New Pasadena convention center to be unveiled today

Ten years ago, Pasadena set out to revamp its aging civic center.

The grand promenade once envisioned between the Civic Auditorium to the south and the Central Library to the north had been blocked by a shopping mall that by the 1990s was struggling. The landmark City Hall, the domed symbol of the city, was facing serious seismic issues.

So the city embarked on a major face-lift for the area aimed in part at raising its stature. The old Plaza Pasadena mall was knocked down and, in 2001, replaced with the Paseo Colorado, an outdoor shopping center and urban village that restored the sightlines between landmarks. City Hall underwent a $117-million seismic retrofit and historic restoration, which was finished almost two years ago.


Today, the final piece of that restoration will be unveiled: a massive new $150-million convention center that city officials hope will bring business and visitors to the Rose City.

The shiny new facility, which replaces a 1970s-era subterranean center, boasts a 25,000-square-foot ballroom, 80,000 square feet of exhibit space and an underground kitchen. It also includes environmentally friendly components. At street level, a grand brick plaza opens out in front.

When the revitalization began, some wondered whether the city could pull it all together -- and whether it would result in overdevelopment. The jury is still out on the second question. The new civic center has helped pave the way for a crop of high-end apartments and condos along the Colorado Boulevard corridor, bringing a new spark to the area but also more traffic and higher building density.

Even a planner for a neighboring city can’t help but be a little envious at the result.

“To have that public space visible to the Paseo Colorado and up to the library restores the civic center plan from the 1920s,” said Alan Loomis, the principal urban designer in Glendale’s planning department. “In that sense, it’s very successful.”

City officials hope the convention center will turn Pasadena into more of a regional draw.

Mayor Bill Bogaard, who has been the elected mayor of Pasadena since 1999, said the last decade was a boom period “both in terms of private development -- something like 4,000 residential units have been constructed -- and in the public sector. The city decided it wanted to invest for its future.”

That meant the creation of the Paseo Colorado, which was built by a private developer, and the renovation of the public buildings. Bogaard said that the new convention center will allow Pasadena to compete with other cities in the region and will support Pasadena’s restaurants, retail and cultural offerings. The center, he said, “represents this city’s efforts to increase business conferences and conventions that occur here.”

The design, by Fentress Architects, adds a sleek building on either side of the Civic Auditorium. One contains the former convention center, remodeled now into a series of meeting and conference spaces; the other holds the ballroom and exhibit hall. The two buildings -- mirror images of each other -- are connected underground and share a parking lot and truck-loading docks.

But the design process was not without controversy. Architect Curtis Fentress said he attended what seemed like hundreds of meetings about the center, as some in the city advocated for a more modern design while others pushed for something closer to the 1932 Civic Auditorium.

The final design, which is modern in structure but includes some historic flourishes, including red clay tile roofs that evoke the Civic Auditorium’s, “settled the deadlock between the historical society and the planning commission,” Fentress said.

“I am really pleased with how it turned out,” he added. “It wasn’t as historic as the Civic Auditorium, and you knew it was of a different time.”

Jack Kyser, chief economist with the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., predicted “quite positive” results for the city, in part because Pasadena is one of only a handful of cities in the region to have a full-fledged convention center.

“The added attraction for Pasadena is that it has cachet,” Kyser said. “Everybody is familiar with Pasadena because of the Rose Parade. It’s got a lot of amenities, a lot of nice restaurants. . . . They offer quite a bit.”