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Guest Opinion | Erika Foy: City of Concrete

Published on Monday, August 10, 2020 | 9:15 am

Pasadena is showing signs of growing pains while the blueprint of our city is being updated and refined. 

City leadership is currently in the process of updating the Specific Plan for each of our eight distinct neighborhoods along with their corresponding zoning codes. No matter where you live in town, the resulting new development standards and guidelines will likely affect the personality and character of your neighborhood. 

The goal is to create “vibrant and thriving” neighborhoods, but I fear most residents will disagree with the city’s definition of these terms. Based on what we’ve seen in these Specific Plans, the City of Roses is at risk of becoming the City of Concrete. 

The East Colorado Specific Plan is especially alarming. The buildings zoned for this Specific Plan are too tall, too dense, and lack the proper setbacks and greenery that make a neighborhood feel inviting. All of these flaws will only be compounded once developers take advantage of density bonuses, adding even more units and height to proposed developments, likely resulting in blocked mountain views for residents just south of Colorado Blvd. along with lowered real estate values for single-family homes. 

Many parts of the plan shows building heights of 63 feet which equates to five stories before the density bonus is even issued. This plan is designed well beyond city infrastructure capacities, does not enhance or encourage a small-town feel, is not of an appropriate scale for the surrounding neighborhood, and will have a devastating cumulative impact on traffic in adjacent neighborhoods. 

This plan also proposes that the entire stretch of East Colorado Blvd be zoned for commercial and/or residential use with virtually zero setbacks, which leaves next to no room for greenery. The intersection of E. Walnut St. and N. Hudson Ave. is a perfect example of the effects of this type of zoning, with streets that are uncomfortable to walk along, and buildings with massive empty storefronts and dense housing built on top. The area feels like an urban concrete jungle—something Pasadena was never meant to be. 

We could easily avoid this effect with something as simple as requiring a larger setback for new buildings. This would create the space necessary to plant more trees, which would make the street more inviting. Over time, these trees would help to lower our very concerning position on the Urban Heat Island Index and would have a positive effect on mitigating the effects of climate change. The fact the city does not recognize the importance of this from both an ecological and aesthetic perspective is confounding and heartbreaking. 

The listing of emergency shelters, transitional housing, and supportive housing as allowable uses along most of the East Colorado area, should also raise a lot of concerns among residents. With the recently proposed change in zoning from exclusively retail to mixed use residential, Pasadena may consider not only repurposing many of the motor hotels to homeless housing but also all future housing developments along the new residential corridor could be permitted as homeless housing by right without a public hearing.

 We do need more housing options for the homeless population, but I am concerned by the possibility that East Colorado Blvd. could become a massive stretch of concentrated transitional/supportive housing with little public input. I suspect most residents would have strong opinions regarding an onslaught of these new facilities and this issue should involve sincere community engagement and transparency. 

In light of all we are learning now about the risks of high-density living, long-term exposure to poor air quality, and the relationship between building to the urban edge and urban heat islands, I believe the citizens of Pasadena should be alarmed by the city’s current plans for development. Now is the time to pay attention to what leadership is proposing and what they are asking us to accept. I urge everyone to take the time to ask hard questions about the true risks and benefits of the high-growth, pro-housing model the city has put in place with the East Colorado Specific Plan. The City is hosting a webinar  on the East Colorado Specific Plan on August 13th, 6pm. Residents are encouraged to attend a dialogue with the program team regarding draft development standards, concerns and provide input and comments about the proposed changes. Let’s participate in the public process with the idea of taking the long view and consider if this is really the legacy we want to leave for future Pasadenans. 

Erika Foy is a Pasadena resident who is a Vice President of the Madison Heights Neighborhood Association.

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