How Can We Increase Pedestrian Activity on South Lake Avenue in Pasadena?

Most of South Lake Avenue functions like a strip mall, with parking in the back and stores with "convenient" back door entrances that siphon pedestrian activity away from the actual South Lake Avenue itself. There's many more pictures of South Lake after the jump.

For awhile now, I’ve contemplated the perplexing question of “What can improve South Lake Avenue (an underperforming shopping district)?” and I’ve come up with my own conclusions as to why the moribund district performs so poorly.

Let me also start off by saying “Thank you” to those who took the time yesterday to email me their thoughts expressing their very valid concerns over the unfortunate news that Borders will be closing their location on South Lake Avenue due to their recent bankruptcy and reorganization (a Borders store associate on South Lake Avenue told me “one to two months”).

I was just as bummed about the news, and as a result of those emails I received, I felt compelled to go out and “exam” South Lake Avenue today by doing my own little research. I asked myself the obvious question as I walked up and down the street: “Why are there so few people walking on South Lake Avenue?”

The answer in my opinion is quite “simple” and boils down to two major drawbacks that hamper South Lake Avenue: 1) The tenant/business mix is uninteresting in its current configuration, and 2) the back entrances to the businesses from the Shoppers Lane parking lot is insidiously harmful to South Lake Avenue in the front.

Many customers who park in the back lot, enter and exit stores through the back as well, preventing South Lake Avenue from generating any substantial amount of healthy foot traffic

The current mix of businesses that line South Lake Avenue is really not that interesting (I walked up and down and found it really quite boring). Part of the joy of having a shopping district is being able to stroll and window shop a variety of interesting stores and restaurants mixed in to add some spice (think Old Pasadena). However, for South Lake Avenue’s case, between mattress stores, gallery frames, and appliances, a substantial portion of the stock of businesses are, quite frankly, uninteresting to the everyday pedestrian shopper. Plus you have a lot of “bunching up” where many restaurants (like Panda Express, Hamlet, etc.) are further north in a group (like a food court) instead of being more mixed in adding to a more dynamic experience.

And now we go into the territory of “parking,” which is always controversial and loaded with emotions (this is the land ruled by cars, and more cars, right?). Nevertheless, I am going to say it isn’t the lack of parking that is damaging South Lake Avenue (as many believe that’s the case). I believe that over half of South Lake Avenue falls victim to what I call, “the strip mall paradigm,” which is to say people park their cars (in the back parking lot on Shoppers Lane much like a strip mall) as close to the store they plan to shop in (i.e., Ross, Pier One, etc.) much like a strip mall.

Back door entrances really function as the front door as more people enter and exit through the back than the official "front."

What you have are people entering through the back of the stores because the back really becomes the “front,” if that makes any sense. Case in point, there is a Ross cashier checkout “conveniently” located by the back entrance to accommodate most of their customers entering and exiting through the back (where the parking is of course), so in essence, the back of the store really starts to function like the front of the store.

So if people/customers are entering and leaving through the back of these stores, what that phenomenon really is doing, collectively, is siphoning away much of the potential pedestrian foot traffic/energy along South Lake Avenue making the district feel “too quiet” and even “dead.” This becomes a big problem over time, turning into a vicious cycle that’s hard to break as people (including business owners) perceive South Lake Avenue to be an unattractive location to do business or shop.

Back doors could be closed to the public, only used for loading and unloading of merchandise

I propose:

Closing off the back door entrances and forcing people to walk some extra steps will certainly help generate some extra foot traffic from an otherwise "quiet" South Lake Avenue

1) The stores and businesses close their back entrances (open only to loading/unloading), forcing people who park in the back lot to walk to the front of South Lake Avenue through lovely, but dying corridors like the Burlington Arcade, which could really benefit from the continuous foot traffic if more people are forced to walk through there. This would make South Lake Avenue seem much more lively as there would always be more people walking up and down the street since they can no longer slip into stores from the back.

