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Guest Opinion | Rick Cole: Ten Grand Challenges to Transform Pasadena’s Future

Published on Tuesday, January 17, 2023 | 9:17 am

A century ago, the citizens of Pasadena laid the foundation for the city we enjoy today. Starting in 1923, in just five years:

  • A bond issue was approved to build the City Hall, Central Library and Civic Auditorium
  • The Pasadena City College District was created
  • The Pasadena Playhouse was built
  • The first game was played in the Rose Bowl
  • The Pasadena Institute of Arts held its first exhibition of Pasadena artists
  • The Pasadena Station on the Santa Fe Railroad’s LA to Chicago line was completed
  • A host of landmark churches were erected, including St. Andrews, Friendship Baptist and All Saints
  • The Pasadena Historical Society (now Pasadena Museum of History) was founded
  • Caltech won its first Nobel Prize

Pasadena is a far larger and wealthier city today. Do we bring the same energy and vision to planning for the century ahead? Over the next ten weeks, Pasadena Now has given me the opportunity to pose ten Grand Challenges for improving our community. This list is by no means definitive –another dozen important efforts could be suggested to protect our environment, raise our quality of life and uplift our most vulnerable. But as I explore each of them over the next ten weeks, I hope to spark community imagination of what we can accomplish — if we are willing to look beyond the headlines of our day.

Here are the 10 Grand Challenges: 

  1. Remove the concrete channel from the Arroyo: the beautiful valley running through our city is one of our greatest assets. Back in the Thirties, our default for handling periodic flooding was with engineering. We now know how to divert storm water to percolate back into the ground instead of flushing it out to sea. Removing the ugly channel would create a completely different feel to the lower Arroyo, Pasadena’s pre-eminent natural recreational gem.
  1. Remove and reclaim the 710 stub: Caltrans deliberately dug a huge hole and filled it with concrete to push traffic into residential neighborhoods in a failed attempt to force South Pasadena to surrender to the bulldozers. Now that the City of Pasadena has title to the property, we can eliminate this scar on the landscape and build parks, affordable housing and community assets to reknit the southern part of our city. 
  1. Connect Old Pasadena to PCC with a streetcar: There is Federal funding to route a street car loop on Union and Green that would connect our historic core with the Playhouse District, South Lake and a campus with 30,000 students. It would link our greatest assets (Caltech would also be in walking distance) to the regional light rail stop at Memorial Park and make navigating between them easy and non-polluting, reducing traffic.
  1. Transform the Central Library into a 24/7 Learning Center: Life-long learning doesn’t just take place in formal schools — libraries have always been a place providing access to people of all ages and incomes to access learning. Books are just one form — but classes, maker spaces, speakers, conferences and activities could enliven the classic building which needs over $100 million in seismic upgrades which shouldn’t just be spent to put back books.
  1. Create an Affordable Housing Authority: The City, School District and PCC should partner to use all available public land for creating workforce, student and affordable housing. With State mandates to build 6000 units of affordable housing in Pasadena over the next eight years, the public sector should take the lead to ensure maximum benefits to our local residents.
  1. Replace outdated zoning with a new design code: Pasadena relies on a Design Commission to guide development of higher density apartments and condos — and the results are less than wonderful. The State now insists on “objective standards” — but Pasadena doesn’t have them for its high density development. Let’s make sure new development to provide needed housing is also compatible with our community’s high standards for design. The issue is not just how they look, but more importantly, how they function to compliment the neighborhoods around them.
  1. Individualize help for the homeless: Community Solutions, a nationwide program based on extensive research, advocates for a “by name” registry of those accessing public and non-profit services so unhoused individuals and families aren’t bounced around uncoordinated programs and agencies. Sharing data can ensure the homeless get the help — and housing — they need, quickly and humanely.
  1. Convert to carbon-free energy: Pasadena 100 is pushing our public utility to walk the walk of its environmentally-friendly talk by eliminating coal and natural gas from electric generation by 2035. With strong Federal support for renewable energy, it’s clearly doable — so why isn’t Pasadena leading?
  1. Establish car-free zones: The pandemic has transformed many streets around the world into pedestrian zones that now are full of life and people. Businesses and residents love it! Let’s start with weekends and shut down Colorado between Fair Oaks and Pasadena Avenue. Or South Lake between Del Mar and California? Or the Colorado Street Bridge. Nearly everyplace it’s been tried, including here in Southern California, it is quickly so popular it goes year-round.
  1. Make Pasadena bike-friendly: Countries like Holland and cities from Davis to Paris used to be unsafe and unattractive to bicyclists. Skeptics doubted that people would bike — but when protected bike lanes connect where people want to go, the shift happened more quickly than anyone imagined. Biking is cheaper and healthier for individuals and the planet. Why does Pasadena lag cities in the region like Long Beach, Santa Monica and Culver City?

Previous generations were willing to make the sacrifices and investments that make our city what it is today. I welcome your feedback, ideas and commitment to matching those who came before us as we do our part for those who will come after us.

Rick Cole is a current Pasadena Planning Commissioner and a former Mayor of Pasadena. He serves as Chief Deputy Controller for the City of Los Angeles.

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