Guest Reviews | Marsha Rood: Pedestrian improvements for the Central District: More promise, less delivery – Pasadena Now

Marsha Rood

Pasadena’s long-standing vision is for major residential and commercial growth in the center of the city, the Central District. Undoubtedly, he was hugely successful. Yet the livability and walkability of the neighborhood has been over-promised, but under-delivered. Walkability makes density work and reduces the need for a car. In the 2004 Central district specific plan, City policies envisioned the neighborhood as the “hub” of major pedestrian activity. The purpose of the Particular Plan was to make walking the “mode of choice” for short journeys by providing a “safe, convenient and comfortable place to walk”. We are now in 2022 and only modest, ad hoc Pedestrian improvements have been made since the adoption of the Plan Particulier almost 20 years ago.

Pedestrian improvements did not follow tsunami of development in the central district. Funding is available – in fact, it is generated by the very development that creates the need. In July 2017, the City Council amended the Traffic Reduction and Transport Improvement Mitigation Fee Ordinance to include pedestrian and bicycle improvements. Since this amendment was passed, an estimated 85% of the $6.5 million or $5.5 million in mitigation costs has been generated by developments in the Central District; but, for the most part, these costs are spent outside the central district, the epicenter of traffic impacts.

To cope with these developments and reduce car use, the Quartier Central needs a robust and safe pedestrian network. Reducing traffic impacts outside the Central District and increasing walkability within the Central District are not mutually exclusive goals. In fact, they work together to reduce the City’s carbon footprint. If you are walking, you are not driving.


Our task as Pasadenians is to invest not only in the city in which we live, but in the city in which we want to On May 2, 2022, the Pasadena City Council approved the capital improvement program (CIP) budget for fiscal year 2022-2027. To realize the city’s vision and used strategically, CIP can be a transformative investment to improve the physical urban landscape of the city as well as its economic health. However, of the $16.7 million allocated in the FY2023 CIP for streets and streetscapes, street lighting, and transportation projects, only $30,000.00 or 0.02% is specifically aimed at the central district. Importantly, these credits reflect the recommendations of the City’s recent pedestrian plan project, Pasadena Walks! (January 2022). Although this plan indicates that the Central District has the “highest potential” for walkability in the city, only one (1) of the 154 recommended projects is reserved for the Central District. The main reason is that the original goal of the plan was to reduce the number of pedestrian injuries and fatalities at crosswalks along the city’s main north-south and east-west traffic corridors. This effort should be applauded; however, it lacks the “walkability” mark in the Central District – Pasadena’s densest area. Simply having buildings adjacent to each other does not guarantee walkability – it just sets the stage.


The main purpose of a city is to maximize choice and minimize distance. For this reason, the walkability in urban geographic areas is critical. Pedestrians walk in a “grid pattern” in denser mixed-use areas. A safe and pleasant walking environment is the key to making this work. Running through intersections shouldn’t be the way to get side to side. A grid makes it easier for pedestrians to access various designations – to take shortcuts within an area. Above all, Pedestrian connections better connect Pasadena residents and visitors to major downtown shopping areas – Old Pasadena, Civic Center/Midtown, Playhouse Village and South Lake Avenue. The central district has more than the highest potential for walking in the city – people are walking now in the district and will do so for the foreseeable future. We should make it easier and safer for people to get around without a car. In a competition between horses and power at the foot, power always wins. Drivers who cause pedestrian crashes rarely suffer the physical consequences, but pedestrians always suffer.

The central district has the highest concentration of residents, employees, businesses, hotels, cultural and entertainment venues, offices, educational institutions, services and public buildings in the city, and more are on the way. According to the 2020 U.S. Census, there are approximately 25,000+ residents in the Central District city, with over 30,000 by 2025. It is important to note that the district has an estimated workforce of 50,000 people. This concentration of uses and the increase in residential density in the city requires walkability to make the neighborhood work – be a “City 15 minutes away” where people can “driving without a car”. We are below. According to local government commission, 75% of vehicle trips in California are less than a mile. In communities that have a compact, pedestrian-friendly environment, the Commission found that people are four times more likely to walk to their destination than to drive.

The last major pedestrian improvements in the Central District were made in Old Pasadena about 25 years ago, before the Central District’s strong population growth.


Five minutes all over town email survey conducted for the Walks in Pasadena! plan could not and did not identify the fine and nuanced pedestrian improvements needed to make the Central District a more livable and attractive urban space. Reinventing urban spaces for people requires a different mindset – when you focus on place, you do things differently. Well-known elements of the “pedestrian tool kit” are needed to turn Pitches in places. These elements are illustrated in the Pedestrian walks! plan, but few have been recommended for funding.

The fine nature of the pedestrian experience requires fine pedestrian enhancements. Those who live and walk around the neighborhood know the area best and should play a major role in deciding what is needed. Some fine pedestrian improvements to be funded in the FY 2023-2027 CIP budget include: (1) heavily stripped and lit pedestrian crossings; (2) “blurred” pedestrian intersections; (3) recessed (“LED”) lighting in pedestrian crossings; (4) warning signs and flashing yellow pedestrian lights; (5) synchronized traffic lights timed to slow traffic; (6) raised pedestrian crossings; (7) more canopy streets (8) more time for pedestrians to cross intersections; (9) Pedestrian scale lighting, signage, garbage cans, etc. (10) traffic calming; (11) wayfinding signs for pedestrians…and many more. Compared to system-wide measures to “tame the car”, including rail transport and improving vehicle corridors, most fine improvements for pedestrians can be implemented in the very short term, are modest in cost and can be phased in to match funding availability. . These modest investments can generate significant economic benefits for the City as a whole. As famous economic strategist and land use author Christopher Leinberger said, “…all the fanciful economic strategies…regardless of the ‘flavor of the month’ of current economic development, cannot hold a candle to the power of a large pedestrian urban venue.”


If not now when? The central district is growing by leaps and bounds due to the city’s property boom and continued commercial development. The number of people who will live in the Central District over the next five years – more than 30,000 – is almost three times the population of the city of Sierra Madre. Compared to other cities, Pasadena lags behind other cities in planning and funding pedestrian improvements. Merely having in a dense and compact area does not guarantee walking – the spaces Between buildings must be “knit together” to work for pedestrians. These spaces are the most important because it is where people gather and experience community.

For the most part, Pasadena’s transportation studies and funding priorities are viewed through the lens of the car, resulting in a very narrow (and pre-determined) set of recommendations. These recommendations can prevent bad things from happening, but not guarantee good ones. Pedestrian plans must first and foremost focus on pedestrians – make it more inviting, easier and safer to walk in dense and compact “urban villages” like the central district. William H. White, famous urban planner and author of Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, said to design urban spaces, It’s hard to design a space that doesn’t attract people. What is remarkable is the frequency with which this has been accomplished.


The city council must pay attention to the livability and walkability of the city center – it is up to everything from Pasadena. Improving the together Central District should be the focus, not just individual districts. By bringing our four Central District Council members to “think outside the neighborhood, progress can be made. As Albert Einstein said, “Politics is not about good ideas; good ideas are obvious. Politics is about forming coalitions to act. Can the city council form coalitions to sustain and improve the physical downtown urban landscape and its economic health? For the most part, the city council is focusing on private development, not on public spaces in between. But together, private facilities and public spaces create precious places. Pasadena and its downtown are precious places – how long can we keep it that way?

Marsha Rood is a Fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners and Vice President of the Downtown Pasadena Neighborhood Association. She served as the city’s development administrator from 1982 to 2000 and has been a resident of the Central District for 20 years.

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