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Ghosts of Malls Past: The Plaza Pasadena

Oct 30, 2009
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Artist's sketch of the Plaza Pasadena, 1977. Courtesy of the Archives, Pasadena Museum of History (Star News Collection).

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.

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Interior of the mall in the 1980s. Photo by Walt Mancini. Courtesy of the Archives, Pasadena Museum of History (Star News Collection).

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.

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The Plaza Pasadena, 1986. Photo by Walt Mancini. Courtesy of the Archives, Pasadena Museum of History (Star News Collection).

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.

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The former Broadway department store at the corner of Green St. and Los Robles Ave., 1986. Photo by Joe Vogel.

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




21 Responses for “Ghosts of Malls Past: The Plaza Pasadena”

  1. Apodaca says:

    I used to walk up to the Plaza Pasadena (I always inverted the name) every Friday after school in 8th grade. I would go to the comic book shop, get an orange julius, and feel independent for a couple hours. I have very fond memories attached to that place, despite the fact that it was ugly and bland.

  2. Ann Erdman says:

    I was there when the “wrecking ball party” happened. What a grand day that was!

  3. I believe the top sketch is from Green St.
    Inside it was dark & miserable.

  4. Matt Hormann says:

    Strangely enough, Dan, I went to that same comic book shop when I was in 7th/8th grade (Comic Odyssey, I think it was called). I also remember back-to-school shopping at JC Penney, and dropping coins in the fountain. As a kid, I never understood what was so “wrong” with the Plaza Pasadena, and even recall feeling a little bit sad when they tore it down. Another strange treasure at the Plaza was the Pasadena Shakespeare Company, who had a theater there from 1996 to 1999.

  5. Petrea says:

    I think I’m the only person in town who dislikes the Paseo. But now I can see how it might be viewed as an improvement–not on the historical architecture, but on the Plaza.

    Fantastic historical photos, thank you.

  6. Matt Hormann says:

    I’m not a tremendous fan of the Paseo either. I hope I emphasized that in the article. It’s nice to walk around, but at the end of the day, it’s just another commercial venue. Also, I absolutely refuse to pay $11.50 for a movie at Pacific Theatres.

  7. James Behm says:

    W;hen the original mall was proposed, a selling point, was that parking would be gratis (free) in perpetuity… Try that today! The Pasadena Athelitic Club rivaled the Los Angeles Atheletic Club in it magnificance and competition, an Olympic sized pool, a classy restaurant, and a watering hole on the corner of Green and Los Robles, called the Circus Room, a meeting place for the elite…..
    The Club’s demolition soured this writer in not entering the mall for ten years….

  8. Scott Siegal says:

    Great article- I remember moving to Pasadena in 1991 and wondering how that mall stayed in business- you could just feel the bad vibes.

  9. Skylar says:

    I did some work with the Pasadena Shakespeare Company when I was younger, and it was the strangest space. A theater in a mall – really? It was odd, but the company was good.

  10. Kathy H says:

    It was very poorly planned, with escalators only at the opposite ends of the mall. I don’t miss it.

  11. Judy Bass says:

    And the reincarnated Pasadena Athletic Club was sold to a would-be developer who ran out of money around the time the building was being torn down. After remaining a graffiti-laden eyesore for about a year, it’s now been completely demolished and only a weedy lot remains. I can only hope the people responsible lost their shirts!

  12. [...] December 18, 2009 · Leave a Comment Westgate is one of my favorite developments in Pasadena solely because it expands the urban fabric of Pasadena. What used to be nothing but ugly unused lots and empty buildings in disrepair is now an area transforming into a bona fide neighborhood that will one day be an integral part of Pasadena. I see a not-so-distant future neighborhood full of activity including people jogging, walking their dogs, taking a stroll on a summer evening, and new retail shops catering to both residents and out-of-town visitors. The “Westgate District,” being seamlessly connected to Old Pasadena’s southern boundaries, will feel like a natural urban extension as most people won’t even know that at one time “the excitement” and charm of Old Pasadena ended at De Lacey and Green. Just like people take for granted what Paseo Colorado has done for Pasadena in place of the failed indoor mall Plaza Pasadena. [...]

  13. the plaza was a good mall,city offc’s marred it. i was the guard that caught the rapist in 97 at the plaza. albert gonzales and chad gunn bulley security at the mall. you should be ashamed of yourself

  14. The old Pasadena mall such a bad design. I remember how you could be on one end and see the other. At least the new Paseo Colorado is adding value to our Pasadena Real Estate market.

  15. Carlos Chavarin says:

    In 1986-87, I lived in Pasadena and worked at the Plaza Pasadena Mall. I worked at Miller’s Outpost, and was the first job I held while living on my own.

  16. CATSdammit says:

    I might be the only person alive who HATES the current Paseo mall. I wasn’t here to see the old mall, but it sounds like, with the right backers, it could have been great. Now it’s a so-called “upscale” cash register sucking all the fool’s pockets dry with its pretensions and gimmicks. I lived behind the mall in Arpeggio apartments when this mall was in its alleged prime. It’s all a front. There’s nothing upscale about either of them except the prices. Typical mall junk with a slightly altered face. How about some true artisan shops with original, creative work?

  17. Sylvia says:

    Did this mall have a number of fountains? I remember one mall with a bunch of fountains and water pools. It had the scent of chlorine in the air. I remember when we went it had underground parking and many of the shops were closing down. That must have been 95-97.

  18. Jack says:

    Perhaps I have no taste at all, but I liked the old mall. The new one is a rip-off. I remember having lunch in the old Broadway cafe. The mall had lots of different stores, parking was easy, and you didn’t go broke everytime you went there.

  19. [...] 1924 Beaux Arts design to fit with City’s surrounding civic buildings. Since the 1970s, the Plaza Pasadena, an indoor mall, use to be where the Paseo Colorado is now. Pasadena: City Hall / Photo taken by [...]

  20. Ansgar says:

    It was sure nicer than that trendy overpriced eyesore they put up in its place. I miss the old mall.

  21. Karina says:

    I loved the old Pasadena Mall. Looking at the photos bring back a lot of fun memories.

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