September 30, 1990 - From the September, 1990 issue

Pasadena: One Approach to Growth Management

The City of Pasadena is currently in the process of implementing one of the most extensive and restrictive growth management programs in Southern California.

As part of our continuing coverage of planning and growth issues throughout Los Angeles County, Kenneth Bernstein of The Planning Report recently went to Pasadena to discuss growth management and other issues with Anne Odell, Pasadena’s Director of Planning. Odell, who assumed her duties in Pasadena two years ago, was previously an official with St. Louis County and the Southern California Rapid Transit District.

How did the Pasadena growth management program come about?  

The growth management program was an initiative adopted by the voters in March 1989. It was a citizens’ initiative that was approved by the voters over a growth management initiative passed by the Board of Directors (our “City Council”).

When the initiative was adopted we immediately stopped accepting applications from developers. We then divided developers into three groups. Some were exempt from the initiative, and we continued to process their applications. The second group was made up of projects already in the review and approval process. These projects have been processed through the initiative and received an allotment of units or square feet. With the third group, those who were not exempt, we stopped accepting applications, and we’re still not accepting applications.

The growth management initiative is in effect for ten years, until December 31, 1999. Basically the door has been closed to non-exempt developers, and we’re beginning to feel the pressure from developers who want to develop. Right now a developer who needs an allocation can’t apply, but we’re planning to open the doors in October.

What makes Pasadena’s effort different from other growth management initiatives?

To begin with, there is something called the discretionary demolition permit. If someone is going to demolish a residential structure, they need to get a special permit. If we determine the units are affordable, they have to be replaced one to one. There’s also a directive in the initiative to establish a penalty for wrongful demolition of residential units, that is, demolition without a discretionary demolition permit.

The initiative also requires a conditional use permit—every project must get a special permit with five findings, one of which is that it cannot have an unmitigated environmental impact under CEQA. It doesn’t even allow a statement of overriding considerations under which the government could say that the impact is great but that a greater good will be served. All environmental impacts must be mitigated to a level of insignificance.

What is the absolute level of growth allowed under the ordinance?

The initiative itself sets a limit of 250 housing units and 250,000 sq. ft of non­residential use per year. It does allow the city to “borrow” against future years, so that if we get a wonderful 350,000 sq. ft project this year, the Board could borrow 100,000 sq. ft from next year.

These are rather stringent limitations—it could mean only one commercial project per year. What is the “beauty contest” among potential projects going to be like?

If you said “beauty contest” in our Board meeting, you’d get reprimanded. The initiative says the projects have to be judged against each other, against the goals and policies of the city, and against the intent of the initiative. The hardest part is judging projects against the goals and policies of the city, which aren’t clearly defined and which are multiple.

The only two goals the initiative mentions outright are the provision of jobs and revenues. After this  was considered by the Board-appointed Growth Management Task Force and the Planning Commission, the number of policy criteria grew to fourteen. We’re still debating whether the method of ranking projects based upon the criteria. It will be based on a point system or some type of fail/pass/good/outstanding value rating.

Is Old Pasadena becoming a success? What are some of the incentives to develop in that area?

There’s now a lot of activity in the area. There’s a project called Civic Center West (or the Janss project) between the City Hall area and Old Pasadena which is a large, primarily residential, development. And light rail will eventually come through this same area. Part of Old Pasadena is also in a redevelopment area, and the city through redevelopment has built parking structures. When a developer rehabs a building, they can purchase parking credits. Residential development in a redevelopment area is exempt from the growth management ordinance, as is any rehabilitation. That helps the Old Pasadena area.

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The Civic Center area, where City Hall is located, was originally supposed to be exempt from the growth management initiative. But because of the dates of the initiative, it wasn’t exempted. So, it was put on the ballot this past June and the voters exempted it.

What is today’s city government doing to perpetuate Pasadena’s legacy of high quality urban design?

We’re redoing the Urban Design Plan guidelines, working with a consultant. We have a Design Commission and a Cultural Heritage Commission that reviews any alterations to buildings over 50 years old. The Design Commission, appointed by the Board of Directors, reviews the design of buildings over a certain size, and in defined areas of the City.

Some of the projects they’ve been involved in include the Plaza Las Fuentes (the new Maguire Thomas project near City Hall), the Ahmanson project on Colorado Boulevard, and the Police Building, a new city building that’s picked up on the design elements of the Civic Center. In Old Pasadena, there’s the One Colorado project, in which the Stitzel company will be keeping all of the old facades and building a large retail development with movie theaters. So we have everything—the new (Plaza Las Fuentes), the old (One Colorado) and the civic (The Police Building).

What planning initiatives should we be expecting from Pasadena over the next year?

There’s the land use and circulation element, and of course growth management. The city is also very interested in directing jobs and resources to the Northwest area of Pasadena, which is the less advantaged area of the city.

We are applying for an enterprise zone from the state, and we have a Northwest task force looking at the area. We’re also looking at implementing our housing element. It was revised last year, and now we’re looking at things like revising our zoning code for granny flats, creating a well-defined piece of the zoning code for mixed-use development, and creating a zone in the code for single-room-occupancy housing.

What would you identify as the mast important long-range planning issues facing Pasadena?

It all gets entwined with growth management. People in Pasadena are very proud of the quality of their community. They like the historic character, they like the trees, they like the feel of the residential neighborhoods, and they even like the feel of the commercial areas. The biggest challenge is maintaining the quality feel that makes people love the city while still allowing some measure of development.

That is reflected in many things we have going. The growth management initiative is one example, but so is our recent City of Gardens ordinance. It requires multiple-family developments to have a garden that is visible from the street in order to maintain the Pasadena tradition of bungalow courts. Even if you’re building a development that’s only two units, you have to comply with the City of Gardens ordinance.

We will also be going through a major revision of the land use plan and the circulation element for the city, both of which will be heavily influenced by the citizens’ need to maintain that quality development, that feeling of community that defines Pasadena.

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