August 18, 2015 - From the August, 2015 issue

Pasadena General Plan Update Focuses Future Growth into Downtown & Around Mobility

Vince Bertoni, director of Pasadena’s Department of Planning & Community Development, sat down with TPR after the recent mayoral transition to consider why the city has succeeded at pursuing development and long-range planning in a complementary fashion, while other municipalities have struggled. With Pasadena’s General Plan update nearly complete, Bertoni offers examples and lessons he believes different jurisdictions can also implement.


Vince Bertoni

“Pasadena brings together—more than any place I can think of—a long-range planning vision that guides economic vitality.” —Vince Bertoni

Vince, you’ve lead the City of Pasadena’s Planning & Community Development Department for four years now. Reflecting back, how have your responsibilities evolved? 

Vince Bertoni: I’m responsible for overseeing the city’s planning, building & safety, code compliance, and cultural affairs. As I’ve grown into my role, I’ve come to understand how important it is for various departments all involved in the development-review process to work together.

There’s been a recent transition of mayoral leadership in Pasadena, ending Mayor Bogaard’s long tenure. How has a change of political leadership affected city planning and your role?

Mayor Bogaard served for 16 years, and now we have Mayor Terry Tornek. They care about many of the same issues. They both have a very strong sense of doing good planning, and how good planning and long-range economic development work together.

The difference in leadership will likely be more nuanced, in terms of style and emphasis. Mayor Tornek is spending time on insuring that there is a strong sense of responsibility on behalf of the city for the actions that it takes. He’s focusing on measuring how we’re doing as a municipal organization and then reporting back to the community.

Pasadena is nearing the end of its years-long General Plan update process. Can you describe the central principles driving the plan, now that it’s almost complete?

It’s an evolution of the plan we did 20 years ago, which aimed to create a balance between protecting residential neighborhoods and focusing growth into the core of the city—our downtown area. This new General Plan takes it to the next evolution: not just focusing growth into our central downtown area, but also focusing it around mobility. We have updated our Land Use and Mobility Elements together, because we feel that there is a strong connection between the two. We are looking at not only our six train stations along the Gold Line, but also at other opportunities, including better utilizing bus services, walking, and biking.

Vince, you came to Pasadena from the City of Los Angeles. You’ve also planned for Beverly Hills, Santa Clarita, Malibu, and other municipalities. What, given your experience, is truly unique about the Pasadena planning and engagement process?

Of all the places I’ve been, Pasadena has one of the greatest balances between those who strongly believe in neighborhood protection, and along with that very specialized planning and zoning, and those with a strong sense of a robust economy who would like to see more growth. Pasadena brings together—more than any place I can think of—a long-range planning vision that guides economic vitality.

Most of TPR’s interviews suggest that what is absent in the City of LA is any planning vision. To better understand Pasadena’s process, how, in Pasadena, does long-range planning affect new development projects that come through the Planning & Community Development Department for approval?

I think it creates expectations. We have a General Plan, then multiple Specific Plans that give very clear expectations of building heights and uses while still allowing for growth. When we developed these plans, there was a lot of debate, discussion, and community input. We had to reach common ground. When it comes to development, if you have that strong vision and yet you still allow for more growth, projects can get approved and built without getting stuck in years of litigation. 

Parsons SiteA good example is the Parson’s campus in Old Pasadena that was purchased by Lincoln Property Company. That site is in one of the most treasured parts of Pasadena—a national historic landmark district. A developer wanted to maintain the existing buildings and add a million square feet of additional development, including office, residential, and some retail and restaurants. That’s a lot of development, especially in Old Pasadena, and you’d think that we would have had a tremendous amount of opposition. At the end of the day, it had unanimous approval from City Council and the Planning Commission, and almost all of the comments at the hearings were in support. The reason for this outcome is that we had set out the vision of the General Plan and the Specific Plan, and we kept reminding people of the key points of the vision as we went through the development review process:

The Parsons campus was going to provide possibly our last good opportunity for new high-end office space—maybe creative office space—in Old Pasadena, which is very important. We were going to bring in new residents to this area, and different housing types that would help continue the revitalization of Old Pasadena. The area used to have wonderful old buildings that were torn down for parking lots, but we could re-knit it back into the fabric of Old Pasadena while at the same time reconnecting to northwest Pasadena, a very historically rich area that’s had some economic challenges. We could also use it to help re-envision our Civic Center Plan, originally done in the 1920s by Bennett, who was partners with Daniel Burnham. 

The project had a lot of benefit to so many aspects of our community. Everyone’s excited about it.

TPR recently interviewed Ray Chan, general manager of the LA City Department of Building & Safety, about his departmental efforts to streamline development in the City of LA through a parallel development process. What can you share regarding how a city can best streamline the entitlement process and also gain community consensus around development?

First, I think Ray Chan has done some great work in terms of streamlining the processes in LA and I have a lot of respect for what he has done. 

What I’ve found in Pasadena and other places is that there are very few people—developers or community members—that want more bureaucracy or red tape. Both developers and the community have an interest in things being more streamlined. If you’re a community member, you’re a volunteer. Do you want to spend six months dealing with a project that you may have concerns with, or 10 years? Most people would say, “I’d rather have this done in a more timely manner so I don’t have to spend that much time following it.” The community has an interest in getting a certain result, not in the process moving slowly.

If you can streamline, you can have a more productive process and focus more attention on the end result. We’ve done a lot of streamlining on our end here in Pasadena, around both planning entitlements and Building & Safety. 

Is the success you’ve been describing—of meshing the interests of those who worry about too much development with those who want quality, dense development—a function of the size of Pasadena? Does it come from the reverence for planning there? How would you describe the ingredients that make these outcomes possible?

