A new era in South Pas
South Pasadena is the kind of town that takes its history seriously -- a place that’s proud of slogans like “South Pasadena -- where the past is the present” and “South Pasadena: 1888 with all the modern amenities.”
And that was Sherry Hodge’s life.
The mother of one child lived in a 100-year-old house on a historic preservation list. She devoted countless hours as a volunteer in the city’s heralded school district. She even bought a T-shirt that said “no” to the extension of the 710 Freeway, which the city has long opposed because it would carve up historic neighborhoods.
But now, Hodge has become a pioneer of sorts in the San Gabriel Valley city.
Hodge, a TV producer, quit her job, and she and her husband sold their Craftsman home to buy a two-bedroom unit in a modern condominium building in the city’s revitalized downtown.
“We discovered this whole new urban South Pasadena,” Hodge, 47, said. “There’s a wine bar, organic food and a kitchen store. We never had date nights in town. We do now.”
Hodge’s move underscores a quiet revolution in a town where 10,000 homes are on a historic protection inventory.
Long averse to any change, South Pasadena has embraced an aggressive redevelopment strategy that has brought loft condos, high-end restaurants and trendy shops to a city that has prided itself on a Main Street USA feel even though it’s less than seven miles from downtown Los Angeles.
City Hall is pouring millions of dollars into upgrading crowded intersections and repairing an antiquated water system.
The biggest project, however, is a proposed redevelopment of the city’s downtown along Mission Street that could bring in dozens of new residential units, new storefronts, underground parking and perhaps a bowling alley.
There is even talk of acquiring the dilapidated Rialto Theatre -- a jewel in the eyes of historic preservationists -- from private owners in hopes of making it the centerpiece of a spruced-up city core.
The revitalization effort marks a turning point of sorts for South Pasadena, which for decades has focused much of its attention on blocking the extension of the 710.
“We’ve been so distracted by the freeway for 50 years that we’ve forgotten what the city needs and the essence of what we’re about,” said Councilman Mike Ten, who thinks Mission Street could use a jolt of life to complement the existing antique and furniture stores along the strip.
But another goal is to make South Pasadena appealing to a new generation of more upscale residents who move in for the city’s well-respected schools and are looking for gourmet restaurants and trendy boutiques.
“Other than the school district, what do we have to offer as a city?” Ten said. “Revitalizing downtown is very important. We need self-generating energy so that people don’t have to flock to Alhambra and Pasadena to shop and eat.
“We need something young people can go to.”
Steve Ahn, the owner of Mike & Anne’s, a 7-month-old restaurant on Mission, said he had planned to open a more casual bistro, but customers asked him to change. They wanted waiters to be less chipper and more reserved. He changed his music from folk to jazz.
“They wanted a sophisticated dining experience,” Ahn, 37, said.
“Growth” is still a word viewed skeptically in South Pasadena, forcing the city to push its projects gingerly. Although a handful of past planned developments have failed to break ground, residents were invited to several town hall meetings this time to say what they wanted to see in the new downtown. Suggestions included making the street look like it was inspired by Antonio Gaudi’s Park Guell in Barcelona and having a boutique hotel.
To the surprise of many, the current redevelopment project has progressed with little resistance except for a handful of residents and storekeepers who think it will ruin the city’s sleepy, family flavor as well as drive up rent so that only national chain stores will be able to afford it.
So far, officials have promised to build slowly and to approve only those designs that blend with the city’s architecture. And most important to many, officials have said that no large chain stores or restaurants will be welcomed into the new South Pasadena.
“People don’t want a Caruso-land,” said Marinel Robinson of Decoma Properties, the developer hired by the city to revitalize downtown. She was referring to Rick Caruso, the developer of such mega-shopping centers as the Grove in the Fairfax district.
“We have to do something authentic. It can’t be Anywhere USA. No Gap or Crate & Barrel. You’re not going to see the Olive Garden in South Pasadena,” Robinson added.
