The first part of Patch's Q&A with South Pasadena City Manager Sergio Gonzalez, published on Tuesday, was largely about the factors that make So Pas a strong city—prudent fiscal management, robust property values, and an attractive business environment. In this second installment of the Q&A, Gonzalez continues his discussion about South Pasadena as a locus of transit-oriented development and the virtues of a lifestyle less dependent on motorcars:
Patch: The South Pasadena Farmers’ Market has grown considerably over the past few years. What do you think is the main reason?
Sergio Gonzalez: Mass transit. The Gold Line is an examples of what mass transit can do to a local economy. We’ve been fighting the 710 freeway for over 60 years. People have been beating their heads over the wall trying to move cars. And we say, Don’t move cars—move people. Our neighbor, Pasadena, has estimated that the number of stops and the public transportation system that they have now with the Gold Line has encouraged close to a $1 billion in investments in their city. A billion dollars. And you’re looking at a city that, before the mass transit developments were there, was a city that was struggling financially.
But mass transit is not only a win for the city. It’s also a win for people having access to housing close to where they work. You got people who, 10 or 20 years ago buying houses far away. But if you have transit-oriented developments, you can get them to live and work very close by. That not only helps their quality of live—because they spend less time driving and traveling—it also reduces air pollution because you have less people on the road.
So, our Mission-Meridian transit-oriented development is certainly one that we’re very proud of. Not only do we want to use it for that area, but also for the ripple effect for the entire stretch of Mission, all the way to Fair Oaks, and even westbound, further down to the Arroyo. Mission Street is what we consider a very walkable street. When you walk there you don’t even know that you’re in Southern California. You see these brickstone buildings and you make a left to these craftsmen homes on certain streets. Fair Oaks unfortunately is a very major thoroughfare. But you can’t avoid that—you’re going to have lots of cars coming north and south. But that’s also where you can have larger businesses—maybe even chains.
Mission, on the other hand, we want to keep very local, with owner-operated businesses, a place where residents feel comfortable walking, going to Mike and Anne’s, sitting down at Busters with a coffee and wifi and watching the trains go by. In the next two months, you’re going to see two new restaurants in the Mission-Meridian area—Aro, a Latin restaurant on Mission and Diamond, and an Crossings, what we call an upscale chop house, right next to Busters. We’re very excited about the synergy that those new restaurants are going to have on Mission Street.
Patch: What’s coming up on the corner of Mission and Fremont, diagonally across the gas station, where Christmas trees are sold every year?
Gonzalez: That’s been a vacant property for a long time. We certainly hope the property owner considers doing something with it. Unfortunately we don’t have the ability to coax people to develop their own land. But we can certainly encourage them but giving them copies of the study that we did and putting them in touch with people who want to invest in the community. We’re certainly very aware of that empty lot and want it to be more than just a pumpkin or tree lot.
Patch: The Monrovia Redevelopment Agency has signs at certain places in the city that say, essentially, When the economy is down, it’s the best time to develop.
Gonzalez: Yes, when the economy is in a downturn, construction costs are lower and property owners would rather have their properties filled than vacant. The leases that people can get per square foot are much more favorable. Obviously, we have a Chamber of Commerce in this city, and they’re doing a great job. But we have a small chamber of commerce. I think they have one fulltime employee. Actually, they have two employees—one fulltime, one part time.
Patch: Can you talk a little bit about the South Pasadena School District’s plan to develop a mixed-use residential and commercial area on land that they own, and how the projects fits into the city’s desire to have people live close to where they work.
Gonzales: Let me start by saying that South Pasadena is a very safe city. You have two fantastic incentives for young families—or just about anybody who wants to live here. We’re only eight miles from downtown L.A. You can get to downtown in 10 minutes—Metro takes about 20 minutes, but if you get on the 110 South you’re there in 10 minutes. If you take the Metro, you can read the newspaper, catch up on your work, and not even have to fight traffic.
The school district project as we understand it—and this is not a city project—is in negotiations with a developer to develop their [the school district’s] property on Mission and Fairview, which is a vacant parking lot. It has been considered the missing tooth of Mission Street for many decades because you have building after building in the area and then you have a parking lot. And so, what I believe the school district is looking to do is to develop the parking lot, via a private developer, to bring in retail, whether it be restaurants or whatever, as long as they adhere to the Missions Street Specific Plan, which has restrictions on the type of businesses and their size and height. But they [the school district] are also looking at bringing in residential units so that they can have people live there.
It’s going to be very difficult to attract a private developer to come in and just build restaurants and retail. They [private developers] need to amortize their investment, and the best way to get their return on their investment is through real estate, whether it be the sale of apartments or condos or renting. So, unfortunately a lot of these deals contain a residential component because people are not going to do it out of the good of their hearts—they’ve got to make some money back. Such a project would not only provide parking for retail and tenants but also have the ability to provide free public parking.
Patch: Is it conceivable that new housing in South Pasadena be built around the idea that people who live there are not going to drive?
Gonzalez: You know, this is an area that’s about 800 feet from a light rail station. We certainly believe that the average family can have a need for only one car instead of two cars. This city is very pedestrian-friendly, it’s very bike-friendly. You can basically do your shopping nearby. Take your bike. Walk to the library nearby or go to a park. You can pretty much do everything in this city without a car. And that’s very convenient for our residents.
Patch: Maybe the city could organize a Zip Car program?
Gonzalez: Well, if there’s a private company that wants to come in and help us with that, we’d certainly be open. As a city, specifically as we’ve been fighting the 710 freeway from coming through here, we’ve been promoting the idea that people should get out of the car. In large cities like Portland, New York, San Francisco, it’s cost-prohibitive to have a car because you have to pay for parking everywhere, besides maintenance and operations of a vehicle. You look at Japan—it’s very expensive to own a car there. People use public transportation there—it’s very dependable, reliable and financially feasible.
Patch: Let's say that this proposed school district project were open only to residents who live in South Pas without vehicles. Do you think it would be seen as revolutionary for Los Angeles?
Gonzalez: Oh, absolutely. Santa Monica, if I’m not mistaken, has done a similar project where there are no parking spaces. That is what we call a paradigm shift, right? We’ve become very car-dependant, car-concentrated. And we need to take that leap. But we also have to be careful that we’re not spreading the problem somewhere else in that one development comes in and everybody is parking in front of somebody else’s place.
To be continued.