March 14, 2024 - From the March, 2024 issue

Rick Cole on the Need for Community Empowerment

After a three-decade career in municipal management, Rick Cole is reclaiming his old seat on the Pasadena City Council, representing District 2. In the March primary, he defeated incumbent Felicia Williams by a 60% margin, the first challenger to unseat a sitting member of the Council since 1987. Decrying what he called the “complacency” of Pasadena City Hall, Cole ran on bringing a “sense of urgency” to the issues of homelessness, climate change, housing affordability, city planning, public education and a changing economy. He takes office in December and reflects here on his aspirations to “move the needle” and “make Pasadena a leader again.”

Rick Cole

“We carried a message of empowerment – that it was time for the community to work together to tackle our toughest challenges.” – Rick Cole

Planning Report: Many in our region look to Pasadena as one of the Southern California’s local government success stories – politically and financially stable while offering a full range of municipal services to residents. Yet you were critical of Pasadena’s status quo – how did the voters respond to your message?

Cole: I stressed that “to those whom much is given, much is asked” – that Pasadena used to lead on environmental, economic and social justice issues. We were a model for other communities to emulate. But as a member of the Planning Commission, I saw we were doing more reacting to developers than planning for the future. Then the staff brought us a five-year plan to address homelessness that was all about providing “socks and showers” to the unhoused – instead of housing them. I made up my mind then to challenge the smug attitudes that are ill-suited to a rapidly changing world.

Planning Report: Pasadena has actually had some success in managing homelessness – the annual count last year showed a 12% decrease in the Pasadena population since 2015, while the County number has jumped 70% over the same period.

Cole: Yet we still had over 300 people out on our streets without shelter in 46 degree weather during the night of the count in 2023. Over 85% of them had been homeless for more than a year. In a city with the public, private, non-profit and civic resources of Pasadena, there is no excuse to settle for providing socks and showers to simply mitigate misery. We need to get the right help to the right people at the right time – to get them off the streets. We need to join both the City and the County of Los Angeles in declaring a homelessness emergency – and act like it’s an emergency.

As I talked to voters, there was a strong agreement that more needed to be done – but also widespread skepticism about the empty promises of politicians. I was able to lay out a coherent framework that made sense to residents – one I will focus on as Job One on Day One.

Planning Report: You are also known as a visionary planning thinker who was ahead of your time on what has become the dominant approach to placemaking – emphasizing higher density housing around transit; people-centric instead of car-centric urban design; and reducing greenhouse gas emissions through a mix of uses and legalizing “missing middle” housing. Pasadena largely adopted that model through the General Plan you spearheaded during your term as Mayor in the early Nineties. Thousands of units of new housing have been built in and around Downtown Pasadena as a result. How is that working out?

Cole: Not as well as it should have. Without objective design standards, developers have generally opted for maxing out density at the cost of livability and compatibility. Instead of forming walkable neighborhoods, most of the new housing projects are characterless boxes that offer blank walls on the ground floor. Plus, despite Pasadena’s pioneering inclusionary housing requirements, the vast majority of the new units are priced far above what local residents and workers can afford. Moreover, the City failed to develop the parks and streetscapes needed to foster complete neighborhoods. My colleagues on the Planning Commission and I have pushed the City to develop form-based coding to ensure new high-density housing is compatible with Pasadena’s historic character – but we will be living for generations with the crud that was allowed to be constructed.

Planning Report: One prospect for better planning on the horizon is the 65 acres that Caltrans has relinquished to Pasadena, the acreage devoted to the 710 “stub” that was built for the now-abandoned freeway extension. You’ve called it a “once in a generation” opportunity to reknit the fabric of the city. What’s the status?

Cole: A planning consultant team has been assembled, but there hasn’t yet been robust public discussion of the transformation that’s needed. Caltrans and Metro have largely assumed that the corridor will continue to funnel regional commuter traffic through residential neighborhood streets. That was their strategy to bully South Pasadena to submit to the freeway extension – and it remains the default half a century later. We need to rip out all that concrete and put Pasadena back together by restoring walkable neighborhoods to accommodate housing, parks and cultural assets -- not only for current residents but for the descendants of those uprooted and the people who work in Pasadena but can’t afford to live here. 

Planning Report: Creating walkable neighborhoods is promoted as a strategy to reduce vehicle miles travelled and greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change was a major issue in your campaign. What were you advocating – and what are the prospects for Pasadena to lead on this issue?

Cole: Here again, Pasadena lacks a sense of urgency, regardless of the symbolic act by the Council last year to declare a “Climate Emergency.” Despite the good intentions, little has changed. The City’s Climate Action Plan is sadly lacking and there’s no staff structure in place to implement strategies. The central goal of the Emergency declaration was a commitment to shift to 100% carbon-free energy by 2030 for the City’s public utility. The utility has dragged its feet and before the ink was even dry, some on the Council, including the incumbent I defeated, disowned the carbon-free target as “unrealistic” and “too expensive.” It is unrealistic and too expensive to achieve the goal by conventional utility models. That’s why Pasadena 100, the group that tirelessly advocated for setting the goal, promotes distributed energy and local solar and storage policies. Like so much of Pasadena’s approach these days, there’s a resistance to breaking with old ways of doing business.

Planning Report: Four of the five incumbents running this year were re-elected. Isn’t that a mandate for continuity?

Cole: No, I think that’s more a reflection of the broken state of democracy. Look, the majority of local residents pay little attention to their City Hall – and in turn City Hall pays little attention to them. The Council ignored the housing affordability crisis affecting 60% of Pasadena’s population – the renters. As a result, rent control advocates gathered 15,000 signatures and managed to pass Measure H citywide by 54% of the vote in 2022. Only one incumbent supported Measure H – although a second supporter was elected to an open seat at the same time as Measure H passed. As in so many other places, big money has dominated local elections, cementing the status quo.

Planning Report: So how was your campaign able to offset the incumbency advantage?

Cole: We ran a positive, issues-focused, grassroots campaign. I personally talked to thousands of voters at their doors and our volunteers knocked on the doors of every registered voter not living in a security building (and even some of them). We carried a message of empowerment – that it was time for the community to work together to tackle our toughest challenges. That approach overcame what some have described as the dirtiest campaign waged in Pasadena in 30 years, fueled by special interest money and spending by independent expenditure committees.

Planning Report: Having raised expectations about change, how will you approach getting traction on those challenges?

Cole: By building on the foundation we laid during the campaign. I had the support of a diverse coalition, including Democrats, Republicans and independents, longtime as well as new residents, renters and homeowners and even some landlords. By talking about vital issues and emphasizing common sense approaches, we galvanized a mandate. I told people I didn’t have a magic wand in my pocket, but I would work with the community for the vision of “One Pasadena.” That was inspired by the late Councilmember John Kennedy who insisted that there is no progress if we leave the most vulnerable behind. There’s an extraordinary resource of thoughtful and caring people in District 2 – and throughout Pasadena. I’ll work tirelessly to mobilize them to actively participate – not just in government and planning, but in the whole range of civic and social initiatives to rekindle government by the people. I want to challenge our community in the spirit enunciated by former President Obama: “I’m asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change, but in yours.”


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.