Her firm had to involve residents in the planning, unlike any other project, she said. The meetings held to generate ideas, attended by several hundred people, were a first for the company.
“They’re vigilant here,” Robinson said. “They’re fiercely protective of their small-town atmosphere. We’ve really had to go out of our way to hold meetings and incorporate their ideas into the plan.”
Longtime residents and shop owners understand why.
Mission Street has been a designated redevelopment district for nearly four decades, and the reason many past proposals failed was because the projects were too big, moved too fast or failed to garner political support, residents and officials say.
A recent example occurred in 2003, when the Ratkovich Co. scrapped plans for a town square after three slow-growth council members were elected and deemed the project too large.
“In South Pasadena, things move pretty slowly. People get nervous when change comes too fast,” said John Turk, owner of Mission Antiques, a quaint shop near the Gold Line station inundated with items piled one atop the other.
“People had to fight to keep things in this city. That’s why we still have so much beauty and charm.”
One of the fears about new development is that rent for storekeepers will soar and an influx of new residents will further strain a high-achieving school district that already has some children bused miles away from their neighborhood schools.
“That’s my biggest concern,” said Hodge, a PTA member. “The schools are already overcrowded. And we pay 30% more for our houses here so that we can send our children to these schools.”
Fear of overcrowding is one of the reasons there was an outcry over a new housing development in the southwest corner of the city named the Ostrich Farm. The so-called live/work building with its concrete-colored interior and showrooms filled with midcentury modern furniture is being offered to tenants who are supposed to work out of their loft apartments.
Some council members and residents feared that the 53-unit building would bring in too many new residents and possibly burden the school district and overload city streets, which have been kept in a notorious state of disrepair over the years. The mayor also questioned whether residents were actually working in their homes.
As with the reaction to the Ostrich Farm, Ross Silverman thinks many residents will come to regret the downtown project after it’s built. The freelance production designer lives with his wife and two sons in a 103-year-old Victorian home behind the Rialto Theatre, almost an arm’s length from the proposed redevelopment.
Silverman worries about the addition of dozens of retail and residential units on Mission, questioning whether demand will keep the spaces occupied and if the city’s demographics will change for the better.
“Bringing in single people is not what South Pasadena is all about,” Silverman said. “We’re a family town.”
Silverman moved from Glendale three years ago after spending 12 years looking for the right house to buy in South Pasadena. Like most people, he said he chose to move here for the schools. He still considers it the most important aspect of living in the city.
“We’re trying to set down real roots here,” Silverman said. “I’m willing to pay more taxes to maintain the school district’s quality.”
Walter Zooi, owner of South Pasadena Music, a music instruction center next to the Rialto complex, also thinks the plan is too ambitious and would ruin the city’s charm.
“I fear demand won’t be there and the stores will default into a giant food court with chain restaurants,” Zooi said. “People move to South Pasadena for the schools, not the nightlife.”
Some have called for the city to enact an ordinance that prevents chains from opening downtown. Others have expressed concern that the new town center will also add more pressure on the police and fire departments, which are understaffed, forcing the city in recent times to explore contracting with the county for services.
“They’re deluding themselves,” Zooi, 45, said of city officials and the developer. “The public doesn’t know what’s going on.”
Skepticism about development is hardly unexpected. But a surprising number of die-hard preservationists have been gently embracing the redevelopment plan.
Longtime resident Clarice Knapp worked in the early 1990s on an amended General Plan for the city that sought to restrict condo conversions and fast-food chains. She also supported the successful bid to get the National Trust for Historic Preservation to deem South Pasadena an endangered city.
Now she says she’s supporting the development because it’s being done with careful thought. She believes South Pasadena will benefit from new businesses and at the same time preserve its history.
“You hear people talking about it in the produce aisle at the supermarket,” she said. “This is what we wanted to see -- unique places for people to go, wonderful restaurants, but not an Old Town Pasadena.”