The San Marino City Council is poised to take final action on the renovation of the San Marino Center at its regular Friday meeting. The process, which began more than two years ago, has moved forward steadily despite twists and turns relating to design and environmental impact.
Last month, the City Council approved the design of the San Marino Center, meaning that only awarding the contracts remains for Friday’s agenda. The City Council will be asked to approve a construction contract for the renovations, a construction management firm to oversee the project and a cultural monitoring contract, which is required by the environmental study to ensure that the project is properly monitored for Native American/Tribal impacts.
Once all contracts are approved, construction will begin in September and will take approximately 130 working days, according to the City’s staff report. Once construction is complete, the San Marino’s recreation staff will move to the San Marino Center and programming and rentals will recommence.
The vision for this project began in 2020, after a staff presentation to the City Council at its April meeting about reconceptualizing recreation programming to be more focused on community building activities than individual benefit class activities. With the Council’s support for that shift — including direction in 2020 to transition the City’s preschool program to a third-party provider — it was determined that this new recreation program would fit better at the San Marino Center than the much larger Stoneman facility.
Stoneman has long been a discussion item for the city as well, with many public conversations for years about the facility, which was purchased by the City from the San Marino Unified School District in 2012. That facility is also in need of renovation, including numerous costly ADA and deferred maintenance improvements. It has proven difficult for the city and community to envision Stoneman separately from the City’s Recreation Division, making decisions about what to do with Stoneman virtually impossible.
“The city’s hope is that removing recreation programming and staff from Stoneman will create a ‘blank slate’ and open up options for its eventual renovation and use,” said Marcella Marlowe, San Marino’s City Manager.
During the budget process, the Council voted unanimously to include the San Marino Center renovation in the FY2020-21 capital projects budget. The unanimous agreement of the council members fractured over the selection of the architect and design choices, resulting in the current 3-2 split, with Jakubowski, Talt, and Ude in the majority and Huang and Shepherd Romey opposed.
The total price tag for the San Marino Center renovation project is $8.3 million, which includes almost $825,000 that has already been incurred, regardless of the Council’s decision on Friday. When asked about the $10 million cost noted by the opposition’s ad in the Tribune last week, Marlowe was “stumped,” saying “there’s never been a cost estimate of $10 million for this project at any point over the last two-plus years. I have no idea where that number came from.”
Marlowe conceded that the project cost has increased over time, noting “architectural and construction management professionals across the board have told us that costs have gone up approximately 20% over the last 18 months and they’ve been very clear that those costs will only continue to rise as more time goes by.”
Marlowe explained that the project was actually ready to move forward in the fall of 2020, which would have resulted in substantially lower costs. “In September 2020,” she said, “the probable cost estimate was between $4.8 and $6.4 million, depending on the design choices selected by the city.”
According to Marlowe and the series of agenda reports from September through December 2020, the City Council was publicly threatened with a lawsuit if the city did not complete a thorough environmental review process prior to moving forward. Governmental agencies have the option, if certain criteria are met, to waive the environmental review process, as was done with the Crowell Public Library project and SMUSD’s more recent Barth Athletic Complex project.
Given the concern about the potential lawsuit, the City Council authorized the Environmental Impact Report process in December 2020.
The initial findings of that EIR process did not come back until January of this year and required some significant changes to the project, including shifts in design and a mandate for specific types of monitoring during the construction. And, although some in the community have called for the demolition of the existing building with new — and potentially cheaper — construction for the community center, the EIR has confirmed that the building is historic, which means that it cannot be torn down. If the city wants to upgrade or modernize the site, renovating the existing building is the only remaining option.
In the end, Marlowe is conflicted about the environmental review process.
“On the one hand,” she said, “I am very pleased for the guidance we’ve received that ensures that our project will be historically respectful and result in no significant negative impacts to the environment; that’s always a win for our community. On the other hand, the EIR process itself and all of its ramifications totals over $700,000 and resulted in a delay of over 18 months, which has its own associated cost increase of approximately $1.5 million – that impacts our community too.”
Regardless of Marlowe’s feelings, there is no going back, and the City Council must vote on the project as it is and as it has evolved. Marlowe is sure about one thing: “If the City Council approves this construction project on Friday, the San Marino Center will take its place with the Crowell Public Library and Lacy Park as another beautiful and welcoming place in which our community can gather.”
In its current layout, the building can accommodateas many as 300 people and is available to rent for weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and other special events. The facility has three main rooms: an auditorium, dining room and the Fireside Room, which is used for smaller events and meetings. The facility also includes an industrial kitchen.
San Marino City Club holds most of its meetings in the San Marino Center, and in non-pandemic times, the building is also used for a weekly bridge game. The San Marino Chamber of Commerce also keeps an office on the premises. Another finding of the EIR process was that the room used for the Chamber is not part of the historic footprint of the building and must be removed.
“If we do not move forward with this remodel the San Marino Center is likely to be ‘red-tagged’ or deemed to be unusable for any purpose,” said city council member Ken Ude.
“If we move forward with just the minimal improvements to make it ADA compliant, I’m told it would cost approximately $6 million. To me, this makes sense to do it right and incorporate the improvements from the task force and architect. Moreover, we have the money. The city’s total reserve is up to $45 million. When we took office in 2017 it was at $25 million, so we’ve added $20 million to the reserve in a little over four years.”
Steve Domier, the chair of the Library Board of Trustees who also served on the task force to help evaluate the San Marino Center, opined on the matter.
“It’s such a shame that every time there’s a plan for an improvement to our community, a handful of naysayers pops up to complain,” Domier said. “We saw this with the library years ago — a few people who don’t think public funds should ever be spent turn to scare tactics and false claims to try to derail beneficial projects for our city. It’s a good thing they were overruled back then so that we’ve been able to enjoy our lovely library for the past two decades. The renovation of the San Marino Center is a badly needed project that our community will enjoy for many, many years to come, and will serve as a fine complement to our library.”