Back in Business
How an alliance of people too often at odds saved and revived Pasadena's original downtown

By Garrett Soden

From Pasadena magazine
IT 'S A WARM NIGHT IN JULY, about ten o'clock. I am walking diagonally across the intersection of Delacy Street and Colorado Boulevard when I spot a familiar-looking young woman on the corner. My friend and I have just left the enormous Barnes and Noble book store which was crowded with browsers and students at tables as if in an all-night library. Earlier we had sandwiches and beers at Barney's before watching Sylvester Stallone fight crime in the third millennium at the United Artist theater, which stands directly across from me.

The young woman is with two others, and all are giggling. She sees me and cries out in mock consternation, "What are you doing here?" Her friends laugh. She glowers at me, "This town isn't big enough for the both of us!"

I smile. "When is mom picking you up?" I ask. "Ten fifteen," she says, and then, "see ya!" They cross the street, headed for Crate & Barrel or Johnny Rocket's or The Gap, and I move on, weaving my way through a crowd so thick my friend and I can't walk abreast.

Ten years ago it would have been unthinkable to let three fourteen-year-old girls stroll the walkways of Old Pasadena after sunset. "Most people made a point of being out of the area by dark," says James Campbell, the owner of Barney's. Even by daylight, the scene wasn't pleasant, remembers Marilyn Dee Buchanan, one of the eventual developers of the area. "The people were, for the most part, derelicts standing in the doorways either drunk or asleep, trying to catch the warmth of the sun." Today my daughter is just one of an estimated 20,000 people who crowd the sidewalks each weekend evening. Many of them (too many, according to some observers) are teenagers.

Financially, the success of Old Town's renovation is by now undeniable. The figures are astonishing: Three-quarters of a million square feet of building space has been renovated, rehabilitated or "adaptively reused" - nearly 80 percent of the area's classic buildings. In eight years, sales volume has jumped from $35 million to nearly $100 million, creating about 4,000 new jobs. In 1983, the tax increment revenue from the area was a paltry $100,000; now it is $1.2 million, brought in by more than 80 restaurants, 100 office suites, 150 retail stores, and two movie theaters that together can seat more than 4,000.

As a work of preservation, Old Town's story is also impressive. It has preserved and restored more than 100 historically significant structures in what has been called one of the five most historically important commercial districts on the west coast.

And it has been the result of a rare partnership, an alliance of people too often at odds: preservationists on the one hand, fighting to save a sculpted frieze or hand-carved molding, and business people, who need a commercial space, not a museum piece. What is especially significant about Old Town is not just that this alliance has worked, but that it has held together for so long and has won so many small, hard-fought victories.

OLD TOWN WASN'T ALWAYS OLD, OF COURSE. It wasn't until 1883, ten years after the first settlers built houses overlooking the Arroyo Seco, that you could reasonably say that Pasadena had a "downtown." That was when the Ward block was built on the southwest corner of Colorado and Fair Oaks. It was a two-story Victorian clapboard building, with a covered sidewalk of wooden planks, the kind you now see in every TV western. The Ward Block was the mall of its day. Here you could park your buggy in the dirt street, tie the horses, withdraw some cash from the Pasadena Bank, have a drink in the Pasadena Restaurant, browse through the shops, or make a reservation for an out-of-town friend at the hotel on the second floor. West of the block there was the Pasadena Meat Market, the Wiley and Greely Livery stable, and then nothing but orange groves and empty hills to the horizon.

That changed when the railroad came through in 1885, setting off a land boom that brought 5,000 new residents to the town of 2,700 and lined Colorado Boulevard with buildings set cheek-by-jowl facing the bustling thoroughfare, their backs turned to the service streets, Union and Green (then called Kansas).

But the look of today's Old Town doesn't come from these turn of the century wood-frame buildings. In 1929, Colorado was widened, and most got a stylish new Mediterranean or Art Deco facade. Facades, however, made little difference when the Depression rumbled through Pasadena, devastating its wealthy visitors and the merchants that depended on their dollars. The decline continued for decades. By the 1950s, Old Town was considered, well, old; South Lake was the choice of the modern shopper.

Property owners, though, wouldn't just watch the area die, and you could say that the bounty that now sustains Cityscapes, Il Fornio, Penny Lane, J. Crew, Rizzoli Books, United Artists Theaters, and all the others, grew directly from roots planted by the original Old Town business people in 1956: that year, they formed the Pasadena Central Improvement Association (PCIA).

Through the fifties and sixties, the PCIA struggled to find a way to bring prosperity back. Ideas came and went, good intentions misfired, while the area continued to spiral downward into a collection of ratty, abused old buildings. Finally, in 1971, the Pasadena Redevelopment Agency approved the usual southern California solution: tear it all down - all eighteen blocks of it - and build something new.

Alarmed, people came together to try to stop the plan. The PCIA joined with Chamber of Commerce to sponsor a feasibility study; Pasadena Heritage, formed in 1976, strongly advocated preservation; the Junior League created promotional events to boost public pride; and people in the city government began to work for legal protection. After seven years of work, Pasadena had a new plan for Old Town that could be summed up in two words: save it.

The particulars of carrying out the implications of those two words, though, make all the difference. It is easy to save old buildings (just declare that they can't be demolished); what is hard is to fill them with viable businesses. Developers need loans to restore their buildings, so Pasadena Heritage worked to place Old Town on the National Register of Historic Places, and succeeded in 1983, which made funding available from the Marks Historic Revenue Bond. Shops and restaurants need customer parking, so property owners helped the city build three award-winning structures, adding 2,300 parking places. Growth must be managed, so the city arranged to share tax revenue with the Old Pasadena Business and Professional Association (formerly the PCIA) to keep Old Town's continuing revival under control.

The final balancing act for Old Town was to add residential space to the mix. To answer that need, the Holly Street Village Apartments were built; 374 units just blocks from Old Town.

Nearly forty years of effort eventually culminated in an overnight success. History was saved, commerce thrived, and a new attraction was created for restless Angelenos.

IN MAY OF THIS YEAR, Pasadena's accomplishment was recognized when it received the National Trust's Main Street Award, a coveted honor bestowed on only five commercial areas in the country. Kennedy Smith, the National Main Street director, credited the success to the project's broad-based consensus. "These awards recognize revitalization programs that bucked the odds and brought about profound economic change because they laid these solid foundations," he said.

You cannot, of course, please everyone. The parking meters, the traffic jams, the hour waits at restaurants, have all made some old-timers remember with some fondness Old Town's more ribald past, when you could shop unbothered for secondhand clothes, and drop in to Hazel's Bar or the Loch Ness Monster for an unfashionable beer. The phrase "It's turning into another Westwood," is uttered in some quarters, the last word pronounced like an epithet. People worry that where crowds gather, gangs follow.

But compared to the alternatives, most Pasadenans take pride in Old Town. You might be at work and casually mention that you dined at Kevin Costner's restaurant in "your neighborhood." When friends visit, you show them Old Town, perhaps dining at Cafe Santorini's balcony overlooking the plaza; stopping later to listen to the steel drum player's version of a classical favorite, and maybe even stepping into the cyberspace of Virtual World. And if you've lived in Pasadena long, the chances are good you'll run into someone you know.

Maybe even your fourteen-year-old daughter.

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Copyright © 2006 Garrett Soden