The City of South Pasadena became a commuter suburb in 1895 with the development of the Los Angeles Consolidated Electric Railway. The railway carried commuters along the Pasadena-South Pasadena line to office and factory jobs in Los Angeles from the beginning of the 20th century through the system’s heyday in the early 1940s. In 1961, the railway route through South Pasadena was converted to a bus route, and more than 50 years passed before the City was once again served by commuter rail.
After the retirement of the railway route, South Pasadena’s historic downtown lost much of its vitality, as the City’s economic center shifted eastward to Fair Oaks Boulevard, a strip commercial corridor, and the area around the intersection of Mission Street and Meridian Avenue within the historic downtown came to be dominated by antique stores run more as hobbies than as active retail concerns. As a consequence, both Mission Street and its businesses were underutilized. With the 2003 opening of the Los Angeles County Metro Rail Gold Line and the opening of a rail station at the intersection of Mission and Meridian, the area was reenergized. The reintroduction of light rail and construction of new transit-oriented development (TOD) projects spurred a considerable turnover in businesses and renewed vitality on Mission Street. On Thursday evenings, shoppers from near and far now detrain to frequent South Pasadena’s Farmers’ Market; on weekends they come to stroll and patronize the restaurants and specialty shops. Residents are once again able to ride the train from South Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles and beyond.
The centerpiece of TOD in South Pasadena is the Mission Meridian Village, a mixed-use project on 1.65 acres just steps from Metro’s Mission station. Designed by the architectural firm Moule & Polyzoides and developed by Creative Housing Associates, Mission Meridian Village comprises a brick loft building, several courtyard residential buildings, and three single-family residences. The three-story mixed-use building houses 5,000 square feet of ground-floor retail and 14 loft condominiums, and is designed to reflect the character of the historic commercial buildings that line Mission Street. The remaining residential structures contain 50 units—condominiums, townhomes, and duplexes that range in size from 763 square feet to 2,400 square feet. The three single-family residences, fronting on Magnolia Street, provide a graceful transition to the adjoining residential neighborhood. Though all residential units were built for sale, the inclusion of very small units (the smallest are a mere 763 square feet) provided for affordability by design.
The project also includes 324 parking spaces situated in a two-level subterranean structure that extends the length of the project. Separate entrances are provided for public parking and private residential parking, with 142 spaces reserved for transit users.
The brilliance of the Moule & Polyzoides design for Mission Meridian Village is evident in the way it naturally blends into the surrounding neighborhood. While matching the scale and architecture of the adjoining commercial district was relatively easy, a more daunting task was that of placing a project that penciled out at 40 dwelling units per acre cheek by jowl with 80-year old bungalows that averaged only 4 units per acre. To accomplish this, the architects used a courtyard design that is common in older bungalow complexes in the City. From the street, the Mission Meridian residences look very much like the single-family and duplex bungalows they face on the other side of the street, and the increased density is barely apparent. The care which Moule & Polyzoides took in matching the scale and historic character of the surrounding neighborhoods was significant in winning community support in a neighborhood previously identified as resistant to redevelopment efforts and increases in density. Mission Meridian Village complements an already highly walkable district, extending neighborhood-serving commercial uses along Meridian Avenue. Both residential and commercial spaces are fully occupied. Commercial tenants include a bakery café, a flower shop, a clothing store, and a gym, all of which are locally owned.
Mission Meridian Village is the result of an innovative public-private partnership between Creative Housing Associates (CHA), the City of South Pasadena, The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), and the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). According to Michael Dieden, developer and founder of CHA, the likelihood of success at project inception in 1997 was close to zero. The community was concerned about negative impacts of the train—noise and interference with traffic—and it feared higher density and mixed-use developments would bring unwanted residents and change the quality-of-life of the neighborhood. To counter the not-in-my-backyard sentiment, CHA conducted aggressive outreach by presenting the project and TOD best practices to the community, and they conducted educational trips to show courtyard housing of various densities so community members could better judge how the proposed project would look and feel. CHA sponsored a series of 23 public meetings and workshops between November 1998 and April 2002, in addition to personal meetings and informal discussions with local businesses and community representatives. By engaging the community early on, CHA was able to build trust with the community and minimize opposition. The City Planning Council approved the project unanimously and Mission-Meridian Village was completed in the fall of 2005.
According to David Watkins, Director of Planning & Building for the City of South Pasadena, the development process was an outright success because of three factors: Mission Meridian Village’s exceptional architectural design that complemented the neighborhood, a proactive developer who engaged the community through outreach, and the City’s highly transparent approach to policy-making (the project was built under guidelines of South Pasadena’s Mission Street Specific Plan).
South Pasadenans, like residents of many Long Island communities, value small town ambience and gracious residential neighborhoods. At the outset, South Pasadenans worried that the increased density of TOD would detract from the look and feel of Mission Street and that the place would start to lose its charm and identity. They worried that new residents would burden the City’s school district. But none of their fears were realized. Their experience shows that TOD can be done at a scale that is appropriate in small towns and, with good design, increased density can be nearly invisible. Their experience also reveals these elements of success:
- Taking honest stock of demographic and economic realities;
- Envisioning a sustainable future;
- Paying close attention to planning details:
- Hammering out architectural guidelines to ensure that new development complements historic buildings;
- Deciding in advance where increased density will be allowed and where it will not;
- Engaging citizens in policy-making and project planning processes early and often; and
- Encouraging developers to come up with innovative ways to gracefully incorporate density into the downtown area.
South Pasadena’s effort has paid off. The retail fortunes of Mission Street have turned around and the City is enjoying the benefits of higher density development while continuing to enjoy the small town charm that distinguishes it from surrounding communities.
View the complete Mission Street Revitalization case study