Those eager to see what the City Council decides regarding the style of the refreshed San Marino Center will have to hold their breath a bit longer, with that decision deferred last week amid uncertainty on whether the building is a candidate for historic landmark protection.
However, the council did largely agree on how they would like the city’s contracted design firm to draw out the interior space of the building, which also is in need of significant utility and code updates since being built in 1952. Meanwhile, the council plans to potentially commit to exterior architectural style and how landscaping changes will be integrated at its next meeting on Friday, Sept. 25.
The council seemed poised to go along with a task force-recommended change to a Spanish colonial revival architectural style until Mayor Gretchen Shepherd Romey essentially pumped the brakes by recalling that the building was, at least at some point, listed as a potential historic resource in the city’s historic resource survey.
“I think this is a great building,” she said. “I think the fact that it is done by Marion Varner, who was a resident and a notable architect in Southern California, this is something we should make an example of how to update, keep and preserve it, and take what is wrong and what was added and make it back to its original form. I believe that’s also the cheaper way to go, and it would preserve the character of this area.”
Councilman Steve Talt, who’d been leading the charge to re-do the mid-century modern façade to Spanish colonial, would ultimately move to table the discussion for want of clarity.
“If it’s historical, I would be a hypocrite to say we should change it, and I’m not going to go there,” he said. “If it’s not historical, then I don’t have a problem with it. I can’t make a decision based upon an assumption that I’m now hearing may be incomplete.”
The city in 2018 commissioned a historic resource survey with Architectural Resources Group, a planning consultant, as part of a preservation policy championed by the entire council. Among other things, the report provided to the city last year identified buildings and locations in town that either were already registered as historic landmarks or could potentially qualify as historic — and therefore subject to certain protections — with further research.
Community Development Director Aldo Cervantes indicated at last week’s meeting that although the building may have at one point been listed in the report as it was being developed, it was because a resident had flagged it for evaluation; in other words, the building was not listed on account of the firm’s initial criteria. Cervantes noted that since the building was constructed, it had been subject to a number of additions and modifications that generally diminish a building’s claim to historic qualities.
“Those are significant issues with any building, whether it’s historic or not,” he added.
The council otherwise agreed with what the task force suggested for the revamped building, including keeping the fireside room and improving its quality; utilizing three wall partitions for the main area; keeping the platform stage but adding multifunctional elements to it; improving the technology infrastructure; maintaining a commercial kitchen; repurposing space used by the San Marino Chamber of Commerce to be a rental area; and generally outfitting the building with standard-level fixtures and furniture.
“The guiding principle in the renovation is to create maximum flexibility to accommodate as many years and functions as possible, especially in a post-COVID world,” said Al Boegh, who chaired the task force.
Task force member Jennifer Giles added that the group deliberated on “what we thought was the best long-term interest for our city,” and said nearly all the recommendations were unanimous — different philosophies evidently emerged with the stage, which is the only such venue in town not tied to a school.
“We believe that after the stage is revived and reimagined, it can be more widely used by our residents in town and by various groups in town, therefore bringing in more revenues to the city,” explained Calvin Lo, another task force member, on the ultimate recommendation. “More importantly, this will also bound and connect the community together to enjoy memorable moments together as proud residents of San Marino.”
Steve Domier, a task force member who also serves on the city’s Library Board of Trustees, made the case for changing the architectural style to match Crowell Public Library, Huntington Middle School and the school district main office; all involved buildings share one big parking lot.
This allows the San Marino Center to be in harmony with the buildings that surround it,” Domier said. “In addition, the board of trustees for the library felt very strongly that the new center should align aesthetically with the library since both are city properties. Our task force also felt it was important to make the San Marino Center and the library look like they belong together.”
The task force also advocated installing a courtyard or other feature to physically connect the center with the library.
“I kept saying ‘tear down the wall’ between these two,” Giles said. “Let’s really blur the lines; let’s try to create a cohesive complex.”
Additionally, the task force urged the style change even with it adding an estimated $400,000 to the ultimate construction costs.
“The amount of difference between the current style that it is and what the Spanish style could be is, honestly, negligible when you amortize it over the 70 years that we expect this building to be in existence,” Domier said.
The San Marino Center is poised to become the new home for the city’s Recreation Department, which has long been based out of the Stoneman School building. Projected construction costs are estimated between $4 million and $5.2 million, depending on factors like exterior work. Parks and Public Works Director Michael Throne, who also is the city engineer, said around 65% of that cost is tied to the Americans With Disabilities Act compliance alone.
The city contracted with Crane Architectural Group for $349,000 in July to handle the design and schematic work for the renovation, with an eye on bidding out the construction in early 2021.
The handful of public comments on the project last week were hesitant at best. Marilyn Peck said she feared what added use to the area would do for vehicle traffic and parking. Shirley Jagels urged the council to preserve the style of the building and, along with Linda Gutierrez, indicated sticker shock at the projected costs.
“We can leave our egos at the door, but unfortunately, we cannot leave our wallets at the door,” Jagels told the council, referencing a prior statement by Vice Mayor Ken Ude. “I think we do have to be very cautious with regard to spending of the public’s money.”
Domier, earlier in the meeting, acknowledged the general frugality of the council and advocated this project as a worthy investment into the city’s future based on the gamut of public meetings the task force listened in on.
“They know how tight you are with a buck, but there will always be those who complain no matter what the cost is,” he added. “This is our one chance to get it right. This is something we want to enjoy for the rest of our lives.”
Shepherd Romey downplayed the importance of having a cohesive aesthetic among public buildings, as you typically see in Burbank or Santa Clarita she said.
“And those are lovely places to live, but in part what makes San Marino unique is that we don’t have the same thing next door to the same thing,” she added. “We’re a community of custom buildings and custom homes. If we have a preservationist mindset here on the council or the community, then I think this is something that we can show what can be done very well to preserve that.”
For now, the council awaits further input from Architectural Resources Group and anticipates reviewing two separate mockups from Crane Architectural Group — both with the same interior, but each reflecting the differing facades.