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SGV Connect 124: Chris Interviews Councilmember-Elect Rick Cole

CG: All right, we're here with Rick Cole, Pasadena City Council member at Victory Park way on the east side of Pasadena. Rick, you're a career public servant. In this field, what are you known for?
RC: Being a troublemaker, mostly. I think of myself as a change agent. I think I was inspired by Robert Kennedy's quote, which he used to close all of his campaign speeches from George Bernard Shaw, who said, "some men look at things as they are and ask why I dream of things that have never been an ask, why not?"
CG: And how has this gone for you across posts and across cities? Where are you popular? And where aren't you?
RC: Well, I'm not sure that popularity is the best measure. I think where I've been recruited, and where I've had the most impact is where there was a broad recognition of the need for change, not unnecessarily across the board, but when I was recruited to Ventura, they were stuck with trying to resolve really intractable conflicts about where the city and how the city would grow. What I was recruited to the city of Los Angeles, they had some really challenging - still do - budget and management challenges. And then when I was recruited to the city of Santa Monica to be their city manager, similarly, land use issues, but also more broadly, the need to engage the community in a more constructive way. Many cities do a lot of community engagement, but it doesn't necessarily lead to finding common ground. It often simply amplifies the polarization. So there's no one through line. But I think that there aren't a whole lot of folks who combine a successful track record of implementing change with a passion for making change.
CG: So you've been back in Pasadena as an elected official for about two months or so. And this is correct me if I'm wrong, this is where you got your start, some years ago,
RC: It's a little more complicated than that. I grew up here in Pasadena, at age 29, defeated incumbent and served 12 years on the city council, including two years in the mayor's chair, because in those days, the mayor was a member of the council and not separately elected. Two months ago, I was elected to the City Council don't take office until December. So I still serve on our planning commission.
CG: Okay, so what brings you back?
RC: Well, I was gone for 20 years from Pasadena and I was gone from elected service for 29 years, they roughly overlapped. What brought me back to Pasadena is this is my home, this is where I grew up. This is where my mom and my sister lived nearby, and it's just close to my heart. I always knew that this would be the place I would return to. What brought me back to running for elected office was certainly not in my plan, but serving on our planning commission, I found we were doing more reacting than planning. And I soon began to pay closer attention to a whole range of issues where I think Pasadena, which used to be a leader among cities, has become much more complacent. And we have a lot to be complacent about. This is a beautiful city that's had a lot of success over the years. But that success has derived from people being willing to look ahead and plan for the future.
CG: So what are going to be your primary goals once you're active on the council?
RC: Well, there's both issue goals, and then there's process goals. So let me start with the process because ultimately, those shape what happens on issues. I just think we've - as I was suggesting earlier, it's certainly not confined to Pasadena - we're not engaging the public in a way that makes them partners. We ask people to vote every two years or four years. We invite them to come and squawk at public hearings for three minutes. We're happy if they send us emails, which don't really get read or have much impact. But there's not a fundamental recognition on the part of either elected officials or the permanent government of staff that the public are not only our bosses, but they really should be our partners. And that if we want to solve intractable issues like homelessness are some of the issues I think we'll talk about today that deal with transportation and mobility. There aren't expert answers or policy decisions that can be made separate and apart from the people that are affected. I resonate with the activist slogan "nothing about us without us." And so I think we need to dig much more deeply into our community and ask people for more. Ask them not just to come down to city hall when they're mad, but actually go out into the community and talk about how we're going to together tackle some of our most serious issues. The main issue in my campaign, where I talked about this, was homelessness. This is not a government problem. This is a community problem. Government has an incredibly important, catalytic role. But we need to mobilize our churches and institutions of faith, our nonprofits, our businesses, our community organizations, and our individuals, right? Each one of us can have a positive impact here. And to just say, "Oh, well, you know, raise my taxes and make this problem go away," or "Don't raise my taxes and make this problem go away," I think that's unrealistic.
CG: More specifically, could we talk about plans for building housing or density that you may have in mind?
