May 2, 2011 - From the April, 2011 issue

Vince Bertoni: Pasadena's New Planning Director

Vince Bertoni was recently hired as the new director of the Pasadena Planning Department. Bertoni moves from the L.A. Department of City Planning, having previously worked as a planner in Beverly Hills, Santa Clarita, and Malibu. TPR is pleased to present the following exclusive interview with Southern California's newest planning director, in which he details his goals for the city, Pasadena's ongoing General Plan update, and some of the perspective he gained while working in L.A.


Vince Bertoni

You recently accepted the position of director of planning for the city of Pasadena. What enticed you to the city of Pasadena to accept your new responsibilities?

Pasadena is at a very unique time in its history of planning and development. This city has a long history of good urban planning and urban design and now it is trying to reestablish that tradition. Pasadena is going through a General Plan update, looking forward to how the city needs to grow and change in the future. It is interesting because ten to 15 years ago, this city was at the forefront of smart growth, planning for new development around transit stations, and ensuring that this would include housing-this is what we think about in terms of smart planning. However, as new buildings have been constructed, there has been a backlash from some of the community who think it has been too much, too fast, resulting in too much traffic. The question now is how does Pasadena, as a model of smart planning, look forward to reinterpret and reinvent smart planning for the long term?

Why was that an attractive opportunity for you?

With the General Plan update, it's an opportunity to guide a city through a process to redefine itself for the future. This only happens once every ten or 20 years. As a city planner, I'm interested in planning for the future-planning a better, more balanced community. This city is very active and passionate about good planning, historic preservation, and urban design, and it is trying to figure out how to balance all of this with economic vitality. To me that is the core of good planning.

You just left the city of L.A., where you were number two in the Planning Department led by Gail Goldberg. How do you differentiate that experience with what you have on your plate now?

L.A. recently pursued the idea of planning for the city as a whole, instead of project by project. Given these tough economic times, this idea has since taken a back seat to getting development projects through the process quickly, which is a very different way of looking at planning. L.A. has been facing very serious budget issues, and as they looked at their budget issues, they thought the best way to handle planning was to focus on the individual project. In contrast, Pasadena is less concerned about the individual development project and more about planning and the city as a whole-making sure that development fits in with the city's vision.

As you came into this position, Pasadena reorganized the department. It used to be planning and community development. Why did the city break those responsibilities into two? What was the motive for that reorganization?

Before I arrived, the city separated Planning (as well as Building and Safety, Code Enforcement, and Cultural Affairs) from Economic Development and Redevelopment, along with a couple of other programs. There was a perception in the community that the economic aspects of development were driving planning decisions and recommendations. The city wanted to be very clear that planning recommendations and decisions would be based on the policies established in the General Plan, specific plans, and good planning principles.

There is an important aspect of operating the city that needs to focus on redevelopment and economic development, but splitting the two made the responsibilities of these separate functions much more clear.

How do you collaborate with your counterpart, to match planning and development?

All of the individual development projects are still handled by the Planning Department. The difference is that the economic development part of the city advocates for business and economic development more broadly. They advocate for the city to be more business friendly, not just in the planning aspect, but in a whole variety of areas-such as how we charge fees and taxes and how we handle permits throughout the whole city, not just in planning. We still collaborate very closely. They still perform their role as the advocate for business and economic development, but we have a very clear role to stand for good planning principles that look to balance economic development and quality of life issues.

Pasadena has been doing a General Plan update for two years. What is the status of the General Plan process in Pasadena, which always has a very community-oriented tone to its efforts?

The update has a high level of community participation. We established a Community General Plan Update Advisory Committee to assist in the formulation of a public outreach strategy. We are now arriving at a very public phase of the General Plan. In June, we will ask community members, using online and mail in surveys, to give input on four scenarios for how the city should grow in the future-everything from a limited growth scenario to an economic vitality scenario, with a couple scenarios in between. We are looking at a full range of alternatives that will go to the community in June.

By the beginning of fall we will take the information from the community survey and develop a hybrid land use plan. The goal is to balance the issues we have heard from the community, which focus on neighborhood preservation, community character, and economic vitality.

