The Dilemma of Density

In April 2004 the City Council of Pasadena California passed a 45-day moratorium on new residential construction in the downtown district.  A response to growing public concern about the scale and pace of development in the downtown, the moratorium was the first official act in a summer marked by contentious debate about the future of Pasadena, a debate that has continued – like the construction – well past the 45-day moratorium.  Nonetheless, it was a short respite from four years of concentrated and rapid building, which has introduced some 3000 additional households to the downtown, transforming the character and population of Pasadena’s urban center.[1]

Such intense growth is not unique to Pasadena other historic city centers in Southern California are experiencing similar transformations as population growth prompts a density of development hitherto not associated with the suburban metropolis of the region.

However, Pasadena’s unique physical geography, “Smart Growth” planning framework, and tradition of citizen engagement both compresses and amplifies the transformative dimensions of growth, making it an ideal case study to examine the demographic pressures inducing densification, the urban design and architectural response to density, and the community reaction to changing urban landscape. The experience in Pasadena is therefore relevant throughout the region and similar suburban metropolises considering the “dilemma of density.”

Pasadena is ten miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles at the base of the monumental San Gabriel Mountains.  It is one of the largest cities in orbit of Los Angeles proper; and the principal employment and entertainment center of the San GabrielValley on the eastern side of the County.  Even before incorporation in 1886, Pasadena maintained a distinct civic and cultural identity from other cities in greater Los Angeles.  By the early 1900s, the Pasadena was a popular winter home for the midwest elite, spawning a variety of famous resort hotels – the Castle Green, the Raymond, the Huntington, and others.  This historic wealth was deposited in a series of nationally famous institutions that today sustain the city’s intellectual culture – CalTech, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Art Center College of Design, the NortonSimonMuseum of Art, the HuntingtonLibraryGardens and Galleries, and the annual Rose Parade and Rose Bowl football game.

Pasadena’s neighborhoods are thus a mixture of craftsman-style and mission-revival homes, large mature street trees, and bungalow courts and other forms of courtyard housing popular in the Los Angeles area during the early 20th century – arguably the region’s best representation of the Arts & Crafts movement. There are still neighborhoods in Pasadena whose appearance has changed little since the 1930s, a fact codified by seventeen historic neighborhoods including eight national register districts, of which five are located within the downtown.[2]

The historic commercial center known as Old Pasadena, was subject to a series of concerted revitalization efforts in the 1980s, which focused on historic rehabilitation, infill development and shared parking programs.  It has since become a textbook case study in downtown revival.  Today the entire central Pasadena area accounts for one-half of the City’s jobs, a quarter of its retail sales, and a tenth of its total population.[3]

In the 1980s density arrived in Pasadena, as single-family bungalows in the city’s neighborhoods were slowly replaced with multifamily projects called “six-packs.”  The “six-pack” occupies a 50-60ft wide single-family lot with six two-story townhouses arranged perpendicular to the street.  Open space of “six-packs” is limited to a narrow sidewalk on one side of the lot that leads to units’ “front doors” and on the other side is a concrete gully that permits cars to access the semi-underground parking garages below the townhouses.  The result was a multi-family prototype architecturally incompatible with surrounding neighborhoods, and an anti-density movement was born.[4]

In response, the City adopted the award-winning “City of Gardens” ordinance in 1989.[5]  It applies to multi-family housing between 16 and 48 units per acre, and as suggested by the name, emphasizes the garden or court.  The precedent behind the design standards is the historic patterns of garden apartments that typify the most-admired multi-family housing in Pasadena.[6]  As ordinance co-author Phoebe Wall writes, it “goes beyond controlling land uses, setbacks and height limits.  It folds design controls into zoning and pushes zoning into the context-sensitive realm of preserving neighborhoods.”[7]  The ordinance therefore governs architectural typology, rather than numerical density or design style, and is recognized as one of the first examples of what is now known as Form-Based Coding.[8]

The community of Pasadena is therefore familiar with controversial and public discussions on the subject of growth, density and architectural standards, and the current debate over high-density development in the downtown echoes the attitudes that generated the City of Gardens ordinance over a decade ago.

