August 1, 2012 - From the August, 2012 issue

Councilman Steve Madison Opines on Pasadena’s General Plan Update

City Councilmember Steve Madison is one of the lawmakers responsible for shaping the general plan of Pasadena. In an interview with TPR, Madison details his plans to make public education a pillar of the City’s revised general plan as well as his support for projects aimed at improving the City of Pasadena, which range from determining the best use of Measure R funds to shaping the latest developments on the former Ambassador College’s campus.

Steve Madison

“My mandate is to make Pasadena a place that has the highest quality of life imaginable..., and my view is we cannot talk about that without talking about public education.” -Steve Madison

Steve, as you well know, the City of Pasadena is preparing a general plan update. Could you comment both on the City’s process and on your efforts to include public education as a guiding principle of the plan?

Steve Madison: The general plan is a mandate from state law, and there are a number of different elements including land use, open space, transportation, and so on. It’s a bit of a prosaic exercise, involving lots of long meetings into the evening, lots of community outreach, lots of, frankly, very arcane and complex urban planning principles, and a fair amount of trying to predict the future. But, it’s extremely important because it’s intended to be the blueprint for what the city will look like in the coming decade or more.

I’ve sat on the city council for 13 years and am in my fourth term now. I can tell you that as we make decisions about land use and development, we look to the general plan as a larger mission statement of what kind of city we want to be. In Pasadena we’ve been operating on a general plan where most of the work was done in 1994. Of course we’ve had many changes since then.   

I believe, as do a number of other people, that public education deserves a seat at that table. We have a major challenge in Pasadena with the public school district. It’s under funded and serves an at-risk, poor population of kids, most who go to school miles from where they live. I think many of us believe that to be a successful City we need to have a vibrant public education system. So I have been championing the idea of having a general plan guiding principle dedicated to the support of public education.

Let’s drill down on your efforts to include education as a guiding planning principle in Pasadena’s General Plan update, especially since the city of Los Angeles does not. How do you explain the absence in city general plans of public education planning?

It stems in part from Civics 101, that the school district, as is the case in LA and Pasadena, is separate from the City. The administration, curriculum, and funding of the school district is run by the school board under separate legal and policy governance, whereas the City is overseen by the City Council. I think all of us city council members—probably in all cities—have a speech where we talk about the public education system. When I ran for reelection and I walked the precincts, people asked time and time again, “What are you doing to make our schools better?” I’m not sure that the community sees it as separate and apart, and I’m not sure it should be separate and apart. My mandate is to make Pasadena a place that has the highest quality of life imaginable for its businesses and residents, and my view is we cannot talk about that without talking about public education.

Please elaborate on how you have advanced your agenda.

I was the first member of the City Council to speak out in favor of a guiding principle on education, and in the beginning there were actually a couple of Councilmembers that were vigorously opposed to it and a couple of others that were agnostic towards it. Now, I think if we took a vote it would be unanimous, with our eight-member Council supporting it. This is not due to my eloquence or persistence as it is to community support. I’m optimistic that it will be adopted. Then the question would become, how does the guiding principle translate into tangible support for the school district.  We have joint use of facilities; we provide assistance to the entire school district; but I do think we’ll try to do more. Once the economy and our budget recover we should do more.

You have many others responsibilities as a member of the Pasadena City Council; one is the Bob Hope Airport and its regional transportation center project, which broke ground this month. How well is Bob Hope Airport serving the region’s needs, and how significant is Pasadena’s influence on how that service is being provided?

I am one of three appointees that Pasadena has to the airport authority, and as you know it’s the Burbank, Pasadena, Glendale airport authority that operates the Bob Hope Airport in Burbank. For Pasadena there’s significant benefit with very little burden. We’re not affected by airport noise and traffic so much, but the airport remains a great amenity for people in Pasadena. I fly in and out of Burbank every chance I get.    

It’s been a challenge because of the economy and the number of passengers. Airlines are running fewer flights. They’re not as full as they should be, and that affects revenues. In fact, American Airlines recently lost Burbank, which was a huge blow. This RITSY—the regional intermodal transportation project that we’re working on—is really exciting because it will feature a new rental car facility plus public transportation, including, ultimately, light rail, bus service, and the metro rail. It will make the airport much easier to get in and out of, and much more convenient and effective for travelers.    

Comparing us to LAX, LAX is a huge airport with something like 60 million passengers a year. We’re more like 5-6 million in a good year. The whole experience for a traveler at Burbank is much more user friendly, and this will be even more true when the project is completed.    

