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South Pasadena refuses to increase offer for fire station site

SOUTH PASADENA — A plan for a new fire station in South Pasadena has a pivotal missing piece: The city needs a place to build it.

The South Pasadena Fire Department's longtime home on Oleander Way needs extensive repairs and renovations, including a new roof, an upgrade of living quarters and new flooring. City commissioners have been leaning toward constructing a new station at a larger site.

"We don't want to throw money into an old building," said Gail Neidinger, the commissioner who oversees public safety. The 40-year-old fire station has little privacy in the bunk room, the exercise area is not air-conditioned, and it is not inviting to female firefighters and visitors because it doesn't have separate showers and restrooms, she said.

But two offers submitted by the city to purchase the Tradewinds Christian Church property at 6740 Park St. S — which appears well-suited for a fire station — were rejected.

After the city's first offer of $750,000, the Rev. Michael Avato wrote in an Oct. 12 letter that the church is "determined to keep the sale price of $1,164,000," which it believes is "twenty percent lower than true market value."

When the city made a counteroffer of $900,000, the church revealed there is a buyer — Gateway Christian Center — willing to pay $1,150,000.

City commissioners have a June 14 real estate appraisal from Calhoun, Collister and Parham Inc. that gives a market value of $1 million.

At an Oct. 24 special commission meeting, Mayor Max Elson and Neidinger spoke in favor of swiftly making another offer for the property.

Not so fast, said the other three commissioners.

"I'm frankly feeling a little cornered here," said Vice Mayor Lari Johnson.

Elson said he was notified that the church would allow 45 days for the city to inspect the property and determine its suitability for building a fire station. The city's original purchase offer specified a 120-day inspection period during which the sales contract could be canceled for any reason.

Commissioner Gigi Esposito said she was "not comfortable" giving up the 120 days to evaluate the property.

"The choices are very few and far between," Elson said.

"Mr. Mayor, that's a lot of money," Commissioner David Magenheimer said. "I don't like paying more than it (the property) has been valued."

Magenheimer said he wanted more information on the option of making improvements to the old station.

Neidinger said the city would have to relocate the Fire Department's employees and equipment to make renovations at the existing location, and "our property is too small."

The cost of renovating at the existing site — estimated to be more than 50 percent of the value of the old building — would trigger a requirement to meet current floodproofing standards by elevating the structure. New driveways would be too steep; the fire trucks would have to be at the bottom level while the rest of the station would be on a higher floor, said South Pasadena fire Chief David Mixson.

Mixson said "it will be difficult" to make the improvements on the existing site because "we need a bigger building" and cautioned against any design that would add to the Fire Department's response time.

City Attorney David Ottinger told the commissioners that paying 10 or 15 percent above the property's appraised value is justified because there are no guarantees that any other land will be available and the "current fire station is wearing out."

In a final plea to the commissioners opposed to upping the city's offer, Elson said "we've got the cash on hand" to purchase the property and "we do not owe one dime to anyone … other than our 30-day accounts payable."

Even so, the City Commission voted 3-2 against a motion to offer $1,150,000 with a 45-day inspection period.

"It was a difficult decision, but the seller's requirement that we give up our 120-day due diligence period and pay 20 percent more than we budgeted was not in the best interest of our residents," said Johnson following the meeting. "We need to explore other options."