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Ad hoc committee divided on zoning of Renwick House property

A three-hour meeting regarding a controversial zone change on College Avenue ended in yet another stalemate Wednesday afternoon.

The four-person ad hoc committee, comprised of councilmembers Joe Lyons and Larry Schroeder and planning commissioners K.M. Williamson and Leigh Anne Jones, failed to make a recommendation to the city council after discussion that at times became contentious.

The committee was formed at the April 12 city council meeting when the council couldn’t reach a supermajority vote on the zone change, which would amend a 2007 zoning map to change the properties located at 211 and 239 North College Avenue from medium-density residential to institutional/educational to fit with the 2006 general plan.

While the meeting was originally called to focus specifically on the zone change, the implications of the change hung over the council chamber. The zone change is a vital part of the Pomona College Master Plan, which would allow Pomona College to build its proposed art museum on the lot.

It would also lead to the moving of the historic Renwick House across the street to the southeast corner of College Avenue and Second Street, a main point of dispute among critics of the zone change.

Director of Community Development Brian Desatnik said during the staff report that the area in question has historically been institutional, as it was recommended for college use as far back as 1923.

As far as the city’s general plan is concerned, the area was designated as “associated colleges” in 1956, as “semi-public” in 1969 and 1979, as “mixed-use” in 1984 and as “institutional” in 2006, when the most recent version of the general plan was adopted, according to Mr. Desatnik’s report.

Even though the theme of the discussion was the zone change, it was clear the result of such a change was on the minds of the committee members. The committee brought up the “feel” of the block, the connection between town and gown and the historical implications of moving Renwick.

At one point, Mr. Schroeder asked about the recent approval of Renwick to be added to the National Register of Historic Places, wondering if the house’s newly-acquired status would impact the zoning.

“There’s nothing that prohibits the move of this house, and there is nothing that would automatically change the historic nature of this home, if it were to stay or if it were to move,” City Manager Tony Ramos said.

Ms. Jones implored the committee at several points during the meeting to only focus on the zone change.

“What we’re here to do is determine what the zoning needs to be, not the Pomona College master plan or where the museum goes and all of that,” she said. “It’s the zone change.”

As discussion continued, the committee was clearly at an impasse. Ms. Williamson floated the idea of creating a new hybrid zoning designation to reflect the multi-use nature of the property, and later brought forth the idea of “form-based codes” as a more flexible land-use designation.

Mr. Lyons asserted that it’s hard for him to characterize the portion of College Avenue as “residential,” save for the block of Victorians on the west end of College between First and Second streets. He urged the committee to consider the “greater good” of having a museum enhance the community.

Mr. Schroeder disagreed with Mr. Lyons, noting that there is an obvious residential feel to the block.

“It does have a residential character, the Renwick House—where it breaks once is with the little cottages—and then [the block] goes on with more Victorian-style homes,” he said.

The meeting turned into a lively back-and-forth, as the committee wrestled with how the block looks and what document, be it the general plan or the village design plan (VDP), should hold precedent.

“I really don’t see that [Renwick] is an institutional building of any sense,” Mr. Schroeder said.

Mr. Lyons disagreed.

“There are already institutional uses,” Mr. Lyons said, referring to the immediate area surrounding the parcel. “There’s the library, there’s city hall—there are institutional uses.”

Mr. Schroeder adamantly opposed another zone change in the area.

“No more, no more—that’s the thing, no more,” Mr. Schroeder replied.

With two councilmembers deadlocked, Commissioner Jones offered a possible solution.

“Then our only choice is to go back and amend the general plan,” Ms. Jones said, to which Mr. Schroeder agreed. “But Pomona College already owns that property. It’s already an institutional use. So what are we going to do, take it back from them?”

At one point, Ms. Jones pointedly asked the committee members what they were worried about in regards to the zone change.

“Try to imagine you haven’t seen a Pomona College master plan,” she said. “I genuinely want to hear what you are concerned about.”

Ms. Williamson replied that she sees the zone as a cluster of “founder’s residences” that has a certain integrity that should not be changed. Ms. Jones said that was a discussion for the master plan, not the zoning.

“In my view, changing just that one block, with the blocks below and above it remaining residential, messes things up,” Ms. Williamson said.

Public comment was just as passionate, with 21 speakers straddling both sides of the debate. Resident Katherine Smith called the zoning discrepancy an “omission” and a “mistake.”

“Since the other properties that needed zone changes have already been approved as I understand, this opposition could only be because of the proposed museum,” Ms. Smith said. “Which leads to my second point: why are we questioning the gift of a museum to Claremont?”

Resident Susan Schenk disagreed that the zone designation was an oversight, claiming that it was intentionally put in place to keep the character of the neighborhood.

“The zoning change failed in the planning commission. It failed in the council to get the supermajority that is needed because zone changes are important decisions that a city has to make, which is why it needs a supermajority,” Ms. Schenk said. “The fact that it failed in both of these to get a supermajority should say something.”

Pomona College President David Oxtoby also spoke during public comment, recommending the zone change and calling the idea of “college creep,” which has been a lingering point of concern for some Claremont residents, a “false narrative.”

“The city and the Colleges have grown together. We are inseparable,” Mr. Oxtoby said. “There’s open and meaningful flow of activity and people through the campuses, the civic core and the wonderful shops and restaurants. We have contributed to one another’s attraction and to each other’s success for more than 125 years.”

The committee was split in the end, with Ms. Jones and Mr. Lyons in favor of the zone change and Ms. Williamson and Mr. Schroeder against it.

The next step, according to Mr. Ramos, is to create a report on the committee meeting and send it to the council, where it will be reviewed as part of another public hearing on the zone change and the Pomona College Master Plan on May 24.

—Matthew Bramlett

news@claremont-courier.com

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