March 30, 1995 - From the March, 1995 issue

Pasadena’s New Planning Director Promotes City’s Neighborhood Vision

The City of Pasadena is considered by many a forerunner of city planning in the region. In 1992, Pasadena adopted a General Plan which received praise for its comprehensive nature and successful public outreach strategies. Recently, Pasadena established a new state-of-the-art permit processing and development center as part of the City's efforts to streamline the approval process. 

The Planning Report presents an interview with the new Director of Planning and Permitting, Alvin James, regarding the policy choices before Old Pasadena, implementation of several specific plans, the Ambassador College site and challenges facing the city. Mr. James comes to Pasadena from the City of Oakland where he was Director of City Planning from 1984 to 1994.

As the new Planning Director for the City of Pasadena, share with our readers what brought you to Pasadena and what you hope to accomplish with the Planning Department.

It was a combination of Pasadena's solicitation and my own desire to look for additional opportunities after having been with the City of Oakland for 10 years. Pasadena went through a recruitment process, and wasn't satisfied with the first round. They expanded the search beyond Southern California and I was contacted. I explored the issues that Pasadena was working on including the new Permit Center. Pasadena had moved beyond the General Plan process, and was working on some interesting specific plans. In Oakland, we were in the midst of updating our General Plan so I thought it would be interesting to participate in the next phase of planning. 

Pasadena is currently drafting several specific plans - what is the status of the various plans and what is their anticipated impact? 

As of the end of January, we have taken to the City Council the East Pasadena Specific Plan which is the first of the scheduled specific plans. We are in the process of drafting the legislation and the environmental report for City Council to use in adopting the plan. 

We are about 40 percent complete with the North Lake Specific Plan. We intend to have a proposal prepared for City Council review by the end of June. The plan covers North Lake Avenue above Colorado Boulevard. Presently, we have a consultant reviewing the various options for the area with the community. We are focusing intensely on implementation options as we move along in the process. We are trying to integrate implementation options to a greater degree with North Lake than we did with the East Pasadena plan. 

We are scheduled to initiate an additional plan — the West Gateway Specific Plan — starting next month. This plan will encompass several locations including the Ambassador College property and the Norton Simon Museum. The focus of this plan will include preserving our cultural amenities and looking at development potential at several locations including the Ambassador College site. As you might know, the World Church is pulling out of the site, so there is a reuse opportunity which could be very important to the city. 

As these specific plans come before City Council for action, with what should the interested parties and the City be concerned? 

A vision. In large measure, the General Plan put together a vision for the whole City. Now each particular sub-area needs to refine that vision and the issues that define each area. 

In East Pasadena, there is approximately one million square feet of vacant industrial space. Due to structural changes in the economy, we have to pursue new opportunities. 

North Lake is largely focused on achieving an optimal balance between local serving retail and regional retail, while introducing housing which compliments existing housing; but, at the same time, we must increase densities supportive of the transit station. 

And as I mentioned, the West Gateway are a needs to address, among other things, the question of our cultural amenities. 

At a time when the value of govern­ment junctions, including planning, are being questioned, what is the appropriate justification, the value-added, for the City of Pasadena's planning efforts? 

When a city and region goes through an economic adjustment, the question as to whether one should pause and decide where you want to go surfaces. We are experiencing an adjustment; the local economy is strong, but I think we really need to examine how we want to structure our future and how we want to get there. I think planning serves that function. 

Planning brings people together, it requires people to state a collective vision, and that is not very easy. The trick is to develop a consensus and determine the milestones needed to achieve the stated vision. Planning is a function of government that probably hasn't done as well as it could; but, this process provides an opportunity to accelerate our efforts. 

The future of Old Pasadena is currently being debated. The revitalization of the area has been very successful; but the City is facing a policy decision as to whether Old Pasadena will be an entertainment center or, alternatively, retain its neighborhood character. What is the status of the public debate? 

We were originally scheduled to begin the Central District Specific Plan but with limited planning staff, we decided to focus on the West Gateway, because of the immediacy of the closing of the Ambassador auditorium and the importance of the Norton Simon as an asset to the community. The Ambassador college property is a 50-plus acre site under one ownership, which we see as an excellent opportunity. 

The West Gateway is also adjacent to Old Pasadena. If the planning is done correctly, there could perhaps be a housing amenity which will compliment Old Pasadena. The strength of Old Pasadena is its diverse, mixed-use profile, so part of our planning effort will be to nurture those strengths. With the Blue Line adjacent to Old Pasadena, there is potential for housing, retail and other activities in the area. 

We will also be complementing the work of other city departments such as the Housing Development Department which is organizing a broad-base merchants' association. They are working on near-term goals, while the planning department works on long-term goals, both of which are proceeding to the our immediate goal of preserving the diverse base of Old Pasadena. 

Is there a consensus in the City on what should be done with the Ambassador property? 

