For many years, Pasadena residents and business owners have considered the possibility of building a public transportation system to link the various communities within the city’s downtown area. This long-discussed proposal may finally become a reality, thanks to recent actions undertaken by city officials and downtown business organizations.

The City Council last month approved a proposal to construct a $100-million streetcar system in the city’s Central District as one of the project priorities for the Downtown Redevelopment Project Area. The feasibility, sources of financing and applicable technology for the system were analyzed in two reports issued in 2010 by Strategic Economics, a Berkeley-based consulting and research firm.

“It’s kind of a far-off proposal,” explained Erlinda Romo, executive director of the Playhouse District Association, one of the business organizations spearheading the streetcar system. “There’s no funding identified; it’s more like a wish list. But as more people get behind it, and if they can figure out a funding mechanism, it might happen.”

Romo and other supporters of the system maintain a streetcar will connect the various downtown business districts and neighborhoods by enabling people to park only once and then hop on the streetcar, easily traveling from one area to another.  The city, in cooperation with the Playhouse District Association, the Old Pasadena Management District the Pasadena Center Operating Co., the South Lake Business District, and Paseo Colorado, commissioned Strategic Economics to determine if — and how — a streetcar could “generate synergy” among the five downtown subdistricts: Old Pasadena, Paseo Colorado, the Playhouse District, South Lake Avenue and the Civic Center. 

The system outlined in Strategic Economics’ March 16, 2010 report would run in a continuous loop for 4.1 miles along an L-shaped route, traveling west on Union Street from Lake Avenue to Pasadena Avenue, south on Pasadena Avenue to Green Street, east on Green  to Lake,  south on Lake to California Boulevard, and north on Lake to Union.  The streetcars would run at the speed of traffic on tracks installed on the streets.   

“Successful streetcar connectivity,” the report concludes, “could transform Downtown Pasadena from a discontinuous hodgepodge of business districts into a single dining, shopping, entertainment and business destination, dwarfing most others in the entire Los Angeles region.” The synergy created by the streetcar, the report adds, would enable Pasadena to sustain its “economic vitality” and have a unique niche in the regional economy, differentiating the city from neighboring Glendale and Arcadia.

The Glendale shopping district described in the report contains the Glendale Galleria and the Americana at Brand, two large malls located a block away from each other. The Arcadia district included the Westfield Santa Anita Mall in Arcadia, which expanded in 2009, and the Shops at Santa Anita, a nearby mall that was to be developed by Rick Caruso, who built the Americana at Brand.  However, a month after the Strategic Economics’ report was issued, Caruso announced  he had abandoned plans to build the Shops at Santa Anita. 

The report argues that the shopping  district in Glendale and an Arcadia shopping area containing both the Westfield mall and the Shops at Santa Anita pose a threat to Pasadena, because their “larger size, easy circulation, easy access, and single destinations create greater selections for customers, thus increasing drawing power.”

However, the Pasadena streetcar would “tie together” the downtown business areas so they could “function as a unified shopping destination” that would be “significantly larger and more diverse” than the shopping districts in Glendale or Arcadia. The streetcar would also “brand” downtown Pasadena as “a unified, very special place, unique in that it has a streetcar.”

The streetcar “would link the downtown districts easily and simply with a transportation system that people actually use,” said Paul Little, president and CEO of the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce. “Streetcars have cache, they’re

“There’s something more romantic, fun and exciting about taking a streetcar instead of a bus,” agreed Romo. “In San Pedro, there’s a small streetcar route, and at an annual event there people wait an hour and a half to get on the streetcar, even though they can get on a bus every 15 minutes.”

Proponents of the streetcar argue that it will alleviate traffic congestion by encouraging Pasadena residents and visitors to walk, because it will shorten the distances to destinations. Instead of driving from one place to another, pedestrians could shop in Old Pasadena and then ride the streetcar to enjoy dinner at a restaurant along South Lake.

In addition, routing the system along Union and Green would increase the visibility of shops and other establishments located on streets other than Colorado Boulevard, enticing riders to shop at stores they might otherwise ignore. 
In its Oct. 4, 2010, report, Strategic Economics estimated the streetcar could generate between $4.2 million and $25.5 million in annual retail sales revenue.

The streetcar could also enhance the tourism market by enabling visitors to cross-attend events and cultural institutions in downtown Pasadena.  According to the report, a “modest increase” in hotel stays and rates and more business at the Pasadena Convention Center would garner between $267,300 and $1.1 million in annual hotel revenues.

People who live and work in downtown Pasadena would also benefit from the streetcar. “We don’t have the census data, but about 20,000 people live in the Central District, and about 84,000 people work there,” said Romo. “That’s a lot of people. The streetcar will be a good alternative public transit” and “will move people through the Central District.”

The streetcar could also be a “last mile” connection for workers who commute to Pasadena, but whose workplaces are a half mile or farther away from the nearest Metro Gold Line station. Strategic Economics estimates that only 30 percent of the 61,000 jobs in the downtown area are within a quarter-mile walking distance of the Gold Line.

“I hear a lot of people say that the Gold Line is very convenient, but it’s nowhere near where they work,” said Steve Mulheim, president and chief executive officer of the Old Pasadena Management District. “This [the streetcar] will enable more people to use the Gold Line.”

Mulheim and other proponents concede that many details must be ironed out before the streetcar proposal can get on track. Project supporters will have to decide what type of vehicles to purchase: vintage cars restored from use in the 20th century; vintage replica cars, which are new cars that are built to resemble old ones; or modern low-floor streetcars.

More importantly, proponents will have to determine how to fund the system. The proposed route is expected to cost about $79 million; if the route is extended along Green Street to Pasadena City College and along California Boulevard to Caltech, the costs would increase by $18 and $11.5 million, respectively, for a total cost of $108.5 million.

“Most cities that do this are utilizing a number of funding sources, including redevelopment funds, federal grants, and private funding,” said Mulheim.

According to Strategic Economics, Pasadena can reasonably expect to receive $25 million to $40 million, or between 25 percent and 50 percent of the total costs of the project, from the federal government, most likely in the form of grants from the Federal Transit Administration.

However, the city will not qualify for these funds unless it makes a “significant local contribution” of between $30 million and $75 million. According to the report, the most significant local contributions to financing streetcars in other cities have come from “creating some type of benefit assessment district” in which property owners pay to fund the project. 

Other sources of funding could come from parking revenues, by offering streetcar riders rebates on their power and water bills, or from state redevelopment funds.

However, the future of redevelopment has recently come into question due to two measures signed in June by Gov. Jerry Brown. Assembly Bill 26 effectively eliminates redevelopment agencies, except to allow them to pay off their existing debt; Assembly Bill 27 allows these agencies to effectively continue operating, as long as they make significant “voluntary” payments to the state of California. The California Redevelopment Association filed suit to challenge these measures, arguing they are unconstitutional.