As objections arise in the community about New Urban West and its investor-supported plans to build a 42 unit tract housing project below the Retreat Center, concerns are being raised by the Passionists that opposing this project will impact their ability to expand the Retreat Center and their religious mission.
Taking a closer look, we learn that the property is currently zoned institutional and has been since 1996, when the General Plan was updated to reflect its then-current use. Hearing no objection from Mater Dolorosa within the 90 day period required by law, the General Plan was adopted.
Under its present institutional zoning, Mater Dolorosa can expand the Retreat Center or build an additional religious institution to expand their mission. But they have chosen not to do that – instead choosing to build a 42 unit tract housing development with no religious purpose.
During the time of its institutional zoning, there were no attempts to expand the building and its mission beyond the existing facilities. Realistically, there was no need as the Retreat Center has almost 90 single and double rooms plus conference rooms, a library, breakout rooms, a Chapel and a kitchen capable of feeding over 100 guests 3 meals a day.
Prior to that, it had been zoned Residential for many years with no plans to build housing for any purpose. Two large buildings were on the grounds: the Monastery Building (built in 1929) and the Retreat Center (built in 1950 and last expanded in 1985, almost forty years ago).
When the Monastery building was damaged by an earthquake in June 1991, they could have rebuilt it and continued its religious use. But they chose not to do that - instead demolishing the building in 1992, leaving only the Retreat Center. Perhaps they could clearly see the future and the diminishing need for facilities like this going forward. And this trend continues to this day. Young men and women are increasingly not interested in pursuing this way of life and there are not enough of them to support the aging Fathers.
Interestingly, the Mater Dolorosa Retreat Center and the property are owned by the Passionists of Chicago. They are one of many Passionist groups selling off land, retreat centers and monastery property throughout the country. Unfortunately, it is not a growing industry.
Retreat Centers, summer retreat camps, Passionist headquarters in Massachusetts, Missouri, Kansas, Kentucky, Chicago, Cincinnati, Iowa.... all suffered the “heartbreaking” decision to close and sell, due to the declining number of new priests coming into the order and the costs of caring for an older population of clergy whose average age is 78.
Presently, the Passionists Holy Cross Province has only four operating Retreat Centers in the US including our Mater Dolorosa in Sierra Madre. Throughout the country, Passionist Retreat Centers and Monasteries have closed their doors, been torn down or sold for other purposes.
Zoning is not whimsical. It is based on years of hard work by Sierra Madre citizens, staff and officials to carefully create the Sierra Madre of the future. When adopted by the City Council in 2016, the General Plan established significant goals, objectives and policies to implement its vision for the community. Now, less than four years later, New Urban West and its investors seek to disregard this plan and its current institutional zoning and replace it with their own special vision of Sierra Madre outlined in its ‘Specific Plan’. Many in Sierra Madre feel this ‘vision’ is inconsistent with the plan we drew up for our future and feel Hillside Residential zoning accurately implements the objectives and policies of the General Plan. This parcel of land, adjacent to the mountains is a Wildlife Urban Interface, a Very High Fire Severity Zone and, critically, is located on the last open alluvial fan bordering the San Gabriel Mountains. It should be protected by the SAME Hillside restrictions and hillside residential zoning that the City has applied to ALL other large parcels that are adjacent to the Mountains. And like all those other rezoned properties, any existing use when they were rezoned would become - UNDER OUR ORDINANCES - a nonconforming use.
Hillside Residential Zoning would fairly apply to the Mater Dolorosa parcel the same protections that our City (and many other Hillside communities) has enacted to preserve the land and protect it from excessive overdevelopment.
Their practice of religion as they have for decades can continue. Despite their website FAQs indicating they had no plans to build, the 70,000 sqft/90 bedroom building can be renovated as necessary to expand their mission and their kitchen. They can subdivide and sell any part of the parcel for hillside residential development. Any part they choose to keep and use for religious purposes can be used as it is now - for retreats - and for a food ministry like the one they did during the pandemic. A win-win for everyone.
Realistically, Retreat Centers don’t have much of a future and it would be foolhardy to believe that our Mater Dolorosa, a special, unique - almost magical place filled with nature’s beauty - will be around for another hundred years, especially after a dense housing development removes the trees, destroys the habitat of the wildlife, and ruins the peaceful tranquillity that visitors have enjoyed for many decades.
It is far more likely that the Retreat Center on 23 acres will be put up for sale. And if the ‘Specific Plan’ proposed by NUW is approved, it will pave the way and set the precedent for another high density development with another ‘Specific Pan’ to be built on the rest of the property.