Re-Evaluating Pasadena's City of Gardens Ordinance

Practicing urbanist and USC professor Vinayak Bharne examines the legacy of a progressive zoning code over the two decades since its adoption.

9 minute read

March 31, 2015, 5:00 AM PDT

By Vinayak Bharne

Casa Torre

Vinayak Bharne / Casa Torre Courtyard Housing

In February 1989, the city of Pasadena adopted the City of Gardens Ordinance, a set of zoning regulations introducing courtyard housing as the sole multi-family type in transitional single-family neighborhoods. The ordinance was an antidote to nihilistic residential development attitudes in parts of the city (beyond the Central District and major commercial corridors), where units were packed into lots without any significant open space and were obstructed by opaque street walls or parking-dominated frontages. The intent of the ordinance was to allow denser development within such transitional areas, but in a form sensitive and compatible to their largely single-family neighbors.

Map of Pasadena showing areas that fall under City of Gardens Ordinance (Source: Moule & Polyzoides Architects & Urbanists)  

Today, the City of Gardens Ordinance is part of Pasadena’s RM District General Development Standards (17.22.060), and for more than two decades, this early form-based code has guided the production of dozens of courtyard housing projects in the city.

The City of Gardens standards are framed around a number of fundamental ideas: A multi-family project is required to have a clearly defined garden rectangle, enclosed by a building for at least 50 percent of its perimeter. The size of this rectangle is calculated as a percentage of the lot area in a specified per density zone. The garden has to be visible from the street (for lots greater than 60 feet in width.) Each project is also required to have additional open space beyond the garden in the form of setbacks and common areas, also as a specified percentage of the lot size. Building heights vary depending on their location within the city. The code thus centers on the design of a common courtyard toward a larger theme of Pasadena as a "city of gardens."

Diagrams from the original City of Gardens Ordinance showing formal variations of the required garden rectangle. (Source: City of Pasadena)

Multi-family, market-rate housing built under the City of Gardens standards has generally exemplified a context-sensitive attitude. Units organized around the central courtyard have higher massing in the lot interior, with one and two story house-scale masses facing the street, ensuring formal compatibility with their largely single-family-house neighbors.

Meridian Court (built in 2001) is a ten-unit residential development designed under the City of Gardens Ordinance. (Source: Moule & Polyzoides Architects & Urbanists)

This is in vivid contrast to the variety of floor area ratio-based conventional apartment buildings that disrupted several Pasadena neighborhoods prior to 1989, with units extruded relentlessly in the form of a monolithic box. The City of Gardens standards have thus successfully mediated the residential densities of the single-family house and the stacked flat apartment building through a humane urban form.

Simultaneously, the code has revived a traditional regional dwelling type that remained marginalized for over half a century. Courtyard housing emerged in the Southern California region at the turn of the 20th century, in response to its benign climate among other factors. The traditional East Coast row-house type, arranged along streets in a linear form, was re-arranged to orient individual dwellings around common courtyards. Access to units occurred directly through this courtyard, giving each dwelling a garden in front and private patios in the rear. As density increased, the type took on numerous permutations through various attached and stacking patterns, always around single or multiple courtyards, and the design of the space between the dwellings was as important as that of the building envelope.

Casa Torre, Pasadena (built in 1927) has 8 residential units built around a verdant common courtyard. (Source: Vinayak Bharne)

The City of Gardens standards have thus provoked a significant rethinking of housing design—from the normative trend of extruding units, to a careful synergy of open space and architectural form. And through this revival of a traditional architectural and urban pattern, it has also come to serve as an important heritage conservation catalyst throughout the city.

The code’s gaps have also become evident over the two decades of its implementation. As it currently stands, the code is silent about transitional sites like a corner lot at the intersection of an arterial (or corridor) and a neighborhood street. For example, the code limits building facades to 60 feet in length, requiring a minimum building separation of 15 feet between adjacent buildings. While this idea ensures smaller building increments in single-family neighborhoods, they are not desirable on corridors where a more robust and continuous building façade is a better fit.

This gap also extends to the manner in which zones are currently designated in the city. In a recent transitional site I worked on at the corner of Cordova Street, a major east-west arterial, and Oakland Avenue, a north-south neighborhood street, the zoning designation was different on either side of the arterial. Lots to the south side of Cordova Street fell under the standards of the City of Gardens Ordinance. Lots to the north side fell under the standards of the Central District zone, with entirely different building heights and setback requirements. The idea of separating zones at the center of a street is a fundamental problem—a recipe for formal incompatibility on either side of a street.

Map of Pasadena showing zoning boundaries of Central District Transit Oriented Development Area. Note how the boundaries are drawn in the center of streets, creating different zoning regulations for either side of the street. (Source: city of Pasadena) 

Corner lots and the first layer of lots facing a major avenue or corridor should be exceptions to a neighborhood-friendly code such as the City of Gardens Ordinance; the formal development of such lots should be guided differently and on their own terms.

