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Council adopts zone change paving way for art museum

See video of the public talking about the art museum location

The Claremont City Council officially approved the plan for Pomona College to build its new museum after months of scrutiny from city and school officials, and a passionate group of residents.

The council voted 3-2 Tuesday night to adopt a controversial zone change that paves the way for the college to build the new Pomona College Museum of Art on the corner of College Avenue and Second Street, the current site of the historic Renwick House.

The council also voted 3-2 to adopt the entire 15-year Pomona College Master Plan and an addendum to the environmental impact report (EIR).

Mayor Sam Pedroza and Councilmembers Joe Lyons and Opanyi Nasiali voted in favor, while Councilmembers Corey Calaycay and Larry Schroeder voted against it.

The council wrestled with whether to align all city zoning documents with the general plan or to honor the area’s historical nature. The zone change—from medium-density residential to institutional/educational—was spurred by an oversight by the planning department during the 2007 zoning clean-up.

Mr. Lyons, in his support for the staff recommendation, characterized the decision as a “zone correction” rather than a zone change.

Mr. Calaycay and Mr. Schroeder dissented, with Mr. Calaycay noting that the character of Renwick and surrounding block means more than moving a single house across the street.

“The history is a little bit deeper than just looking at the Renwick House and moving one historic house,” he said. “There’s more to it that I think people need to respect.”

Mr. Nasiali noted that the motion to approve the zone change was a simple decision.

“The city has a legal obligation to ensure zoning is consistent to the city’s general plan,” he said. “Period.”

At the end, after the rest of the council was split 2-2, it came down to Mr. Pedroza, who opened his remarks by chastising the community for the contentious nature of the hearings.

“I think there’s a lot of shame that needs to be thrown around,” Mr. Pedroza said. “For as smart of a community as we are, shame on us that we’re in this situation.”

But the mayor said his “hands were tied” based on the zoning issue, and supported the staff recommendation.

Mr. Nasiali also requested that Pomona College name part of the new museum after Helen Renwick. Pomona College Vice President and Treasurer Karen Sisson replied that the college was “very open” to the idea, but had to confer with those making sizable donations to the museum.

Mr. Pedroza also presented another provision, requesting that the house in its new location be dedicated to the women of Claremont.

A hush fell over the crowd as the council voted on all three items. Some residents who were against the zone change and plan left the chamber early when it was clear the items would pass.

The approval is the culmination of a number of commission and council meetings throughout the past few months. The Planning Commission gave a 4-3 negative recommendation on the zone change to the council, which then voted 3-2 to force an ad hoc committee to convene for further discussion.

After that committee meeting ended without a recommendation, all the zone change and master plan needed was a simple majority, which it received Tuesday evening.

Mr. Schroeder criticized the plan needing a simple majority to pass after failing to get two super-majority votes.

“I’m appalled by that,” he said.

Public commenters came in droves to the council chamber, with the line to speak at the podium stretching outside the building. In all, 55 Claremonters spoke for and against the agenda item, with public comment lasting more than two hours.

Claremont centenarian Marilee Scaff was the first to speak. She came out in absolute favor of the plan, urging the council to “let the city of Claremont become the city it is becoming.”

“I think nothing would please Helen Renwick more than to make that a museum,” she said. “And if you want to be nice to her, build a plaza or something and name it for her.”

Denise Spooner, who is on the board of Claremont Heritage, sharply criticized the plan.

“It’s simply impossible for me to understand how anyone could think that inserting an institutional building on College Avenue between Second and Bonita would not disrupt the grace and beauty of that street,” she said.

Under the master plan, the college-owned Renwick House will be moved from the northwest corner of College and Second—where it has stood since it was built in 1900—to the southeast corner of the same intersection.

The museum’s current design shows the proposed structure at about 35,000 square feet, with 9,000 square feet below grade. The museum will provide public space and courtyards, as well as teaching areas, galleries and offices for Pomona College staff.

Preservationists, including members of Claremont Heritage, railed against the plan, claiming the museum will disrupt the residential feel of the neighborhood and that moving Renwick would chip away at the historical significance of the house.

Supporters have hailed the museum as a “bridge between town and gown,” noting that it would be a benefit to students and citizens alike.

In April, the California State Historical Resources Commission unanimously approved the home for placement in the National Register of Historic Places. Tuesday’s addendum to the EIR dealt with the house’s new distinction, and concluded that the move would not negatively alter Renwick’s historical significance.

After the meeting, Mr. Pedroza called his vote “by far the most difficult decision I have had to make,” and said his favorable decision came earlier on Tuesday, when it was clear Claremont Heritage and Pomona College could not reach an agreement.

Claremont Heritage submitted a letter to Pomona College on May 23, supporting an up-to 30,000-square-foot space on the site of the cottages north of Renwick House in a last ditch effort to preserve the house. Pomona College responded on May 24 that the proposal would not “serve the purpose of a 21st century teaching museum.”

Pomona College Vice President and Chief Communications Officer Marylou Ferry praised the decision and noted there is still a long way to go to finalize the museum plans, including scrutiny from the architectural commission over the design.

“We’re thrilled,” she said.

—Matthew Bramlett

news@claremont-courier.com

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