September 30, 1992 - From the September, 1992 issue

Mayor Cole: Pasadena Offers Region a Model General Plan

By Mayor Rick Cole, Pasadena. He is currently the Mayor of Pasadena since May 1992, has been a Pasadena City Council Member since 1983. He was previously a senior deputy to L.A. Councilmember Richard Alatorre and the first Executive Director of the West Hollywood Marketing Corporation.

A dozen years of battling didn’t lead to agreement. Even a real estate depression didn’t lead to a truce. But collaboration on a new General Plan is finally establishing a community consensus in Pasadena about the volatile issue of growth.


Rick Cole

Pasadenans share a common approach to the kind of growth they would like to see and where they would like to see it. Across virtually the entire city, consensus emerged for “targeted growth.”

When Pasadena went to work last fall to rewrite its obsolete General Plan, few believed that more than twelve years of conflict could be bridged in less than twelve months. But against all odds, a new Draft General Plan comes to the City Council this month with widespread community support. No one says the plan is perfect, but it’s won unanimous support from both the Planning Commission and the General Plan Coordinating Committee (the diverse group that guided outreach in the community).

Our remarkable accomplishment provides a model for confronting the unresolved challenge of growth still facing Southern California. While every community is shaped by local politics and parochial concerns, Pasadena is in many ways a microcosm of the diversity of our region.

Three ingredients were decisive to our success: the extraordinary scope of public participation; a strategy of targeting growth; and the fundamental shift away from designing cities around automobiles. Each of these approaches offer significant lessons for Southern California communities.

Public Participation

An unprecedented level of public education and participation was the foundation of our entire endeavor. Reaching out to broad segments of the community was vital to overcome ingrained mistrust. Many citizens were convinced that planners and politicians had already drafted a plan and would conspire to foist it on the community through sham hearings.

We also needed to attract more than the “usual suspects” that come to public hearings with their own axes to grind. To overcome the ancient feuds between entrenched camps, we reached out to involve open-minded residents and business people.

The results were extraordinary. More than 2500 citizens personally participated in at least one of the General Plan community meetings and workshops. Mailers and cable programming reached tens of thousands more.

It has been virtually impossible to live in Pasadena during the last twelve months and not be exposed to the discussion on the new General Plan. In the sweltering month of August alone, more than 700 citizens attended community workshops. Hundreds more wrote letters or signed petitions expressing their viewpoints on the final draft.

In all of these efforts, the emphasis was on involving a diverse cross-section of the community. Community organizations were given direct funding to hold their own workshops as well as to spread the word to their constituencies. Materials were also offered in Spanish and Armenian.

We went beyond just broadening the scope of public participation. We also actively sought to raise the level of discussion through a series of community speakers and conferences on issues ranging from transportation to economic development.

The intense emphasis on outreach and education not only fostered a climate of involvement and support for the planning process, it also created a large new permanent “lobby” for good planning. Hundreds of advocates from across ethnic, class and geographic lines now share a common vocabulary and a consensus vision for the community. This broad-based new constituency is as important an achievement as the plan itself. These advocates will ensure that the plan is implemented instead of sitting on a shelf like so many government documents.

Targeted Growth

The growth controversy in Pasadena has obsessively focused on “how much” growth should be allowed. Advocates for “no-growth,” “slow growth,” “pro-growth,” and “managed growth” battled lo a bitter stalemate.

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In 1989, voters approved a citizen sponsored “Growth Management Initiative” imposing citywide limits on both residential and commercial development. (Except for specific exemptions, no more than 250 housing units and 250,000 square feet of commercial development can be approved each year.) But these citywide “caps” were challenged in court by a coalition of business and minority group advocates. After spending more than $200,000 in attorney’s fees, the city settled by agreeing to update the General Plan adopted in 1976 and schedule an election to repeal the citizen initiative.

Pasadenans remain deeply divided about “how much” growth they want to allow in their city. But if different questions are asked, an underlying commonality is revealed. Pasadenans share a common approach to the kind of growth they would like to see and where they would like to see it.

There is strong support for quality development that fits in with the city’s historic fabric. There is across-the­board support for revitalizing the business area in the city’s impoverished Northwest. There is support for a vital, dynamic downtown urban core — especially for building around the Blue Line light rail stations, scheduled to open in five years. There is also support for much more housing downtown — while protecting low-density residential districts from traffic and the intrusion of commercial and high-density housing. Across virtually the entire city, consensus emerged for “targeted growth.”

The targeted growth approach has application throughout the Los Angeles region. Compact and balanced growth offers the best answer to accommodate population pressure and economic development without pitting developers, the poor, and middle-class homeowners against each other. It can be more environmentally sustainable than urban sprawl while still providing room for growth in areas that can be strengthened by new development and revitalization.

Designing Cities for People

For sixty years, Southern California cities have led the nation in designing an urban landscape based on the car. Pasadena’s new General Plan is a revolutionary shift in emphasis. Embracing “neo-traditional” planning approaches, the plan sets the goal that “Pasadena will be a city where people can circulate without cars.”

To achieve that ambitious goal over the next twenty years, land use and transportation strategies have to mesh. Neighborhoods have to be designed to allow residents to walk to basic services. Development must be concentrated along transit corridors. Mixed use has to be promoted against segregated zoning. Buildings have to be oriented toward pedestrians instead of parking lots.

Parking deserves more attention as a problem rather than a solution. A vast amount of land and investment is lavished on single-use, surface parking. By reversing the promotion and subsidy of this parking pattern, we can improve not only the environment, but the economy and quality of life as well. In Old Pasadena, we have already demonstrated that cars can be subordinated to a walking environment using shared parking structures.

Each of these three major principles of Pasadena’s Draft General Plan complements the others. The rekindling of old-fashioned participation is crucial to restoring trust in government and planning for common good instead of private or parochial interest. Targeting growth is fundamental to ending costly trench warfare over growth. And re-establishing the primacy of people over cars is vital to rebuilding livable cities.

Beyond Political Gridlock

Pasadena has not solved all the dilemmas facing our region. But we’ve demonstrated that political gridlock can be overcome. We’ve explored new ideas and drawn on lessons from other communities as we sought to “Imagine a Greater City.” Perhaps we can serve as an inspiration to others as we all try to restore the lustre and livability of the region we share.

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© 2022 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.