Pasadena City Hall has a lot to learn from a current AT&T advertising campaign that emphasizes excellence, rightfully arguing that ‘Just okay is not okay.’ Recently, our City Council approved a massive new project on South Los Robles, after the head of Planning told City Council said that the project wasn’t great, but ‘it wasn’t horrible.’ Really? It’s incredible to think that the litmus test for Pasadena is ‘not horrible’. Is that what we think of our town? Are our leaders going to choose to fill the agreed limited envelope of new buildings we can build in Pasadena under the General Plan simply if they pass the very low bar of ‘not horrible’? We now have a behemoth building coming soon to South Los Robles. This is a project that almost all City Council members didn’t like. Yet now it will be here permanently, and it will change the feel of that part of our city. The new project will tower over all around it and will erode away at the buffer zone between commercial buildings and residential zones. It will have long-term negative impacts on our town with the loss of protected trees, breathing space, and increased traffic.
It’s true that the State of California is pushing housing mandates down on all of the cities in the state, regardless of whether we are doing what we can to build new housing. But we need to ask ourselves: when have we had enough? It’s time to push back and fight for the Pasadena we envisioned in our General Plan. In Pasadena we already are taking the housing issue straight on. Our neighboring cities, San Gabriel, San Marino, Sierra Madre and South Pasadena, have only issued 6 total very low-income permits (Source- Housing Element Annual Progress Report from the California Department of Housing and Community Development). We are permitting over 40 times those cities combined. Pasadena is third in the highest number of permits just after LA County unincorporated, but when you look closer we have out-paced LA County unincorporated by population and square miles. Monrovia, Arcadia, Alhambra and Azusa have issued zero permits of low income housing since 2013.
Despite all this work, we still need affordable housing. Why is this? Pasadena should be a city filled with all types of residents, where everyone has access to affordable housing, green spaces, and tree filled streets. We want young families, retired individuals, and working families living in Pasadena. Our parks should be filled with residents enjoying our amazing city, our restaurants and shops filled with residents out for the afternoon or evening enjoying themselves. This isn’t going to happen under the current pattern of development.
City leadership has said that luxury housing is inevitable, that we need it in order to obtain low-income housing units. Under current thinking at City Hall, the trade off of corridors filled with high-rise luxury apartments is worth it for the handful of affordable housing units developers are required to provide. And they are approving project after project of large luxury housing. We say, however, that creative solutions are needed, and that it’s time to change our approach. Pasadena is a highly desirable city to live in and will always attract developers. High-rise luxury condominiums that provide mere token amounts of affordable units cannot be the only solution. Rather than approving every luxury housing project, we need to be providing incentives to developers to create the type of housing we need. We need to encourage developers to build housing that fits architecturally, that fits our city life, and that provides needed housing for working families and lower income families. Why is city leadership simply tossing up their hands and saying it can’t be done? This can be done, but requires creative thinking and solutions. Don’t all Pasadena citizens deserve trees? Green spaces? Breathing room? A building that fits architecturally in the neighborhood? We think the answer to that is yes.
Our city’s housing strategy isn’t a strategy – we are completely driven by market forces with only Inclusionary Housing policies and impact fees (such as Residential, Traffic, etc.) moderating development. As a result, the only way builders can capitalize on the market, with rising costs and city fees, is to target luxury units, with the small required number of very low-income units. City leadership should be reaching out to our local developers to help formulate a housing and zoning policy that better targets what our city needs. For example, Pasadena could give incentives to smaller, less traffic-generating projects. It is possible to impose special impact fees for projects over, for example, 30 units, but waive fees for building smaller workforce housing and require fewer parking spaces if the project were around Metro stations or downtown where residents could walk. This would encourage developers to make smaller projects, more in line with our community feel, and would provide needed housing for our workforce. We also need to work with other surrounding cities to help encourage their own building of more affordable housing. We can figure this out.
The impacts of these large high-density projects are more than our streets or our city can handle. One of the biggest impacts from these developments will be to overwhelm our already failing intersections. The city has supported these projects, claiming that there will be no impact to the surrounding neighborhoods. But we are on the streets, we know that they aren’t working and that it’s only getting worse. In the coming months the city promises to examine how we measure traffic and other impacts from proposed projects. We are waiting to see the reports. We are hopeful that this will lead to an examination of projects as they affect the community as a whole, looking at the cumulative effect across streets, intersections and neighborhoods. Until then please see a traffic engineer video of our failing intersections around our Central District.
We can and we should do better. We should work hard to achieve the vision we articulated in our General Plan. In the end, if we do not, we will be left wondering what we did with this fine inheritance that earlier Pasadenans left us. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. We are the stewards of our city today and for our future. Just okay is not okay. Lets build smaller and better. Lets include everyone in the American dream. It just doesn’t have to be ‘not horrible.’
Megan Foker is a long time Pasadena resident and community volunteer. Erika Foy is a Pasadena resident who is a Vice President of the Madison Heights Neighborhood Association. Together, the pair are active in a new group called Liveable Pasadena and also have sponsored a GoFundMe page raising money to successfully challenge the city on their current traffic engineering practices