Pasadena, Big and Small

16 thoughts on “Pasadena, Big and Small”

  1. Johnny,
    I love your blog and the way you build the story through your photographs. I recently started up a new personal blog and I wonder what your policy is for sharing your images? I am drafting a post on the barriers to building with soul, and I would love to be able to share an image or two from your posts—with attribution and linkback, of course. Thank you for your consideration.

  2. Love the SoCal cottage courts. Can you pls help me understand something? Even if the zoning allows them, cottage courts are hard to make pencil out for a developer. All the “expensive” square footage is in the kitchen and bath, but in a small cottage there isn’t enough “inexpensive” square footage (e.g., big empty rooms) to even out the cost per sf. Plus, obviously, the land utilization is lower, which can really matter for high priced RE close to anything interesting. As a result, when you go to rent or sell these, the $/sf comps look way out of whack vs. the surrounding neighborhood. My question is this: why did it make so much sense to build these in LA, San Diego, etc. back in the day, but now it doesn’t look as economically feasible?

    1. Here’s my best guess. Back in the 1920’s when these cottage courts were built Pasadena was a little town surrounded by orange groves in what felt like a long, long way from Los Angeles. Land and labor were radically less expensive. Banking regulations were conspicuously absent in pre-Roosevelt America. And there were effectively no real regulations compared to today’s refrigerator sized tomes of dos and don’ts. So long as you didn’t rent to Negros, Jews, or Orientals you were pretty much okay as far as the authorities and neighbors were concerned.

      There’s a bureaucratic tendency to try and solve problems by adding layers of complexity to any given situation. As more problems arise more complexity ensues. That complexity itself ultimately becomes a major obstacle to improving things. The solution to overcoming the problem of too much complexity is generally to form a new oversight committee to regulate the complexity…

      It is absolutely cheaper and easier to build a row of little cottages than a massive 200 unit complex with structured parking. Full stop. The reason these cottages don’t pencil out today has to do with the so-called “soft” costs: the ten year long entitlement process, permits, impact fees, mandatory fire sprinklers, minimum covered parking requirements, NIMBY opposition, public relations wars, campaign contributions to the right elected official to help smooth things over, blah, blah, blah. And banks only finance a very narrow range of boilerplate building types. They need apples-to-apples products that they can bundle and sell to the pension funds that don’t have time to evaluate each project on its own merit.

  3. One of my grad school planning professors was the project planner on the original mall when she worked for Pasadena. She insisted until the bitter end that the mall had been successful.

  4. Funny you should mention the Paseo Colorado renovation from ’99, as that property is currently being renovated, once again, to the tune of $68 Million!

    That circa-70’s Macy’s bunker in your post is now a dirt lot, with a new hotel under construction. The Colorado street wall looks like it’ll be a huge improvement. However, Green street will be littered with more loading docks and driveways (ample/cheap parking is sacrosanct here in Southern California… despite the downtown location and easy access to light rail, buses, zipcars, lyft, etc.)

    Here’s a link with more details about the project:

    1. Thanks for the link and update! I took these photos last year. Looks like the new hotel will be an improvement over the old Macy’s bunker. But really, this is the third multi-million dollar reinvention of the same site since 1980. And you wonder why America is going broke…

      1. I supposed this could be called the “new” (sub)urban renewal. By replacing public monstrosities with private ones. But still odd no lessons learned from repeated costly failures. Maybe because this mimics too much Soviet style top down planning instead of bottom up planning of the original buildings?

  5. “The redevelopment was a $135M project, ironically done by the same company that built the 80’s mall in the first place.”

    Pardon the tinfoil hat, but that’s not ironic. Society is structured so the elites can extract wealth from everybody else. This is true in both private and public spheres. Cities are often a prime mechanism for this kind of thing – for an extreme case look at how cities like Vernon and Bell were run as private fiefdoms for small groups.

    When you see this kind of thing, it reflects long-standing 2-way personal relationships between city authorities and developers. The developers provide media and financial support to the authorities and the authorities give the contracts and the permits to the developers. As a rule, the specific arrangements fall short of legal bribery – for example the authority may have a niece or nephew with a nice job with the developer. It may be even more indirect – the niece is a realtor with a long-standing relationship with the developer. Typically there’s a lot more than one relationship – the authorities and the developers are tied together into a web of personal relationships.

    It’s not easy to change because this is actually the natural way people interact. If you have a healthy city, the mayor is going to live there and have friends and family there, many of whom will be successful in business or politics themselves. Demanding everything be done by anonymous closed bidding by outside entities would create its own set of problems, and perhaps low-grade chronic corruption is the least bad alternative. But it’s still there.

  6. I loved Colorado Blvd when it was a collection of locally owned shops and restaurants. Now, it’s all chain store hell. Fortunately, the residential area of Pasadena still retains it’s flavor. Thank you for highlighting it.

    1. The way to keep a high street like Colorado Boulevard from becoming a chain store hell is to have a huge mall a mile away and send the chains there. Works for Corona del Mar.

  7. “We could change that if we really wanted to…”. A great post. The challenge with motivating change is that “we” have to become aware of the possibilities and interested in what is being lost. As I read more about the changes that have happened during my lifetime, I’m amazed that I never noticed. I guess the routine of daily life in a not-too-bad location makes it easy to be unaware (clueless is a better term). Having lived in apartments (gone now, lost to a street widening project) that wouldn’t be allowed under todays codes, I want to yell “Why?”

    Thanks to you, Strong Towns, Urban3 and Opticos Design (Missing Middle Housing), to name a few, voices are starting to be heard that there can be other paths and how the current patterns are unsustainable and maybe how to recover. I’m pretty sure recovery won’t come in the form of big projects with big pots of government money, especially federal money. And it will be impeded by big pots of private money, seeking an advantage for those who control that money.

    Anyway, thanks for your work. Keep us thinking.

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