How healthy are the residential and commercial markets in Pasadena? Is there pressure on the General Plan to conform to the struggles of the market? Or is Pasadena, like other cities, trying to hold the fort while the economy recovers?

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The general feeling is that the existing plan allows for a variety of development and should allow for enough development to keep the city economically healthy in the future.

We do have questions about how much growth should be residential, commercial, or office. Those are also some of the larger debates that we are having from an economic development standpoint for the General Plan Update. For example, one of the major issues for us will be how much housing we should have in our Central District, which is the area that includes Old Pasadena east to Lake Avenue. In that particular area, we are looking to see if some of the future residential growth is better served as office space. We will also do an economic analysis as part of the land use alternatives. Those are some of the issues that we will present to the public in June, moving into the fall.

In our interview with Mayor Bogaard a year ago, he said that the motives of the city originate from the community, which has a sense that there should be a separation of the planning and the economic functions of the city to avoid any inclination on the part of the development staff to press for exceptions and variances toward normal planning roles. He went on to say, "We're looking for a creative and effective planning director, who understands Pasadena but will focus specifically on the best principles of community planning that fit Pasadena without any consideration at the time of specific development projects." That doesn't sound like Los Angeles, does it?

Pasadena has a very different approach to planning than Los Angeles. Five years ago, when Gail Goldberg first came on board, L.A. was looking first to create a common vision for the various communities and then development would follow that vision. The balance that is needed for a community would occur in the community plans. Pasadena is similar to where L.A. was when Gail Goldberg arrived, wanting to ensure that development follows good planning by creating balanced, visionary plans. However, as I mentioned earlier, L.A. is in a different place today and has taken a very different approach to planning than Pasadena.

In defense of L.A., can that be explained in part by the scale issues? What are the different challenges of being in a city the size of Pasadena?

In a city the size of Pasadena, it is a lot easier to see the impacts of good planning. At a smaller scale, with a very active and engaged community, people understand the importance of planning. They understand the concepts and themes of the General Plan, as well as the details of the specific plans and how those plans shape development. These plans have brought prosperity at times and have created communities with a higher quality of life. L.A. is so large that there is a huge disconnect between many people's understanding of good planning and how it guides development and quality of life issues.

How does state legislation like SB 375 or AB 32 influence the options and vision of Pasadena's planning process?

State legislation on greenhouse gas emissions has focused on reducing single occupancy trips. Pasadena has, for some time, planned in a manner that reduces car trips. If we continue planning with the same goals that we have for the last ten years, we will comply with those laws. Pasadena has a lot more options than other cities because of the way the city was originally built and more recent smart growth policies.

The budget of localities have been challenged. We interviewed Michael Beck, the city manager of Pasadena, on how the city has grappled with fiscal challenges. How has the city's budget impacted your staff and your ability to do visioning and processes we have been discussing?

This City Council really values long range planning and has continually funded those programs. We have had to be more efficient and creative with our planning resources, but it hasn't meant that we have had to take away from any of our long range planning efforts. When we look at the other aspects of operations, we have had to be more effective in how we operate, but as we have gone through budget cuts, we haven't let those budget cuts impact the way we plan.

Going back to your responsibilities for the General Plan and the community engagement that has always been a part of the culture of Pasadena politics. How transparent is the city, and how have you worked to make it transparent?

This is a city where you interact with elected officials, appointed officials, business leaders, the average business owner, residents, and community members on a daily basis. Everything we do is open and transparent. I believe strongly that planners should be out there in the community to better understand the communities they are working with and to be accessible to them.

I have been doing a few things since coming on board as planning director to improve the transparency and help the department understand the community. One of the things I have done is invite the community to take me on a tour of their neighborhoods. Every other Friday morning, I meet with a neighborhood group and they walk me around their neighborhood. They show me the things that make their neighborhood unique, which gives me a better understanding of how to help plan and guide Pasadena. It isn't just neighborhood groups-I am doing tours with business groups and groups that advocate for citywide planning issues, such as housing and environmental advocates. I have invited my staff on the tours so they can also engage with the community along with me. I strongly believe in transparency, and that matches the culture of Pasadena.

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