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Self-Taught Manager Brings Smart-Growth Advocacy to Ventura

Rick Cole, who helped revitalize Old Town in Pasadena, has little administrative training.

March 21, 2004|Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writer

In 20 years as a self-taught expert on urban redevelopment, Rick Cole has touted ideas once dismissed as radical but that are increasingly embraced by the mainstream in local government.

Cole, named last month as Ventura's new city manager, has become one of the nation's best-known advocates of so-called smart growth -- the clustering of homes, stores and offices in pedestrian-oriented communities -- and new urbanism, which promotes denser housing in cities as an alternative to suburban sprawl.

As mayor and city councilman in Pasadena during the heart of its economic revival in the 1980s and '90s, Cole is credited with helping to save the historic Old Town business district and pulling together divergent groups to plot a long-term strategy for future growth.

"He personally changed the agenda in Pasadena," said Don McIntyre, who was city manager in Pasadena for nearly two decades.

Then, as city manager in Azusa since 1998, Cole gained attention for breathing life into a tired blue-collar San Gabriel Valley community by convincing developers to build the city's first new stores, houses and industrial parks in decades -- and for including hundreds of average residents in the planning process.

Not everyone was happy. Cole helped revive a huge housing project in Azusa that voters had previously rejected, pushing a scaled-down version that reflected new urbanist concepts by creating more open space and placing 1,250 condos and houses on smaller lots.

Cole said the city was reinventing itself. "We're not going to be considered the armpit anymore," he said.

But critics said they wanted no part of his higher-density concepts, preferring fewer, more expensive houses on larger lots -- the suburban pattern since World War II.

Azusa already has its share of affordable housing, say critics of Cole's idea.

"He's into this new urbanism," said Lana Grizzell, a real estate broker and spokeswoman for Azusans for Responsible Growth, which opposes the project. "He tried to morph us into Pasadena east."

Over the last two decades, Cole, 50, has impressed admirers as a visionary whose passion for urban reform has persuaded even rivals that change was necessary. "He's not a politician; he's a community activist," said Ventura Mayor Brian Brennan. "So we're comrades in arms."

But to others, he represents more idea than follow-through. "I think he has very good ideas, but there were people in Azusa who said he likes to start things, but he's very poor about finishing them," said Ventura City Councilman Jim Monahan, who opposed hiring Cole.

But Cole said the decision by Ventura's council to hire him demonstrated how well his background checked out and whether he was suited for the job.

"I feel like a kid in a candy store," he said. "A city manager has an unparalleled opportunity to make good things happen."

Within the world of city planners and urban experts, Cole's work has drawn attention. He has spoken at more than 400 professional forums and conferences on the future of American cities.

At a forum last summer, former Ventura Mayor Ray DiGuilio pulled Cole aside for an hourlong chat about how he might fit as the architect of Ventura's future.

"He has a bit of the 'wow!' factor," DiGuilio said of Cole, who starts work in Ventura on April 26. "He's a lot of people's go-to guy when it comes to smart growth. He's a dynamic speaker. He's innovative. And he's not afraid to push the envelope out there a ways."

Cole was educated as a journalist, but never really worked as one. He is considered an urban planning expert, but is not trained in that specialty. He is a smart, sharp-tongued fellow who follows his own instincts to such a degree that he didn't hold a permanent, full-time job until he was 30 years old and running for City Council in Pasadena, his hometown.

He preferred to write as a freelancer, volunteer for political causes and campaigns, and for three months head then-Cleveland Mayor Dennis Kucinich's housing rehabilitation office.

A lifelong activist who thumbed his nose at the status quo even as a precocious kid, Cole took on the Pasadena establishment.

He backed changes in City Council elections that gave racial minorities more political power. He criticized the Tournament of Roses, saying it was "totally controlled by aging white men." He helped stop developers who wanted to tear down historic buildings. He flew with Pasadena police to intercept state helicopters spraying malathion.

In the end, he parlayed 12 years of leadership on the council and three as regional director of an urban policy research group, into a city manager's job in Azusa without a day's experience as a professional city administrator.

"He turned out to be a fabulous leader; he delivered," said Azusa Mayor Cristina Madrid. "He created a vision for this city. He engaged the citizens and the business community. He gave people here a feeling of self-esteem. He brought in a caliber of people we normally would not see because of his cutting-edge personality."

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