Editorial: Experiencing the New Old Pasadena

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday October 09, 2007

At a concert on Sunday night we encountered a friend in the seat behind us who has been active on multiple city commissions for many years. I asked him if I’d missed anything, since I’d been in Pasadena over the weekend. He said he didn’t know, because he’d been out of town too. I asked if it was a vacation. “It was outside of Berkeley,” he said. “That’s all it takes to make it a vacation.” But at intermission time I spotted him chatting with another commissioner, and threatened jokingly to bust them for a violation of the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law.  

It’s not illegal for two commissioners to chat about city problems at a concert, but perhaps I should be reporting them to a 12-step program for incurable optimists instead. They’re the kind of people who can’t stop hoping that hired planners and elected officials will be persuaded by reasonable arguments backed by impeccable statistics—regular Candides, in other words. They asked me if Pasadena was anything like Berkeley. 

I lived in Pasadena for my four high school years and spent summers there while I was in college, but I haven’t been back much in the intervening years. This weekend was my 50th high school reunion, but only the first one I’ve attended, so I was curious to see how Pasadena had changed since I’d been away. It gets great PR in urban conservation circles for managing to grow (now closing in on 150,000) without destroying its historic urban fabric. Well, at least for not tolerating any worse destruction than was inflicted by the Northridge earthquake or by Caltrans, which punched a freeway right through some pleasant neighborhoods I remembered from my youth. (Neighboring South Pasadena escaped a similar fate thanks to the labors of local hero attorney Antonio Rossmann, who teaches at UC Berkeley.)  

I was particularly anxious to experience the joys of “Old Pasadena,” a neighborhood which as far as I could remember didn’t exist in my high school days. Checking its obligatory web page, I found the history section , which had click-throughs to paragraphs for the decades in the late 19th century through the 1940s, and then again for the 1970s and forward, but nothing about the time my family had lived there, the late ’50s and early ’60s.  

It turns out that “Old Pasadena” is just what we used to call “downtown” when I was in high school. Its center is Colorado Street, which has historically had the same role in downtown Pasadena that Shattuck has in Berkeley—the street that Woolworth’s was on. Downtown Pasadena was threatened by redevelopment (planners’ code term for demolition of old buildings and relocation of undesirables) in 1971, but angry citizens fought back and managed to save it. 

The crowded reunion schedule left us a couple of free hours on Saturday afternoon when we were planning to walk around and take a close look at the result of their labors. This turned out to be impossible, however, since the city was completely overwhelmed by an enormous game in the nearby Rose Bowl. The participants were some combination of UCLA, USC, Stanford and Notre Dame—we could never figure out which two of the four were playing in Pasadena and which in Los Angeles—but whoever they were, their fans were numerous, noisy and driving massive SUVs. Every square inch of downtown had been consumed by their parking and their parties (it is Southern California, after all), so we finally gave up and spent the afternoon rocking on the porch of our early 20th century bed and breakfast, much pleasanter than trying to visit the stores which make up the new Old Pasadena.  

We did get a cursory look at the area at night, on our way to and from celebratory events. For Berkeleyans, the most unusual characteristic is the strong dominating presence of what some around here call “mall stores. That’s everything from Pottery Barn to Tiffany’s—many chains that I think of as “catalog stores” since I seldom go to malls. Evidently the Shop Local movement hasn’t caught on much in Pasadena. That might just be the inevitability of successful urban preservation, since you see the same national retailers in, for example, the much-praised Portland.  

Great big off-street parking garages were also evident. Shoppers don’t seem to have abandoned their cars, but at least they can get them off the streets. The garages offer 90 minutes of absolutely free parking, enough time to do a lot of shopping. On-street meters, on the other hand, charge $2 an hour, so drivers are motivated to use the garages. And if they’d like to spent more time just walking around, there’s a “Unified” valet parking service with stands all over downtown which serve all the area businesses. It lets you leave your car at one stop and pick it up hours later at another one.  

My old classmate who was with us, the one who has lived in New York City for most of her adult life, could hardly believe that one. She hadn’t rented a car, and was hoping to find a “car service” or “taxis” somewhere to get around, but those Manhattan exotica aren’t any more available in Pasadena than they are in Berkeley or El Cerrito, so she rode with us for most of the weekend. 

Yes, Virginia, we rented a car. Eager beaver Berkeley friends, transit groupies, had assured us that the LA Metro would render that unnecessary, but of course that’s still fantasyland. The Metro does whisk you from Pasadena to downtown LA if that’s where you happen to want to go, but it did nothing for my friend, who needed to get home to her sister’s house in the old bedroom suburb of Altadena from a Mexican restaurant in central Pasadena after the reunion dinner. A quick check of the online map for Pasadena Area Rapid Transit Service (ARTS) showed mostly buses running along big streets (“corridors”) in commute hours, just as AC Transit’s buses like to do. That’s cold comfort for a woman of 69 with a residential destination late at night. 

Inevitably, my thoughts turned to what I know about the progress, or lack of it, on the revisions to Berkeley’s downtown plan which have been forced on the city by the University of California’s insatiable appetite for expansion. The latest nasty rumor is that before he went to Europe the Mayor met privately with a couple of small groups of the true believers on DAPAC (Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee), notably the transit fans and the creek people. If you believe the stories, he told both sets that they wouldn’t get what they wanted, specifically Bus Rapid Transit in all its splendor and/or a water feature on Center Street, unless they agreed to allowing a forest of 16-story “point towers” to be built downtown. (And no, phallic jokes are off-limits in a serious discussion of public policy.)  

That’s the very plan which has been submitted—SURPRISE!—by the hired gun planner for DAPAC rubber-stamping this week.  

Is there any chance this group will be able to do even as well as Pasadena with the university’s heavy thumb on the scale and the electeds firmly in the pocket of the other major downtown landowners? Not very likely, particularly since the more public-spirited commissioners seem to have started bickering among themselves.  

One BRTaholic on the commission who met with the Mayor subsequently circulated an email charging Councilmember Kriss Worthington with being a tool of the dread NIMBYs just because he’s asked a few questions about possible BRT flaws. Said commissioner lives in the most barriered neighborhood in Berkeley himself, of course, but he wants more big busses for the rest of us who don’t have barriers. Even people who’d actually like to be able to take buses more often were annoyed by that one.  

Oh yes, and how was the reunion? That’s another story for another time, but let me just say here that they were all nice girls in our youth, not a mean one in the whole bunch, and they don’t seem to have changed much. It wasn’t Berkeley, that’s for sure—a real vacation, in other words.