2) The South Lake Avenue Business Association (run by Gina Tleel) should get all the major property owners in a room (easy as herding cats right?) and figure out a master lease plan where owners are on the same page. That way, South Lake Avenue will start to have a plan on what kind of businesses would perform the best, and therefore, benefit the community and its customers the most.


As for Borders closing, there is not much we can do about that, but we can take it as an opportunity to make sure that the next business that leases the space will be just as beneficial to the community.

Closing back entrances and directing people to walk through corridors like Burlington Arcade could also help this dying arcade by boosting business (Photo courtesy of ##Closing back entrances and directing people to walk through corridors like Burlington Arcade could also help this dying arcade by boosting business (Photo courtesy of
Shops like these without back entrances should be replicated throughout the entire district, funneling all avaliable pedestrian energy to the street
This gas station may be good for cars, but it's bad for pedestrians, and should not be allowed to exist on a pedestrian thoroughfare such as South Lake Avenue if the goal is to do everything we can to promote a pedestrian-friendly environment
  • Thanks for the overview, Brigham. It looks a bit like one quite walkable stretch of Pico Blvd near me, with a lot of storefront retail. But then you have an entire block with a Trader Joes, US Bank, Produce Market, and other stores that all face the back parking lots.

    Unfortunately, it really kills street life in an otherwise busy place.

  • Added some of my photos to Flickr here:

  • Bob Davis

    If the goal is to build foot traffic (strolling, browsing, and, we hope, buying goods), mattress and appliance stores are not really a good fit. How often does a family buy a new mattress, washing machine or wide-screen TV? The idea of closing the rear entrances to public access may meet with some resistance from store owners. Americans in general and Southern Californians in particular tend to take the path of least resistance (OK, we’re lazy!), and would probably be annoyed at being “forced” to take the “long way around Robin Hood’s barn” to reach the store they want. Nobody likes to be “forced” to do anything, although the storekeepers in the Arcade may think it’s a great idea.
    Regarding the gas station: It does reduce the “pedestrian friendliness” of that corner, but I question the statement “good for cars”. I’ve never seen a car go into a station and ask for “10 gallons of regular, please”. Rather the station is good for people who drive cars, and who can combine a shopping trip with refueling the car, or even leave it for servicing while checking out the nearby stores. Automobiles may not be “sustainable” in the long run, but they’re not going to disappear any time soon.

  • A lack of public restrooms on the area may also be something to consider. How long can people be expected to browse, lounge and walk between establishments without a pit stop? A recent experience in the vicinity of Lake and Green suggests that if you need to visit the bathroom, you have to go home.

  • Spiffy

    I have lived in Pasadena for 35 years, and used to buy things on South Lake often (3 – 4 times a week). As the stores I was interested in disappeared, and other, expensive ones I wasn’t interested in appeared, I stopped going there. I either walked from work (Caltech), in which case I wanted to go in the back way (since it was closer), or drove from home (again, parking in back).

    In no case did I ever enjoy the street itself. When I went there, it was to buy something, not to shop. (I knew what I wanted, and made as much as possible a straight line to it, and bought it. And then left.)

    If I went to eat, I walked to Hamlet or Konditori (sp?), ate there, and then left :)

    Since Pasadena started charging for parking, I no longer drive there. So, in most cases, I no longer buy things there. (I’m really not a fan of trying to carry a mattress or large frame on public transportation).

    I heard Pasadena was considering removing the tolls for parking. If so, I may go back to buy things. I still walk there to eat at Hamlet occasionally, but its not what it used to be.

  • Bob Davis

    As an example of “frequent” vs. “infrequent” shopping destinations, consider that the Sit ‘n’ Sleep mattress store replaced a Tower Records. True, the lower level is now a drugstore, but Tower was the sort of place I usually visited two to four times a month, and I already have a drugstore where the pharmacy clerks know me by name (one of the side effects of getting old) and I don’t have to hunt for a parking space.


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