In Pasadena, Little Landmarks Pushed Aside

Times Staff Writers

For 42 years, Ralph Fonzo has been serving burgers and tacos at Rick’s Drive-In on El Molino Avenue in Pasadena, a landmark beloved by locals.

But next year, Rick’s is to be torn down to make way for one of the mixed-use residential complexes that have become a fixture of what some call the “new Pasadena.”

The city, home of the Rose Parade, stately mansions and one of the birthplaces of the Southland’s historic preservation movement, is in the midst of a boom that has added more than 2,000 housing units in the last five years with 3,000 more on the drawing board.

Last week, the City Council approved what is the largest housing development in its history, an “urban village” of 820 dwellings and 22,000 square feet of commercial space on the site of Ambassador College near Old Town Pasadena.


The city has emerged as one of the most enthusiastic proponents of “smart growth” -- building condos, lofts and apartments above businesses and close to transit lines.

The strategy has transformed parts of the city, bringing dense residential developments along major commercial strips such as Colorado Boulevard and Lake Avenue.

But it is increasingly generating criticism from some residents who fear that the dense development is fundamentally changing the city’s well-maintained character.

Kent Burke, an Old Pasadena resident who has eaten burritos at Rick’s for years, said the impending loss of the drive-in underscores what he sees as a shift in the city away from preserving the past and toward new development.


“All of a sudden, nothing seems to matter anymore,” Burke said. “Pasadena is losing all its tradition. Places like Rick’s are living examples of what Pasadena all meant and they’re being taken away from us so that they can make a mini-New York City.”

City leaders say their vision isn’t Manhattan. But they are trying to bring more of an urban environment to Pasadena.

Building vertically along major boulevards is the only option, they said, because the city of 141,000 people long ago consumed all its raw land and doesn’t want to add new development to its many historic residential neighborhoods.

“We are moving in the right direction in terms of encouraging housing development [in commercial areas] and protecting the character of our residential neighborhoods,” Mayor Bill Bogaard said. “Our neighborhoods have been prospering from the city’s investments in housing.”


The change can be dramatically seen on Colorado Boulevard near the Pasadena Playhouse, where rows of condos and apartments built over ground-level shops have created a fledging street scene that includes Vroman’s bookstore and Laemmle art house movie theaters.

Other pockets of denser development have risen around the Paseo Colorado shopping mall, the Del Mar station on the Gold Line and the Raymond Theater.

The goal, Bogaard and others said, is to place housing around shopping and transportation in hopes of creating a more vibrant street life and encouraging people to use their cars less.

Other cities -- including Los Angeles -- have also embraced this planning model, but few have gone as far as Pasadena.


Some residents have been grumbling about the pace of growth for several years, prompting a temporary moratorium on development in 2004.

But the proposed Westgate development, which the council approved Tuesday on a 5-2 vote, galvanized critics because of the size.

Irvine-based developer Sares-Regis Group plans to build the complex on the former east campus of the 12-acre Ambassador College, once owned by the Worldwide Church of God. It is to consist of a series of four- and five-story brick and stucco buildings with a central plaza off Del Mar Boulevard.

Backers hail it as a missing link for the city, saying that it brings housing near the Gold Line and the hundreds of businesses in Old Pasadena.


But critics say that the development is too big and note with anxiety the estimated 5,600 daily car trips that Westgate would generate.

“The smart growth argument is that we build higher-density projects near transit to get people out of their cars and create a housing-jobs balance that’s more like London, New York or Tokyo,” said attorney Chris Sutton,who represents anti-development forces in Pasadena. “Here, we are just building expensive housing for rich people with two cars. That doesn’t address the real traffic problem. How smart is that?”

It’s not just traffic that disturbs some Pasadenans about the new developments.

Jerry Lang, a 55-year-old clerk at Cliff’s Books, a secondhand bookstore on Colorado Boulevard, says he is appalled by the look of the new condominiums rising around the shop.


“One of the ugliest things I’ve ever seen,” he said.

All told, the city had already added 2,200 housing units between 2000 and the end of 2005, twice the number of units built during the previous decade, Pasadena City Manager Cynthia Kurtz said.

Westgate is among 3,000 units that have either been approved or proposed.

Frank Perez and Veruschka Zarate like the changes they are seeing.


Taking a stroll to the Apple Store in Old Pasadena on Thursday, they said the new housing allows people to live closer to shopping and adds to the vibrancy of the street life.

“This neighborhood used to be a dump,” Perez, 32, said. “Then they cleaned it up. It’s so much better here. It’s really come up.”

But from the vantage point of Rick’s Drive-In, the development has cast a different shadow.

Fonzo’s drive-in is already surrounded by two new apartment buildings, both colored a creamy orange.


“Nothing had changed for 20 or 30 years, and then they started building all these apartments and it’s just mushroomed,” Fonzo, 72, said. “I asked the mayor, ‘Don’t you think you’ve overdone it?’ ”

Fonzo is struggling to find a new location -- but isn’t sure he can do it in Pasadena. Some of his patrons have started a petition to save Rick’s.

“I can understand progress for a city,” he said. “But I can’t understand knocking someone out after 42 years.”