Recent construction in central Pasadena, however, is at a density beyond the reach of the City of Gardens ordinance.  Like many cities in Southern California, Pasadena has recently experienced a proliferation of four and five story, mid-density residential buildings, with anywhere between 30 to 300 “luxury” apartments or condos.  No less than 25 such projects have been built in the downtown since 2000, with perhaps another 25 in various stages of the approval process.[9]

Most of these new buildings are constructed on a one or two story concrete podium of parking, sometimes located fully below ground, but often as not only partially submerged and exposed to the sidewalk by at least half a floor.  Extruded straight up from this podium with little setback or variation are four stories of wood framed to a “crew cut” height – maximizing the envelope allowed by Type V construction, the cheapest technology permitted by the building code.[10]  Apartments are typically one-story “flats” stacked atop each other, and frequently arranged around large courtyards.  These courts exist as largely visual space to provide light to interior-facing units – since apartments are usually accessed from common elevators and hallways, the court is not a shared social space through which all residents pass to reach their front doors, as they do in the historic garden apartments that inspired the City of Gardens ordinance.  The exterior is typically painted stucco, with various foam moldings to provide detail around windows, which are usually clad in vinyl (again, the cheapest form of construction).  The result of this construction and programmatic formula are buildings made in domestic materials of wood and stucco, but at a size and volume that has generally been associated with the region’s steel, concrete, and stone commercial structures.

As architecture, these buildings represent a new residential typology in the region – but a typology that has yet to experience significant architectural accomplishment. In Pasadena, these new buildings are considered too tall, too big, and too banal in the context of the city’s rich architectural heritage, which includes hundreds of craftsman bungalows and courts as well as exquisite residential, commercial and civic work by early 20th century architects like Greene & Greene, Myron Hunt, Wallace Neff, and Sylvanus Marston.[11]

Recent construction in downtown Pasadena is not merely a reflection of current market trends, but also a direct consequence of planning policies outlined by the City’s landmark 1994 General Plan.  The General Plan is the policy blueprint that guides citywide development.[12]  Generated out of extensive community participation and endorsed by a ballot referendum, the ‘94 Pasadena General Plan aims to protect the city’s famous leafy neighborhoods of single-family bungalows from over-development by directing future residential growth to the downtown and key commercial corridors, a strategy intended to reduce traffic within neighborhoods and reinforce historic centers by concentrating growth within walking distance of the city’s existing and successful shopping districts, principal vehicular corridors, and the Gold Line light rail train to Los Angeles.[13]  Accordingly, the Pasadena General Plan establishes

“an overall pattern of development that directs growth ‘into specific areas in order to protect residential neighborhoods and create mixed-use urban environments.’ … These areas are based on a concept higher-density, mixed-use environments that support transit- and pedestrian-oriented mobility strategies.”[14]

As a result of such statements, Pasadena’s ’94 General Plan received numerous planning awards, particularly those that favor “Smart Growth” principles. [15]

Detailed design standards for new development downtown is articulated by the Central District Specific Plan, prepared from 1999 through 2004.[16]  The Specific Plan establishes a variety of public policies, planning concepts, design guidelines, allowable land uses, and development restrictions for eighteen distinct areas within the downtown.[17]  Most of these precincts, such as Old Pasadena, already have coherent visual and economic identities as the result of both historic development patterns and past planning efforts.  For these areas, the Specific Plan policies and guidelines are directed towards maintenance and enhancement.  The Plan also identifies a number of precincts directly outside these core areas that are presently of a relatively low intensity, yet also adjacent to Gold Line rail stations, and “are ripe for infill and higher density transit-oriented development.”[18] Accordingly, the Plan promotes a fairly dramatic transformation of these zones into “urban villages” of 48 to 87 dwelling units per acre.

By the time the Central District Specific Plan was completed, a significant number of buildings had been constructed under older guidelines, and public resistance to the character and scale of growth in downtown had developed in Pasadena.[19]  The moratorium opened fault lines in the community between those who supported growth and a continuation of policies set in motion by the 1994 General Plan, and those who felt recent development warranted some form of reconsideration.

