Pasadena, California, one of many communities with traditional downtowns that have become more attractive and valuable over the past decade in part because of their embedded transportation infrastructure, was the backdrop for the ULI Los Angeles Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) Summit 2011, held in June.

Before the era of sprawling freeways, Pasadena was a walkable urban community. By the early 1900s, with seven rail lines in place-five streetcar lines serving the city itself and two interurban rail lines linking it with other cities—Pasadena emerged as an alternative for relocated Midwesterners moving just north of bustling Los Angeles. Today, Pasadena bustles with its own en­­ergy, now with modern light rail.

The TOD Summit 2011 is the second such event held by ULI L.A. The first was modeled on the success of the San Francisco Bay area’s TOD Marketplace and ULI’s advisory services program. Over the past year leading up to the summit, a set of four technical assistance panels (TAPs) were completed – in Santa Monica, Inglewood, Baldwin Park, and Compton. At single-day design charrettes, a panel of volunteer experts provided these communities with TOD planning assistance and advice on strategy, including station-area planning in advance of light rail construction; on integration of retail uses with new transit center facilities; and on the introduction of civic space and housing adjacent to an existing commuter rail station. TAP results were then presented at community meetings and briefs presented at the summit.

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The apartments at Holly Street Village

The choice of cities for these TAPs reflects a necessary emphasis on projects of a relatively small scale compared with larger, more archetypal subway TODs. For the past two years, Los Angeles County has collected sales tax revenues under Measure R, which will provide $40 billion to fund transit projects over the next 30 years. This funding will help remake what at one time was one of the country’s largest urban rail systems as, primarily, streetcar lines set on a grid.

 Much of the right-of-way corridors used by the two early Pasadena interurban rail lines survives today. A portion of one is used by Pasadena’s modern light-rail Metro Gold Line, which runs north to the city from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. Completed in 2003, the route has seen ridership rise steadily, and now construction of an extension using a portion of another old right-of-way is underway. The Gold Line Foothill Extension will travel east from Pasadena, connecting the city to San Gabriel Mountain communities—including Arcadia, Monrovia, Duarte, Irwindale, and Azusa—that owe part credit for their urbanization to rail lines initiated by Henry E. Huntington, who in the first decades of the 20th century already understood how development opportunities would follow transit.

This year’s venue for the TOD Summit, the convention center in downtown Pasadena, is easily accessible from the Gold Line—a short walk from either the Del Mar or Memorial Park stations, both of which have model TOD projects. The triangle formed by these three locations illustrates the walkability of an old-style grid community like Pasadena, the rediscovery of which in part inspired the efforts of new urbanism. Today, this portion of the much larger Pasadena urban area is a hub of retail, restaurant, and entertainment activity known as Old Town. To its credit, Pasadena has worked hard in this area on urban planning, design control, business development, and parking management. Streets are kept clean and well lit and cater to storefront retail businesses—important because in addition to its access for pedestrians and light-rail passengers, Old Pasadena is still conveniently accessible by freeway.

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Apartments at Del Mar Station.

Over time, transportation in Old Town Pasadena has become multi­modal, accommodating visitors arriving by either automobile or rail, with a pedestrian scale deliberately maintained in order to preserve the character that has helped make the area so successful. Retaining community character was also the design objective at the Mission Meridian TOD, located in the city of South Pasadena. Following morning program sessions at the summit, tours of TOD projects at these three stations for summit participants demonstrated firsthand the types of TOD possible at a scale replicable in communities across the country.

The choice of TAPs further demonstrates how the popular conception of L.A. as a car-reliant city is being turned on its head by the more than 100 TOD projects being considered. Just as Greater Los Angeles owes its early growth to rail lines, current and future growth will be accommodated using a combination of public transit modes; bloggers now note how it is possible to live in L.A. without a car.

Plenary sessions at the TOD Summit examined how to keep development moving this direction—an important question because the state government, faced with a budget crisis, has voted to eliminate redevelopment authorities as they are now constituted. Undeterred, those at the summit noted that attention needs to be paid to the affordability of TOD communities in order to support what is now known as equitable TOD.

Unlike the conspiracy played out in the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit, it was not a freeway conglomerate that was the undoing of the streetcar in Pasadena—at least initially, when in 1925 the lines were converted to provide bus service; it was the relatively high operating and maintenance costs of the many private firms that helped build the early system. Cars would take their turn as subsequently the nation’s first “freeway” ran north from Los Angeles to Pasadena in 1940, initiating automobile-oriented development patterns that would dominate post–World War II growth nationwide.

Today, rail transit rejoins buses and cars as part of the overall transportation mix, and TOD projects at rail stations like those in Pasadena set the stage for a new pattern of denser, more walkable development that also helps cut greenhouse gas emissions. It is ironic that the Midwesterners who settled Pasadena for its excellent climate are now battling global climate change by helping development professionals elsewhere learn from Pasadena.