You could have Pasadena’s success anywhere! If you have spent time trying to resolve the issues that arise between the development community and the residents, you realize that the fundamental issues are the same everywhere. What someone cares about in Pasadena is no different than what someone cares about in Westwood, Boyle Heights, or Hollywood. 

Community members are looking for certain things from their neighborhood, and they want a certain amount of involvement and balance. A lot of people realize that there will be new growth and development, but they’re looking for a way to shape what that looks like. They want to be heard and listened to. 

If you look at the developers’ side, they want to have clear rules and guidelines. They want to get a sense of whether, if they start down a path, they’ll be able to get a project approved. 

The long-range vision requires coming together: bringing developers and community members to the table, as well as the businesses and everyone else involved, to talk. Frankly, that’s what we’ve done in Pasadena. We’ve been clear and consistent about it.

Let’s turn to Pasadena’s recent adoption of transportation performance measures, including the Vehicle Miles Traveled metric in place of Level of Service. Could you elaborate on that work?

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That was headed up by our Department of Transportation—Fred Dock, the director, is visionary. We worked collaboratively in a partnership, but they were the lead. 

We’re one of the first cities in California, if not the first, to completely move from measuring traffic based upon how long a person sits in their car to get through an intersection, to how long it takes to get from one place to another and how many times we have to take a trip. We moved away from Level of Service, which is all about 1950s-style automobile travel. Now we look at different methods, including vehicle miles traveled (how far you go); vehicle trips (how often you go); and how close a project is to non-car options like buses or trains that help pedestrian and bicycle connections. We do all our traffic analysis for the California Environmental Quality Act using those measures. 

We found that the old system created new ways for more cars to get around the city more quickly, and there were few options to require developers to create more meaningful improvements focused on other transportation methods. 

We’re trying get away from that so that our improvements can focus less on the car and more on trains, buses, pedestrians, and bicycles. Traffic analysis no longer just helps us understand if a project is good from the standpoint of an automobile.

Neighborhoods are going to start to see improvements on the ground beyond things that facilitate just more cars:  They are going to see better bikeways, pedestrian improvements, and better bus service as part of this.

Why is Pasadena one of the few cities doing this? Why aren’t there 100?

In Pasadena, you can see the future—because you can see train stations as well as bicycle and pedestrian improvements. It’s evident here that such changes are realistic and that if we do measure traffic impacts differently, we are going to get better outcomes.  There’s also very strong leadership in this community on transportation and mobility issues. This is a city that has cared about planning for over 100 years, and has been on the leading edge for many of those hundred years.

Let’s delve into discussion of Metro’s Gold Line Foothill Extension to Azusa, expected to be operational in Spring 2016. What will its impact likely be on Pasadena’s “place” in the region? 

Since the beginning of the Gold Line, Pasadena has always been its terminus—we were the destination. For the first time, that won’t be true for everyone. 

But the Gold Line Extension is going to bring in new vitality, bringing ridership from the east. Pasadena will become more of a central hub and it’s our responsibility to think about this new role. 

For me it’s not just the expansion of the Gold Line eastward that’s going to change the context—it’s also the Regional Connector, which is going to be a game-changer for the entire system, especially for the Gold, Blue, and Expo lines. The train line that goes through Pasadena will have so much greater access than it has in the past, if you look at the east line extension plus the Regional Connector. 

We’re going to see Pasadena become a community that’s much more varied in its new role as a hub. This is going to become a much more desirable place for a variety of people to be, and it’s going to create a certain amount of vitality. That means that if we’re looking at a new General Plan, it should incorporate mixed-use development. We’ll see greater demand for residential uses in areas around Gold Line stations, as well.

Vince, share with our readers the return on investment of time and imagination in planning the existing six Gold Line stations within Pasadena.

For many years, we have had a very specific standard for transit-oriented development within a half-mile of train stations. We not only allow voluntary reductions in how much parking must be provided (a reduction in our mandatory parking), but we also put in parking maximums that limit the amount of parking built. This encourages use of the train. 

Within those areas, we have also looked at a variety of mixed uses. All uses—whether commercial, residential, or office—become pedestrian-focused. 

In the future, we’ll be refining that. We need to be very clear that what we do around our train stations is pedestrian-oriented not just in terms of uses, but also in terms of design.

We’re looking at the train stations not only for jobs, but also for housing.  Around some of our train stations, you’re going to see tremendous change, especially with our new General Plan re-envisioning those areas.

In a four-year-old TPR interview, you assessed Pasadena City Planning  politics as follows: “Ten to 15 years ago, this city was the forefront of smart growth, planning for new development around transit stations, and ensuring that this would include housing. However, as new buildings have been constructed, there has been a backlash from some of the community, who think it is too much too fast, resulting in too much traffic.” With that as context, what do voters now wish for from the city regarding a balance of development, investment, and smart growth?

Over the past several years, we’ve seen more consensus on development and we have had fewer battles over it. 

We’ve been able to take a look at development through the lens of good long-range planning. We’ve spent our time talking about how the long-range vision has good economic vitality in it, which is good for long-term business. 

We’ve spent a lot of time getting out into the community, listening, and trying to get to their issues. We’ve also developed a constituency in our central core of residents who moved here because of the new development. They like it! A lot of residents have realized that if more people come in to live here, the neighborhood is more likely to get the restaurant, coffee shop, or retail spot that the original residents want nearby. Because over a period of time we’ve been able to do good infill development in Pasadena, it has created a real desire for more of that.

Rendering: 100 West Walnut, a mixed-use project at Pasadena’s Parson site (100westwalnut.com)

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.