In a City Core Craving Green Space, A Battle Between Parks and Parking

Published : Thursday, November 9, 2017 | 6:52 AM

A public meeting today will focus on potential new downtown Pasadena park sites and may add momentum to the growing movement to create public green space in the thriving Playhouse District.

The 1:30 p.m. Playhouse District Association meeting in the Ground Floor Conference Center at 790 East Colorado Boulevard comes as talks continue among city officials and staff, business and property owners and neighborhood residents aimed at adding more parks, of almost any size, while balancing the needs of the local stakeholders.

“We are committed to finding parkland especially in those areas that there are gaps,” City Councilmember Andy Wilson said Wednesday of the Council’s efforts. “We’ve looked at re-purposing some city parking lots, that looks like that could be an opportunity — and clearly if there’s well located private property that is affordable I think we’re going to look at that as well.”

The meeting also comes on the heels of a City staff proposal to convert half of two public parking lots on El Molino and Madison Avenues into parkland which immediately drew ire and provoked concern among some of the area’s business owners who fear the loss of customer parking spaces would hurt their businesses.

Some members of the Playhouse District Association instead suggested that the city explore the possibility of building parks on top of underground parking areas, as a way to satisfy all concerned.

According to Brian Wallace, Executive Director of the Playhouse District Association, the District has been in engaged with city leaders and stakeholders for a number of years to craft a solution for the need to have more parkland without sacrificing the vital public parking.

”The funding that’s now available through the residential impact fees provides a new resource and [a] sense of urgency and responsibility on behalf of the city to spend that money on some kind of public space,” Wallace said.

A city staff report revealed that Pasadena has 23 parks, totaling more than one thousand acres of parkland.

“Nevertheless, in certain areas of the city,” the report noted, “particularly the central core where most new residential development has been built, many residents do not have walkable access…to parkland.”

The report goes on to state, “Staff is recommending that the city council consider converting either a portion of the El Molino lot or a portion of the Madison lot into a park, through the conversion of perhaps half of the existing parking spaces. Both the El Molino lot and the Madison lot(s) have 101 spaces. Funding for the conversion would be accomplished through the use of Residential Impact Fees (RIF) to purchase the property from the city’s parking fund.
Currently, there is approximately $8.6 million in RIF funds for the central zone of the city. The appraised values of the city lots are $4.3 million for the Madison lot and $5 million for the El Molino lot.”

Erlinda Romo, former executive director of the Playhouse District Association, said the idea of building parks over parking has been on the table as far back as 2011. According to Romo, the proposal got support from the city council, but it did not take-off after funding ran out for redevelopment.

“We had initial designs, we had several community meetings looking at parks over parking, we had tons of support, but the money ran out for redevelopment,” she said.

Romo adds that even with the presence of shared ride providers such as Uber, most people would still prefer to drive their own cars and would demand parking spaces.

“Many people like the convenience of stepping out of their house and taking their car for a spin, doing their grocery shopping and other things that when you’re carrying items or if you’re handicapped in some form, it’s a huge convenience to have your own car,” Romo said.

Romo pointed out that there would still be a need for vehicles and areas for parking in the future, despite predictions that ride-sharing schemes and autonomous cars would be taking over in a decade.

While most agree that the idea of creating parks on top of parking areas is a viable option, the loss of the redevelopment money was a disappointment that left the project with limited options.

Pasadena Mayor Terry Tornek also gave an account of the loss of funds saying that creating parks on top of parking areas is a concept that was investigated several years ago and that the city was ready to act on the idea using redevelopment money. However, the redevelopment program ended so the funding was no longer available.

Tornek said the city could convert the available parking lots into parks and replace those parking spaces by making an arrangement with existing lots that have additional available parking so that the city wouldn’t create a parking shortage in the Playhouse District.

“The problem with that is the place. Some of the people, (and) some of the businesses in the Playhouse District are saying that they’re not confident that those replacement parking spaces would really work or that they’re really available or that they’re as good as the spaces that exist. So, they’re not anxious for us to correct one problem by creating another,” Tornek pointed out.

He added that the analysis of whether or not there are sufficient additional parking lots to make arrangements with is still underway.

The mayor said that most cities are now considering building parking lots or building structures that can be converted to some other use once the need for parking is lessened as most futurists think they will be according to the Mayor. He added that creating a parking area underneath a park may be an idea whose time has passed.

Subterranean lots don’t convert to anything usable, according to Tornek. “It’s not something you can turn into anything else, so the idea of spending double-digit millions, because that’s what we’re talking about, big dollars, to build a structure that might be obsolete in 10 years when you’re building it and paying for in 30, is not very plausible.”

Tornek went on to add, “This is the public’s money, and we’re asking ourselves, ‘Should we be investing tens and hundreds of millions of dollars in a function that is being rapidly displaced?’ It doesn’t make sense. That’s why if you build a parking lot above grade, you can hedge your bet and say, “Okay, I can convert this to some other use, I’m not wasting my money.’”

Joel Vroman Sheldon III, a majority owner of Vroman’s Bookstore located in the Playhouse District, said that while the downtown area indeed needs parks, it would be tough for businesses in the area, especially retail businesses, to survive without adequate parking.

“The difficulty becomes when you simply say we’re going to put a park there and not deal in the context of an entire area and what you want that area to be in the future,” Sheldon said.

Sheldon noted that out of town retail customers come to Pasadena to buy things and pointed out that people from outside of Pasadena have to travel here to do so.

“And still, even with Uber and Lyft, the predominant mode of transportation is still the automobile. And as a retailer, I am very protective of that.” Sheldon said.

Sheldon adds that the community should look at this problematic issue from a bigger perspective to figure out what to do with the Playhouse District, which would involve a lot of contextual planning.

“For me, it still goes back to a good planning process—planning the contextual whole. I just ask people to think about the whole context when anyone’s decision is made,” Sheldon said.

In discussing these types of underground structures being obsolete in the next decade, Marsha Rood, Pasadena’s former Development Administrator and member of the Civic Center Coalition said, “There is this growing industry; Urban Land Institute talks about it—of people who are looking at the conversion of parking whether it’s in 20, 30 years. We don’t know if Lyft or Uber (will be operating) or if people will stop driving cars—we don’t know that. So [we] have to build to the next foreseeable future. It’s rolling the dice—the Playhouse dice on Uber and Lyft.”

Chiming in on the concept of converting parking lots into parks, Christle Balvin, a 3rd generation resident of Pasadena who also runs a media outreach community relations firm said, “We could get parks without parking. But the district will suffer.”

According to Balvin, for Pasadena to have the type of cultural hub it’s promoting for the Playhouse District, the existing institutions— including the museum and the Playhouse— should be strengthened and it will need adequate parking areas.

“They put a lot of money into Old Pasadena that they’ve never invested in the Playhouse District. And that’s held the district back,” Balvin said.

Councilmember Wilson said that while building underground parking would be expensive, doing deals with private operators with surplus parking makes sense and would mean fewer expenses and better flexibility.

“It’s not a 30-year bond commitment, it’s maybe a ten year deal with real options, and you can turn these things on and off over time. I think having flexibility in how we deliver parking given the uncertainty is much more important than walking into a long term financial commitment with taxpayer dollars,” Wilson said.

Wilson adds that following Monday’s initial dialog with Playhouse District business owners, the city council will start getting the community’s feelings on the issue through meetings.

Tornek added, “That’s the analysis that we’re going through. (We’re) trying to find another alternative to do both things—to make sure there’s enough parking so that the Playhouse District can be successful and to make sure we’ve got additional open space in the area. We’re going to pursue both of those goals—they’re both critical to the success of downtown.”