Former Mayor Rick Cole, who presided over the ‘94 General Plan process, recognized that this division was emerging again.  During his opening address at a May 1st symposium on growth hosted by the Pasadena Neighborhood Coalition, he warned, “‘We are plowing forward into choppy waters,’ … returning ‘to an era when growth is an issue that divides our community.’” [20]

On June 4, 2004, council member Steve Madison, who represents West Pasadena and would ultimately be the only council member to vote against the Central District Specific Plan, assembled a second symposium to consider downtown development called “Whither Pasadena?”  During the symposium, local architect and co-founder of the Congress for New Urbanism, Stefanos Polyzoides said, “Density is important, the important question is where to put it.” He elaborated, “You have to take a deep breath and realize that downtown Pasadena has never been and never will be a city of gardens.  It’s a false war to try to attack downtown Pasadena as being too urban.”  Although audience applause suggested considerable support for the positions taken by Polyzoides his projects were not exempt from the “hideous,” “too tall,” and “industrial look” commentary applied by post-it note to renderings of recent developments on display during the symposium.

Not surprisingly, the adoption of the Central District Specific Plan did not resolve disagreements about the future of downtown Pasadena.  The first project to pass through the new zoning rules, a 54-unit and restaurant building, was “called up” out of Design Commission for review by council member Madison.  Nearby residents who are sandwiched between quiet residential streets and zones designated for transit-oriented, urban village housing, hoped that Council would reject the proposal, but the project was in compliance with the three-month old Specific Plan, and approved in February 2005 with only Mr. Madison in opposition.[21]

Later in 2005, opposition also emerged to an 824-unit “urban village” proposed for a 12-acre site adjacent to Old Pasadena.  Currently six blocks of single-story industrial warehouses and surface parking lots, the Westgate site is within a 5-minute walk of the Old Pasadena retail district and the Del Mar Gold Line station, but otherwise on the fringe of downtown, separated from adjoining residential neighborhoods by the 710 Freeway stub.  In recognition of this situation, the Central District Specific Plan highlighted this site for higher density residential development.  The proposed design respects the existing street grid, employs three different types of open space, and a mixture of architectural typologies, styles and building heights to mitigate the monotony typical of large projects executed by one hand.  “Really urban and sensitively done!” juror Douglas Kelbaugh stated when the project won the 2005 Charter Award from the Congress for New Urbanism.  Notwithstanding this endorsement by the nation’s leading smart growth organization, activist Mike Volger, who holds seats on both the West Pasadena Residents Association and its sister group Save South Orange Grove, said the project “is absolutely outrageous.”[22]

Although vocal opposition to growth in downtown Pasadena continues, the Central District Specific Plan, like the ’94 General Plan, has been collecting a series of prestigious planning awards, including one of five National Awards for Smart Growth Achievement from the EPA.[23]

At the heart of Pasadena’s debate over growth is the issue of community identity.  Questions about the size and density of individual buildings, about traffic impacts of new development, and about the open space necessary to support additional population, are questions about expressions of the visual character and the city’s sense of place – how urban, how metropolitan, how green is the Pasadena in contrast to its neighbors?  Moreover, such concerns are not merely physical, but also have an intimate relationship to the cultural and political life of the city, and its historical traditions.  Resistance to new apartment construction is not merely a fear of density, but also represents an anxiety that a tradition of civic engagement will be disrupted as the balance of renters to owners shifts in the city.  The problem of traffic is not only a numerical data stream that affects the average concerned commuter, but a balancing act between cars and people that is integral to the city’s sense of itself as a pedestrian-oriented village.  The issue is not merely a two-dimensional planning question, but fundamentally about design and, therefore, architecture.  And perhaps, if the experience of the City of Gardens ordinance is a precedent, then it is ultimately through architecture that these questions will be answered.

While these issues seem particularly acute in the “City of Gardens,” a similar narrative could be written in Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Hollywood, or in other lesser-known cities across the basin and valleys.  Cities throughout the region are facing similar pressures to resolve pent up housing demand and an expanding population while having virtually no open land left for further development.  Viewed regionally, the pressures are overwhelming.  Demographers expect that the regional population will grow by 6 million people, or twice the size of Chicago, within the next ten years.  Open land for conventional suburban sprawl is increasingly remote, while the principal job centers remain concentrated in key city-center locations.  From the regional perspective, the only solution to this cluster of problems is infill and intensification of existing city centers, particularly those like Pasadena that are rich in transit, employment, and entertainment resources.[24]  The applied experience on the ground in Pasadena demonstrates, however, that such regional planning still needs to be carefully calibrated to local conditions, culture and politics.   But at present, the architectural and urban design resolution to the consequence of this planning remains uncertain, as the City of Pasadena considers the dilemma of density.

