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Redemption for a Mall?

Development: Plaza Pasadena divided the city 20 years ago. But a new proposal would turn the indoor center inside-out to take advantage of vibrant street life.


For a generation, you could get Pasadena preservationists sputtering mad with two words: Plaza Pasadena.

Opposition to the shopping mall, which commands three blocks along Colorado Boulevard in the heart of downtown, helped ignite the city's modern preservation movement when it was built in the 1970s. Foes view the mall as a behemoth that stole the soul from their historic downtown. To this day, critics consider it a point of pride never to have set foot in the place.

Now a wave of proposals to renovate the surrounding neighborhood, which includes City Hall, the library and Civic Auditorium, has put the financially troubled shopping center back in the spotlight--but this time amid talk of redemption. What is being discussed is nothing short of turning the mall inside-out and plowing a hole through its center to restore a scenic thoroughfare that it has blocked.

"I've said for many years that I hoped I lived long enough to see it demolished," said Claire Bogaard, a member of the City Center Task Force who fought the mall's construction. "I think that's a possibility now."

Possible improvements to the surrounding civic center under review by the city task force include everything from fountains and plazas to museums and a public market. The civic center, sporting Mediterranean-style buildings and courtyards, encompasses three blocks next to the mall. The improvement project is still in the study phase, and many details remain to be ironed out.

What is certain is that the mall's owners--acknowledging an outdated design and vacancies estimated at up to 40%--want to revive the moribund complex with store entrances onto the sidewalk to capture the kind of pedestrian shopping that has boomed in Old Pasadena. Details of what the future mall would look like have yet to be drafted.

But perhaps more interesting to many residents and longtime critics is a plan to knock down a portion of the mall that blocks Garfield Avenue and cuts off what was once a unified civic center complex. Removing that portion, now a glass-walled archway, would create a promenade and restore a visual corridor between the library and City Hall to the north and the Civic Auditorium just south of the mall.

Advocates say that move, plus other public improvements nearby, would re-create downtown's historic feel. Some see a mall make-over as a way to right what they consider the wrongs of an era when malls proliferated as older buildings got the bulldozer treatment.

"We're never going to bring back those turn-of-the-century buildings that were leveled for the plaza," Mayor Chris Holden said. "But we can understand that it's important to reconnect these historic buildings."

The current effort is part civic beautification, part savvy business. City officials are seeking ways to breathe new life into the downtown section, an anemic stretch of closed shops and vacant lots sitting between the wildly popular Old Pasadena and the busy South Lake Avenue retail area.

Property owners along the troubled stretch who sat out while land prices sagged now talk about a renaissance sparked by shops, restaurants, offices and housing.

"Old Town has proved it can be done. I think [downtown revival will] work. It all depends on what we get in the way of a mix, and the people will come back," said Robert Sahm, senior vice president of MS Property Co., which owns vacant property across the street from the mall.

Executives at TrizecHahn, the San Diego firm that owns the mall, told the city last year that they planned to renovate the facility in the hopes of attracting more stores and customers. Some of the mall's better-known retailers--including Broadway and Kay-Bee Toys--have deserted it in recent years, and customers followed.

"It's dead--nobody comes," said Naydine Bazan, a 15-year-old from Monrovia who was strolling the mall one recent afternoon. "A lot of people our age say, 'Pasadena mall? Echh.' "

David Malmuth, senior vice president for development at TrizecHahn, calls the enclosed mall "a highly unsuccessful solution in a pretty vibrant area." In addition to reorienting the shops, the firm also is considering adding a hotel and cinema.

And through proposed public improvements the task force hopes to create a civic gathering place that some see lacking in the busier shopping areas.

"It's really kind of a search for a re-anchoring of Pasadena," said former Mayor Rick Cole, who is on the task force and the city's community development committee.

That search is mindful of the city's historic roots. In essence, today's planners want to continue design work begun in the 1920s when planner Edward H. Bennett sketched plans for the civic center. At the time, local visionaries imagined Pasadena as an "Athens of the West," and the civic center's stately Beaux-Arts design of grand buildings and broad promenades matched the lavish scale of public spaces that was popular elsewhere in the country.

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