Our next project is a brand new terminal. The existing terminal is really not state of the art—it’s too close to the runway. You could never build a terminal that close under current regulation, and so we have a big plot of land northeast of the current terminal where we’d like to build a brand new terminal. We’re not talking about additional gates and additional traffic. We’re talking about a modern terminal that would make the experience more user friendly and efficient. And we’d generate quite a bit of revenue for the city of Burbank through increased sales taxes and parking taxes. That will be the next hurdle, and I’m really enjoying that experience. I’ve been on this commission for two years now, and it’s an exciting challenge to be involved in.

Continuing with transportation, Los Angeles County’s Measure R monies, as you know, are not limited to transit projects and thus may be channeled to freeway construction, including an expansion of the 710 Freeway. Candidly, this newsletter has done numerous interviews on plans for the 710 Freeway over the last 25 years. Please bring our readers up to date on the 710 Freeway plans?

It’s an amazing public policy case study. Over 60 years ago the 710 was proposed to be completed, but it’s remained static ever since. I represent the district of Pasadena where what we call the “freeway stump” exists, and I’m personally opposed to the freeway completion.  LA Metro has taken over, and using Measure R funds, there are now exploratory studies for different routes and different forms of public transportation that would be able to serve that gap.    

The thing with Measure R is we don’t think we’ve received our fair share in the San Gabriel Valley.  LA Metro tends to dominate that agenda, and most of those dollars go to projects in the urban center of Los Angeles. That’s great for those folks, but we’re constantly fighting to get what we think is our fair share of Measure R money. As you know, we’re extending the Gold Line out to the Inland Empire, and we think that it is very important for the entire region.

Are you not sympathetic to the challenge Metro Board members face in gaining countywide consensus on how best to build out a multimodal transit system to serve 10 million people living within a County of 4000 square mile, where each believes they are not receiving their fair share of resources?

I didn’t say I wasn’t sympathetic. I’m absolutely sympathetic, but my job is to fight for my city and the region here. I’d love to see the Gold Line extend to the west and connect with Burbank and the Bob Hope Airport. I think that would be a tremendous project that we’re actually looking at now at the airport. But it would require a lot of dollars, and, as you say, it’s a very competitive process. Mayor Villaraigosa has done a fabulous job with the 30/10 Initiative, and he’s really carved out a place for himself in the transportation history of LA. So I tip my hat to him, in that sense. We’d just like to see a few more dollars come our way.

You also have, as an elected member of the City Council, a responsibility for watershed master planning. In July the public had the opportunity to comment on the Hahamongna Watershed Master Plan draft EIR for 300-acres of open space extending from Devil’s Gate Dam into the Arroyo Seco Canyon. Can you comment on the value of that planning process and it’s impact on Pasadena residents?


There are a couple of really interesting issues going on there. We’ve had a debate in Pasadena about parts of Hahamongna because several years ago we actually reached a compromise with open space advocates and recreation advocates, and we agreed to build six new soccer fields down in Hahamongna. Now we’ve actually relocated several of those, and we’re not going to build a couple more. Believe it or not, we’re down to building just one new soccer field. But what happens in politics sometimes is the compromises just become a new floor or ceiling, as the case may be.  Sure enough, now we’re bracing for another big debate over whether we should build that one soccer field or not. Obviously, I’m going to listen to the discussion, but it will be hard to persuade me that we shouldn’t keep our promise to the kids of Pasadena and provide that additional field.    

We’re also working on a big sediment removal project with the County. With the storms and fires that we’ve had in recent years, a lot of sediment jeopardizes the Devil’s Peak Dam’s ability to prevent floods. That whole system is part of a flood control channel, and the County has been great about moving forward on the environmental impact report and figuring out the best and lowest impact-way to remove a lot of that sediment and make sure that it’s safe.

Regarding planning, the City of Pasadena has expressed interest in rehabilitating the former YWCA building originally designed by architect Julia Morgan. What future do you see for this civic center building, and how does reinvestment in it reflect on the City’s planning priorities?

I’m really proud of that project because we used a tool that we don’t often use: eminent domain. We exercised our powers of eminent domain to compel the acquisition of that property. A family that just didn’t have any plans for the property held it for years, and it was basically lying fallow. Now we’ve acquired it, and of all the different options, the one that makes the most sense is to make that property part of an expanded civic center for municipal office space and community services. If you go back 100 years or so, in Pasadena you have something called the Bennett Plan, which is this sort of Roman or Greek concept of a civic center with a large open space and important public institution structures. We’ve committed hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade and renovate our magnificent City Hall, the Civic Auditorium and Convention Center, and the Central Library, and now we can include the YWCA building. We’re really excited about it, and it obviously has to be preserved historically with its original Julia Morgan design. It’s a good thing to celebrate, especially in times where cities are going bankrupt.