The code works beautifully on mid-block lots greater than 60 feet in width. To the code’s credit, lots less than 60 feet wide do not require the garden to be visible from the sidewalk, thereby allowing a larger building face and street frontage. As lots widths decrease further, the design review process allows flexibility for alternative shapes in the main garden or the creation of separate, ancillary gardens that, in aggregate, meet the main garden requirement. In other words, the code recognizes the challenges of designing courtyard housing on narrow lots as compared to large lots.

That said, lots with widths of 45 feet or less make the design of a building with the minimum required garden area very difficult. Typically a modest residential project on a 45-feet-wide lot is economically viable with on-grade parking. With the garden rectangle taking up the required 19 percent of the lot area, on-grade parking within the lot is often impossible. In exceptional cases, when lots are around 200 feet deep, surface parking can in fact be accommodated at the rear of the lot, but since most blocks in Pasadena do not have alleys, access to this parking comes from the street. The building, now sandwiched between a minimum 10-foot driveway on one side and a minimum 20 feet wide courtyard on the other, is squeezed into linear residential arms as narrow as 15 feet or less, forcing an air-tight design, with no space for landscape buffers between the building and driveway or the adjacent lots. The results are far less than desirable. The only other option is to park underground, a very expensive proposition for a small project. The problem here is that the code, however well intentioned, has not been tested rigorously enough for conventional market feasibility. The need for a single courtyard with a minimum required width, irrespective of lot size or location, is a highly limiting proposition.

The code further mandates that a courtyard can be only up to two feet, eight inches above existing grade over a subterranean parking structure. This has serious economic implications for residential projects on large lots. It eliminates the possibility of designing housing on top of an on-grade garage – which is far more economical than a subterranean one. An on-grade garage on a sizeable lot could easily be layered with residential units at street level, concealing it from the sidewalk, and creating the same positive street face the code currently aspires to. The code’s unequivocal bias of courtyard housing, with the courtyard being close to street level and visible from the sidewalk for lots greater than 60 feet, shrinks the residential typological menu to expensive development products.

Courtyard housing is only one of many traditional residential typologies that can introduce responsible density into single-family neighborhoods.

Transect of residential typologies from low (left) to high (right) density. The red rectangle encloses single-family neighborhood compatible types (Source: Moule & Polyzoides Architects & Urbanists)

Each residential typology has its own minimum lot dimension limits—below which its design becomes difficult. In turn, each typology has its own criteria for building form, open space and parking. For example, duplexes, triplexes, quadruplexes, and townhouses are far more suitable for narrow lots and can offer open space in the form of front yards or rear patios. Rosewalks and Lanes can work on lots too narrow to accommodate a single central courtyard. All such traditional typologies exist in Pasadena as precedents for study and application.

Arboleda Lane, located on California Boulevard near El Molino. This assemblage of single family houses is organized along a single winding dead-end lane, creating a picturesque setting between the buildings (Source: Moule & Polyzoides Architects & Urbanists)

Over two decades since it was originally adopted, the City of Gardens Ordinance has been amended by many administrations and has gradually morphed into a tedious zoning document. Like any zoning code—and particularly a progressive one—it needs continuous clarification and simplification. Such revisions can only come through the lessons learned from years of implementation, and now the city of Pasadena urgently needs to revisit and re-evaluate this ordinance. On a more ambitious note, Pasadena needs to expand and complete this partial typology-based code into a full-blown, citywide form-based code. Pasadena needs a holistic planning instrument that can synchronize its numerous specific plans and disparate zoning codes into a single coherent formal vision.

Such a citywide form-based code should include a number of dimensions currently absent from the its land use regulations. It should expand the menu of residential dwelling types within multi-family zones, each with its own open space and form requirements, just like the City of Gardens standards currently does for courtyard housing. It should specify minimum and maximum lot ranges for each of these types to ensure that they are realistic within the mainstream market. It should allow various forms of parking, so long as it is concealed from the public realm. It should elaborate on frontage conditions through location-specific interfaces between the private and public realm, such as porches, stoops, and arcades. It should revisit the current zoning designations of the city to ensure formal compatibility on both sides of streets. And it should require building form and character distinct from a corridor to a neighborhood street as well as from a neighborhood to a district.

Pasadena’s City of Gardens Ordinance, as written in the late 1980s, was far ahead of its times. It is an important precedent for other North American cities to study and build on. It has affirmed that, even partially implemented, form- or typology-based coding (as an alternative to floor area ratio- and coverage-based zoning) can yield compelling, sustainable results and offer a clear planning methodology for dignifying mainstream development. It has shown that the least common denominator of conventional multi-family housing can be guided for formal compatibility and to incentivize new products within the market. But that said, in the two decades and change since its inception, the practice of form-based-coding has come a long way. There are now numerous, varied examples all over the United States of citywide form-based zoning bringing efficient and practical formal, social, and economic reform. The city of Pasadena, one of the most respected and progressive cities in the country, needs to catch up to these best practices.

Vinayak Bharne is adjunct associate professor of urbanism at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, director of design at Moule & Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists, and a member of the Pasadena Heritage Board of Directors.

The author wishes to thank Kevin Johnson, senior planner at the city of Pasadena, for his comments and advice on this essay.

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