There may be a consensus but it hasn't been identified as yet. The announcement to pursue the specific plan was made only one month ago, so we are just beginning to focus on the opportunities. Part of our effort is to initiate a public discussion on the Ambassador's appropriate future. This is a unique situation because this particular resource was not established with public funding. Therefore, we haven't bad an opportunity to discuss what we are all willing to contribute to its future viability. 

What is the status of joint development opportunities in conjunction with the Pasadena Blue Line? 

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Pasadena bas already begun to move down that path in anticipation of the Blue Line extension. Holly Street Village is an example of an existing residential mixed-use project designed around the Blue Line. The North Lake Specific Plan is focused largely on the station serving that part of the City. The East Pasadena plan is also focused on an MTA site. In fact, a fundamental issue is how to accommodate development in proximity to our transit stations. 

Pasadena has a brand new, state-of-the-art permitting center. How was the effort undertaken and what advice would you give to other cities like Los Angeles grappling with development reform? 

Fust of all, I arrived in Pasadena on November 7,so there is a history to this project which precedes my arrival. However, l can say the community of Oakland, where I served previously, created a centralized permit processing center over two years ago. It's a trend I believe is moving down California and across the country. I’ve had conversations with planning professionals in Atlanta, Georgia, and they are also looking at a centralized permitting system, so I think it is something which is sweeping through major metropolitan areas. 

Pasadena is obviously farther along in the process and has made a significant commitment of resources to make it happen, which I think is something many communities don't realize. Streamlining the permitting system is an expensive process. However, once you do it, there are tremendous benefits for the development community. 

We aren't finished yet l think we have gotten our processes streamlined as far as the actual permit processing is concerned. We are currently focusing on the discretionary review component. We still need to do additional work for the permit processing function to operate at its optimal level. I think the new permit center is exciting and it's one of the principal reasons I decided to come to Pasadena. 

Shan with us your professional experiences in Oakland that you can draw on here in Pasadena.

The first is that Oakland streamlined its permitting system a couple of years ago. Thus, I was able to bring my experience and perspective to Pasadena's streamlining efforts. Also, I understand some of the mistakes that communities make early in the process. Hopefully, I can help the department steer away from those mistakes. 

I learned you need the complete system centralized in one location. In Oakland, much of the governmental functions had been displaced by the Loma Prieta earthquake, rendering the permitting system split in two different counter locations. Not only does the public have to go to two different locations but the actual adjacencies that make the system work efficiently can't occur. It only reinforces in my mind that the entire system needs to be centralized in one location. 

I've also learned that it takes a fairly high-level operations person to make all the different pieces work. All of our tasks aren't physically in the Permit Center, but we have to make sure our processing organization is seamless as far as the public is concerned. 

A fellow Oaklander, Edward Blakely, the Dean of Urban and Regional Planning at USC, observed that Los Angeles lacks vision. There is plenty going on but everyone thinks the thing they see is the vision. Any comments? 

There is a lot of vision in the basin, but a lot of it occurs in very localized, fragmented ways. 

For example, as part of our East Pasadena Specific Plan we talked about adaptive reuse opportunities for our vacant industrial space. One possibility is the work/live adaptive reuse which meets multiple objectives: returning the space to productive use, and if structured properly, contributing to a regional effort of automobile trip reduction. We began discussions on the work/live option with other jurisdictions in the area and discovered that everyone had been thinking about it, but from a different perspective. La Canada/Flintridge might be focused on the home business opportunities while Glendale is looking at telecommunications. If we have a dialogue, we can examine the joint opportunities that meet our multiple needs. 

Establishing a collective vision is what I find difficult. 

What lessons can you offer Los Angeles which is in the process of revising its General Plan Framework? 

In terms of the General Plan process, we found the public process absolutely critical in establishing a vision, but in incremental steps. The danger is to try to do the entire "visioning" process all at once. We discovered in Pasadena that the process is compartmentalized and ought to be examined over time. Not only is it too difficult to create a vision all at once, but as you get new information, the vision relines itself. 

My suggestion for Los Angeles would be to try to structure a public framework on issues of city-wide interest. Attempt to circumscribe the areas that will need more focus, but don't try to deal with all the issues at the same time. Once you get to that level of complexity, you lose the big picture. 

Structuring the implementation of strategies early in the process is another key. Without close attention to implementation, many addressable issues get lost as you work through the planning process. For instance, the City's zoning needs to be thought of within the context of the General Plan. Not so much in terms of structuring zoning but to state that a significant tool for the implementation of the General Plan will be the zoning process. Also, how will issues such as the capital improvement program, the redevelopment tool and other implementation devices be used? 

Can rational planning be done in a city like Los Angeles with 400 square miles and 3.5 million people? 

I think so. Citywide issues such as transit, congestion management and housing must be addressed. Perhaps because of the size and scope of Los Angeles, the citywide issues get more attention. 

In order to engage people in this visionary process, you have to address the issues in which they are interested.

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