By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
No city in Southern California has embraced smart growth as enthusiastically as Pasadena, better known for its rows of Arts and Crafts bungalows than its transit-oriented development. The smallish city of roughly 146,000 has added 42 higher-density housing developments to its bustling business district, some of which literally wrap around train stations.
“They clearly have done one thing very, very well – they’ve created a vibrant, mixed-use downtown,” says former Pasadena Mayor Rick Cole, who left in 1998 and is now city manager of Ventura.
Pasadena is years ahead of its neighbors in pushing the major tenets of smart growth, placing new homes near transit and making life more pleasant for those who walk. While Los Angeles weighs the possibility of turning Pico and Olympic boulevards into one-way miniature freeways, Pasadena published the 165-page booklet “Getting Around Without a Car.” While Pasadena requires condo and apartment builders on certain streets to put shops or offices on the ground floor, many new apartments in Los Angeles still get built with cavernous parking garages on the ground — leaving an entire block of dead space for the poor saps who walk by.
By concentrating development at its core, Pasadena found a way to save its tree-lined single-family neighborhoods on the outskirts — places with names like Bungalow Heaven, Historic Highlands and Garfield Heights, says Robert Montaño, business district coordinator for the city of Pasadena.
“It means we’ve been able to preserve the character of our neighborhoods,” he says. “We haven’t seen the demolition of large homes, or the conversion of those homes to apartments, or the people who buy two large lots, tear down the homes and combine them into one project.”
Walk with Montaño down Colorado Boulevard and it’s hard not to share his enthusiasm. In the Civic Center is Paseo Colorado, an open-air shopping mall that stretches for two blocks and is topped by 387 homes. Further east is Trio, a mammoth 304-unit apartment house just north of the Pasadena Playhouse. And on Lake Avenue, a shopping boulevard, is the Pasadena Collection — 14 condominiums that are all sharp angles and glass. “We’re striving to create a downtown where you can circulate without a vehicle,” he says.
Nearly a decade before the Metro Gold Line opened, Pasadena’s seven-member City Council chose to concentrate much of its new housing — as many as 5,095 units — in anticipation of the rail that opened in 2003. So in the chicken-and-egg game, Pasadena ordered up the residential first, then the transit.
Not everything is tranquil along the foothills, however. Pasadena was caught off guard by the increase in traffic, Cole says. And design purists have voiced dismay about the look of many new buildings. “In general, the execution and the design and overall quality is disappointing,” says Sue Mossman, executive director of Pasadena Heritage, a historic-preservation group.
On a Thursday morning, Pasadena resident Barbara Hamilton waits on the platform next to the Del Mar station. One of nine commuters standing quietly just before ?9 a.m., Hamilton has a look that screams elegance and precision: pink jacket, gray cocktail skirt, black leather gloves.
Hamilton makes transit part of her daily routine, driving her car four and a half miles to the station. And yet, she can’t imagine living in the apartments — at $2,030 for a one-bedroom — built above the railroad tracks. “They say the windows insulate them from the noise,” she declares. “But wouldn’t you want to open the windows now and then?”
If smart growth is about changing behavior, then Hamilton can be considered a partial success. She rides the light-rail line each day to Union Station, then transfers to the subway. But she isn’t ready, probably will never be ready, to put herself in a home near railroad tracks.
Hard by the I-5
To witness the struggle between smart growth and sprawl firsthand, talk to David Urrutia, a 28-year-old orthopedic technician trying to buy a home in Los Angeles County. Urrutia and his family spent an afternoon in April checking out Puerta del Sol, a 156-unit condo complex in Lincoln Heights built next to the Avenue 26 station of the Metro Gold Line.
Sitting behind the wheel of the family minivan, Urrutia says he likes what he’s seen inside Puerta del Sol, an enormous courtyard building with gated entrances. Urrutia, who lives in Historic Filipinotown, would prefer to stay in the city.
“The homes are beautiful,” she coos of far-off Palmdale, as their twins fidget. You can almost see her imagining her dream home in the exurbs. Urrutia, on the other hand, hates the thought of driving two to three hours from the high desert to his job in Torrance. “It would kill me,” he declares.
What never enters the discussion is the light-rail station next to Puerta del Sol. Urrutia needs his car every day to reach patients scattered across Los Angeles County. He won’t be taking the light rail, even if he lives just 50 yards away from it. Instead, Urrutia is worried about the $400,000 price tag on a two-bedroom condo looming over a busy freeway. “I don’t want to trap myself into something I might regret later,” he says. “I’m the only one bringing in the income.”