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Sam Hall Kaplan

Whose Pasadena Is It, Anyway?

February 26, 1989|Sam Hall Kaplan

More than most communities awash in the vortex of Los Angeles, there is a there there in Pasadena.

Lending the city of about 125,000 an appealing identity is its neoclassically encrusted civic center, replete with a grandiose city hall, a broad, rich collection of landmark Craftsman and Spanish Colonial homes, comfortable, tree-lined neighborhoods, a main street that every New Year's Day is the focus of the nation, and in the Art Center College of Design and Caltech, world-renowned schools.

But beyond the television screen images, popular tours of historic houses and districts, and pleasant old Pasadena haunts, there also is a city scarred with a freeway system that when grossly designed decades ago, some say intentionally, cut through the less affluent, minority neighborhoods, rudely decimating and isolating them. They nevertheless endure.

Also taking a bit of the bloom off the city of roses is the relatively recent construction of over-scaled bland office buildings and apartment blocks and crass commercial strips, the increased erosion of neighborhoods, and pernicious traffic congestion and persistent air pollution. Their effect has to concern even the most hidebound Pasadena booster.

To be sure, along with the reams of official reports and resolutions, there have been some sincere efforts and a few successes by the city to better shape the growth while addressing community needs. But as a drive on Lake Avenue and other select streets reveals, the problems of overdevelopment persist, along with continuing real estate interests to put up more and not necessarily better projects.

In addition to Pasadena's physical identity, and in many ways more hopeful and heartening, is its old-fashioned community spirit, rooted in a sense of place and manifest in a wealth of civic associations and neighborhood groups involved with nearly every aspect of the city's past, present and future.

Inherent in the spirit is the belief that government should serve, not lead; that it should be an open process subject to an excess of checks, balances and debate; that the hope of a more livable city depends on an informed, concerned citizenry, and that if people care, they can by working together to make a difference. In sum, that grass-roots democracy in Pasadena is not an empty cliche as it in most other communities but a responsibility.

This spirit that marks Pasadena, I feel, is very much present in the battle between a city-sponsored slow-growth measure, Proposition 1, and a citizen-inspired slow-growth initiative, Proposition 2, that dominate the municipal elections there on March 7.

Both the measure and the initiative generally limit commercial development to a total of 250,000 square feet a year. But the city's exempts considerably more and runs just 18 months, or until another plan is enacted. The citizen initiative extends for 10 years, subject to change at any time by the voters.

To their credit, in sharply limiting the number of apartments and condominiums to 250 each year, both propositions exempt single-family homes and affordable housing. And the citizen initiative further exempts projects in the economically disadvantaged northwest community.

Upon close reading, there is little question that the citizen's initiative is more reasonable and certainly clearer, reflecting the broad community input and a year of volunteer time that went into the drafting of the document by its sponsoring organization, the aptly named Pasadena Residents in Defense of Our Environment (PRIDE). The organization is urging a "no" vote on Proposition 1 and, of couse, a "yes" vote on Proposition 2.

The city measure obviously was written in a hasty, politically motivated response to PRIDE's efforts, which I feel is really too bad. One would have hoped that the city directors might have been, if not astute, then more gracious. Also disappointing, though not surprising, was the knee-jerk opposition to both propositions by the local Chamber of Commerce.

Whatever the difference in the propositions, the fact is that the PRIDE initiative is a responsible expression of a growing frustration among citizens and community groups with the lack of responsiveness of government to adequately, honestly and openly manage growth, and in the process to involve those concerned and affected.

The Pasadena municipal elections is not simply raising the issue of growth or no growth--both the city and PRIDE generally agree that managed growth is desirable--but rather the question of whose city is it, anyway?

The question is increasingly being heard throughout the region as more and more communities grapple with issues of planning and design.

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