Ah, the Plaza Pasadena. How to remember a mall that once had the dubious distinction of receiving an engineering excellence award from the Concrete Industry?
Mention the Plaza Pasadena to a longtime Pasadena resident and you will most likely get either a chuckle or a scowl. More recent transplants to the city will not recall the bunker-like edifice that once occupied the spot on Colorado Boulevard where the Paseo Colorado now stands.
Conceived in the late 1970s by the Pasadena Redevelopment Agency and the Ernest Hahn Co., and designed by the architectural firm Charles Kober Associates, the mall was supposed to mark a new era in the city’s commercial development by revitalizing the lackluster neighborhood of Old Town and its vicinity. Instead, it became a study in shortsightedness and poor planning.
The spot on which the mall was built had been envisioned in the 1920s as an open-air public space by architect Edward Bennett in his plan for the Civic Center and surrounding area — a place where citizens could stroll and mingle, while enjoying views of the wide boulevards around City Hall. Though his plan was never fully realized, there was always the hope that someday this part of the Civic Center would be developed in accordance with this plan.
By the mid-1970s, however, the idea of building an indoor, climate-controlled mall, similar to those springing up around the country, became irresistible. Nearby Arcadia had already built its own, the Santa Anita Fashion Park, in 1974 (another Hahn Company design), and this type of mall seemed to be the wave of the future.
Thus, when the Plaza Pasadena opened, on September 3, 1980, it retained none of the features of Bennett’s plan, instead adopting a style inseparable from that of countless other malls of the period. It was strictly a commercial structure — “your typical, monolithic, climate-controlled retail mall, typical of the ’70s and ’80s, anchored at either end with a department store,” reflected a Los Angeles Times writer in 1998.
Many culturally significant buildings, including the Pasadena Athletic Club, were bulldozed to make way for the mall, and anger among citizens became so strong that opponents formed a group to preserve Pasadena’s architectural heritage. Pasadena Heritage, founded in 1977, thrives today as a powerful public advocacy group for preservationists.
Facing opposition, the Plaza spared no expense selling the new mall to the public. In breathless newspaper ads, its arrival was likened to “the transition of Europe from the medieval era to modern times.”
It was not long, however, before the mall became controversial in other ways. In 1982 a 9-year-old girl was abducted while selling candy near her uncle’s food stand and murdered in a freight elevator in the underground parking lot. A few years later, in 1988, a woman was abducted, raped and murdered while mall security guards were watching a Dodgers game (the victim’s family eventually won a $3.5-million dollar negligence judgment against Plaza Pasadena). Between 1980 and 1991 the Los Angeles Times reported no less than seven violent rapes and abductions, as well as numerous instances of petty crime. The mall also had a spotty history with workers’ rights, and in 1994, mall janitors went on strike to protest poor working conditions and wages.
Crime aside, however, the mall was simply not the godsend its creators had hoped it would be. Its popularity began to wane mere years after it was built, and even those who had initially been enthusiastic about it soon came to only begrudgingly accept its presence on the landscape. To this day, many preservationists take pride in never having set foot inside.
By the 1990s, Old Town had again become a thriving commercial center, but it was clear that the mall had outlived its brief usefulness. In 1997, city planners began work on a new vision for the space — one that would be more open and inviting — and in 2000, the Plaza Pasadena fell to the wrecking ball. In 2001, a new $201-million Phoenix rose from the ashes, in the form of Paseo Colorado. Unlike its predecessor, the Paseo utilized many of Bennett’s ideas from his 1923 plan (though his plan probably did not include a spa and luxury apartments), and, significantly, provided a clear view from the Civic Center to the Central Library. Paradoxically, development of the Paseo Colorado was overseen by the TrizecHahn Corporation, successor to the same company that had designed Plaza Pasadena.
Today, all that is left of the Plaza Pasadena is the Macy’s building at the mall’s east end. Formerly an outlet of the Los Angeles-based Broadway department store chain, the building stands as an odd monument to hulking ‘80s mall architecture. A few people even cherish it, as a nostalgic reminder of the now-defunct Broadway chain.
There is something decidedly odd in the cycle of the Plaza Pasadena, of historic buildings being torn down to make way for a structure that was subsequently torn down. The life cycle of buildings in Pasadena seems increasingly dictated by the commercial whims of developers. I will always wonder about the structures — lost forever to the wrecking ball — that once occupied this space, and what it might have looked like if Edward Bennett’s original plan had taken shape. As pleasant as the Paseo Colorado is, it can probably never live up to the vision of those early city planners.
Here are a few more photos from the era:
- The towering Pasadena Athletic Club, at the corner of Green Street and Los Robles, where Macy’s now stands
- Storefronts along Colorado Blvd. in 1960, before construction of the Plaza (note the Civil Rights demonstrators)
- Mural inside the Plaza Pasadena, 1981