Could you likewise bring our TPR readers up to date on the Ambassador College Campus? TPR last interviewed you about a decade ago on their plans. How’s that developed?

That one has had a happy ending. Nine or ten years ago we were looking at a massive housing proposal, something like 2000 units. Today we’ve managed to preserve the Ambassador auditorium, which is a real treasure, and we’ve preserved most of the campus of the old Ambassador College.  There’s a very low impact neighbor for the community, a high school. We have renovated a number of the historic homes, and on the West Campus you’re looking at a couple hundred new housing units. So it’s been a tremendous victory for the neighborhood.    

On the east side there are about 12 acres where we’ve got one massive rental project and a couple of others that are still in the queue. Those I’m not as crazy about, but I think it represented a compromise with my colleagues on the council. It became kind of a joke among us that we’ll let Steve do what he wants on the west campus, but we’re going to take the east campus and allow some development to happen there. That’s part of the Old Pasadena area, and it’s helping to create the sense of an urban village where residents can walk to have dinner or shop in Old Pasadena.

Changing subjects, this Planning Report interview will be featured alongside our interview of California League of Cities director Chris McKenzie, which focuses on the rash of  bankruptcy filings by California Cities. Could you comment on Pasadena’s fiscal challenges?

It’s dominating our agenda, just as it is every city, I think. The case of Mammoth Lakes, I think, is sort of an aberration. Stockton and San Bernardino: it’s just so obvious what happened to them. In Pasadena we get most of our revenue through three sources: property taxes, sales taxes, and a utility users tax.    

In Pasadena, all three of those have struggled for different reasons. The property tax struggles because property values have held steady or dropped; sales tax because the economy and retail are down; and then, sort of ironically, the utility users tax has been flat or down because we’ve been trying to promote conservation. It’s the right thing to do, but when you’re also in the business of selling water and power and you promote conservation, you make less.    

We’re way better off than a lot of communities where property taxes have really dropped and the sales tax is really low. In terms of the pension issue, I encounter people every day who complain about public pensions, and there are two things that I would like to point out. One is we all pretty much have public pensions because most of us have social security, and in California the vast majority of municipal employees legally cannot have social security—they cannot participate in that public pension as all the rest of us do. Sure, most pension plans that municipal employees have are more generous than social security, but it’s still an important point to remember.

And the second point, I honestly don’t think that in a time when we’re all living longer, healthier, and have a longer period of active retirement, that’s going to require greater resources to maintain the quality of life we all want. The question is not really why do public employees have pensions? Rather, it’s why don’t the rest of us have them? Isn’t that really the problem? And many of the people that I talk to, when you cut right through it all, they’re not angry that municipal employees bargained as part of their compensation to have money put away for their retirement. They’re angry that they themselves haven’t been able, for whatever economic reasons, to achieve the same goal. They’re scared and worried about the future, and they should be.

That’s what we should start talking about as a society—figuring out how we can all have plans for retirement. We all have to contribute to the solution, and in Pasadena our bargaining groups have been tremendous across the board in giving up compensation thereafter and shouldering more of the burden for their pensions themselves. In Pasadena the employees have been terrific in trying to help create a solution.

Let’s close with you commenting, as a ten-year veteran of the City Council, on a rumor that you might in the future wish to succeed Bill Bogaard as Mayor of Pasadena.

I’m honored and flattered that people think that, and I’ve told people that when Bill steps down I’d be very interested in considering a run for Mayor. Bill is tremendous; he and I came in together in 1999. We live in the same district and lived in the same neighborhood for many years. I joke that if things are going well, I love to hear from our neighbors, but if they have a complaint they should go right to the top and call the Mayor.

I will also tell you that Bill has set a pretty high standard because like most small cities, our charter is small town, volunteer governance. I’ve got kids; I’ve got a busy job in a law firm. Again, that’s what our charter calls for, but Bill is retired and spends about 60-70 hours a week being the Mayor of Pasadena. So all these years people have gotten used to that level of service and commitment. The next Mayor is going to have to be able to provide that same level of service or the community’s expectations are going to have to be readjusted to what the City charter says for small town, citizen volunteer, part-time governance.

I don’t know if I’ll be prepared in my life to do 60 hours of volunteer work a week. It might be the case, it might not be, but I don’t ultimately know how the community will react. I’ve heard some say that they’d like to get back to more of a part-time sort of governance, but that’s probably a minority of the constituents who feel that way. We’ll see what happens—that’s still three years off. Right now I’m working to get my friend Chris Holden elected to the Assembly, and it’ll be great to have somebody from Pasadena back in Sacramento representing our district. We’ve got great representatives up there, but it’s been some time since we’ve had someone from Pasadena. So I’m looking forward to Chris getting elected and going up to Sacramento.


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