
This upset neighbors to the east of the Y and, Finney said, would ultimately result in a whole new set of problems.
Several neighbors on the west side pointed to a fire that broke out in September 2016 when they said traffic congestion from the YMCA hindered neighborhood evacuation and blocked fire trucks for up to 15 minutes as firefighters tried to get to the fire.
Seong and others also voiced complaints that they felt excluded from information and called for a decision on the project to be postponed so they would have more time to ask questions, get information and receive more thorough traffic and environmental impact reports — though the city doesn’t require them for the Y’s current plan — and feel that their voices are being heard. The YMCA did hold a meeting for the public Aug. 20 at which, officials said, they tried to gather input, but some neighbors said they felt they did not have ample time to prepare or didn’t even know about it, using words such as “steamrolled” to describe their feelings.
After about three hours, the planning meeting adjourned after commissioners encouraged the facility to continue with the project, saying that it would be an improvement to the community but that better communication and collaboration with neighbors are needed. No date for another hearing on the proposal was set, but neighborhood meetings hosted by the Y seem likely to follow the debate.
“People don’t like change because change impacts someone,” said Laura Olhasso, who is leading the capital campaign for the YMCA expansion. “We are trying to provide safety and accessibility to our members.”
CEO Wright indicated that he thought the meeting was very productive.
“I appreciate all the comments and suggestions we received from the commissioners, staff and neighbors,” CEO Wright said. “I’m looking forward to having further discussion with our neighbors and working together for the well-being of our members and our community,”
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