[1] Gene Maddaus and Gary Scott “City OKs Growth Moratorium,” Pasadena Star News, 20 April, 2004; Gene Maddaus “Construction Moratorium Said to Lack ‘Teeth’,” Pasadena Star News, 20 April, 2004; and Cynthia Daniels and Kristina Sauerwein “Pasadena Building Moratorium Gets Initial OK,” Los Angeles Times, 20 April, 2004

[2] City of Pasadena, Planning Division, Design and Historic Preservation Section

[3] City of Pasadena, Central District Specific Plan, Environmental Impact Report, Executive Summary, pg ES-18

[4] Of course, the anti-density trend was not unique to Pasadena in the early 80s.  See Mike Davis, City of Quartz (London / New York: Verso Books, 1990) pp 151-219

[5] City of Pasadena “A City of Gardens, the Pasadena Ordinance for Multi Family Housing” and “36th Annual P/A Awards” in Progressive Architecture, Volume LXX, Number 1, January 1989, pp 116-117

[6] The definitive book on this typology is Stefanos Polyzoides, Roger Sherwood, and James Tice, Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982; 2nd edition – New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1992)

[7] Phoebe Wall, “A City of Gardens: The Challenges of Implementation” in Architecture California, Volume 12, Number 1, August 1990, pp 45-50

[8] “’Pasadena is one of the first cities to have a form-based code,’ says [local architect Stefanos] Polyzoides. ‘The form has to be clearly stipulated.  There was such a reaction to bad, dense neighborhoods of 15 years ago that Pasadena wrote the City of Gardens ordinance, calling for less dense housing.’” (quote from “Courtyard Housing” by Martha McDonald in Clem Lebine’s Period Homes magazine, September 2005)  For more on “Form-Based Coding” see the Form Based Code Institute (

[9] Based upon various information drawn from the City of Pasadena, Planning Division

[10] Resulting in the developer shorthand terminology of “four over two” or “4+2”

[11] “Like others, Askin is not opposed to development in the abstract, just the particular buildings that have gone up lately.  ‘It’s just a force that’s changing things,’ he said. ‘The people who develop these things need to have a sensibility.  There’s a lack of aesthetics, a lack of a sense of culture.’ Quoted in Gene Maddaus, “City Wrestles with Growth Question,” Pasadena Star News, 21 June 2004

[12] For details on General Plans, see William Fulton, Guide to California Planning (Point Arena, California: Solano Press, 1999; 2nd edition) pp 102-124

[13] Rick Cole, currently City Manager of Ventura, was Mayor of Pasadena during the 1994 General Plan process, and is a leading advocate of smart growth and new urbanism in Southern California.

[14] City of Pasadena Central District Specific Plan, pg 2 “Document Overview: Purpose: Relation to the General Plan”

[15] Including the 1994 Awahanee Award from the Local Government Commission (named after the Awahanee Principles, the fore-runner to the Charter for the New Urbanism)

[16] The City’s prime consultant on the Specific Plan was RTKL Associates of Los Angeles

[17] For more on specific plans, see William Fulton, Guide to California Planning (Point Arena, California: Solano Press, 1999; 2nd edition) pp 203-211

[18] City of Pasadena, Central District Specific Plan, pg 17 “Physical Context: Land Use: Building Intensity”

[19] See for example, Gene Maddaus, “Building Projects in Old Pasadena Facing Opposition,” Pasadena Star News, 19 Jan 2004; and Gene Maddaus, “Council Divided on Condo Plan,” Pasadena Star News, 10 Feb 2004

[20] Gene Maddaus, “Meeting Focuses on Downtown Aesthetics,” Pasadena Star News, 02 May 2004

[21] Gene Maddaus, “Arroyo Parkway Project Approved,” Pasadena Star News, 14 Feb 2005; the project, named “The Milan” is by Champion Development with Studio One Eleven of Long Beach as the architect.

[22] 2005 Charter Awards (Chicago: Congress for the New Urbanism, 2005), pp 18-19; Gary Scott, “Anti-Growth Activists Want to Yank Welcome Mat Away from Westgate,” Pasadena Star News, 07 Aug 2005

[23] Zach Fox, “EPA Honors Pasadena for ‘Smart Growth’,” Pasadena Star News, 16 Nov 2005; the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Planning Association also recognized the Central District Specific Plan with the 2005 Comprehensive Planning award.

[24] See, for example, the 2% Solution, by SCAG

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