RC: Yeah, clearly, there's an overlap between the problem of homelessness and the challenge of affordable housing. Recent, really credible research has demonstrated over and over again, that there's a much higher correlation in terms of where communities have experienced higher levels of homelessness, to the price of housing and the vacancy rate of housing. People often say in fact, my opponent in this election was pretty vocal in saying this as a mental illness issue. And domestic violence and trauma issue. Absolutely. People who have suffered trauma, or who suffer from mental illness are more likely to become homeless. But there are people in Detroit, there are people in Houston, or there are people in cities that are much poorer than than LA or Pasadena, which have lower levels of homelessness, cities that have just as high rates of drug addiction, or mental illness or domestic violence, that have lower rates of homelessness. What's different about the cities like Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles that have such high rates of housing stress, including New York, is the price of housing. New York is not seeing the same level of street homelessness, because they've made a very long term and expensive commitment to sheltering people. Not a perfect solution, but it keeps people off the street.
CG: Okay, well, thanks for digging into that. So another topic I want to touch with you is 15 minute towns. What do you have in mind for Pasadena?
RC: Well, you know, that's a great slogan, one that I embrace. And it's certainly an ideal. The point behind it is not, as some people fear that we will take everyone's car keys away and make them walk to the grocery store or to IKEA. But the idea of a 15 minute city I think makes sense to most people, which is you shouldn't have to get in your car, to meet your daily needs. Yes, you're going to have to travel to go to a football game or an opera. Those are not your day to day needs, at least not for most people. But you know, things like just grabbing a cup of coffee, picking up a quart of milk, being able to do the sort of basic things that you need, day in and day out - especially in a time when more and more of that is being delivered to our door - that should be close by. And that's the way cities have been for the 10,000 years, there have been cities. And it's only really in the last 75 years that we we segregated those uses, so that you had to get there by car. So the 15 Minute city really is, is nothing new. And it's not all that complicated. It's basically restoring the intimacy and the relationships of things that are synergistic so that we don't spend all this much time in our cars all this much money on supporting our need to have mobility and so much of our land to to asphalt and to concrete.
CG: So what are the tactics for doing this amidst the sprawl?
RC: Well, I think we first as we have done in Pasadena you build on the places where there's natural fabric, right? The city, and I mean that not city government, but really the community and the city had abandoned old Pasadena. It was when I was growing up Skid Row. And now, of course, it's one of the most vibrant and valuable pieces of real estate in Southern California. So you start in the places that are naturally walkable, and you work to revitalize those. The trouble with that is that if you only have a few places that are walkable, because they're so attractive, at least to a lot of people who are looking for a place to live or shop or go out to dinner, then the prices go up. And then you get the phenomenon that we group under gentrification and, and it often leads to displacement of small businesses and residents. So what we need to do is then tackle some of the places that either used to be walkable and had been degraded, or could be walkable and with with some some important moves. So that's where we start. Next. And I think there's a lot of places in Pasadena, where that can happen.
CG: And are there any programs in mind - we see somebody going by on a scooter right now - are those in the works? Any kind of city bike share, scooter share programs, or more frequent and cuter buses?
RC: So I think there's a two different approaches here. And I think we've done, we've exhausted the effort of trying a little bit here a little bit there, a gimmick here, a gimmick there. I think we actually need the other approach, which is a fundamental rethinking of how we get around in Pasadena. And that can't be done by the city council. That has to be done by our community. And, you know, if you ask people, given where we are now, let's make it really hard for you to drive. People who depend on driving are going to be angry. And I understand that, and I think that makes total sense. You sit people down, as we are at a picnic table, from diverse viewpoints, diverse ages, diverse, different parts of our community: the recreational biker, the person who's disabled, the person who has to drive 40 miles to their job every day, get them to sit around the table and talk about their challenges, their desires. Most people want safe streets, most people don't want to pay through the nose for their car bills, their car insurance, their gas at the pump. I think that if we get people around the table, we'll get to the same place we got in 1990, 30 years ago, which was well ahead of our time, which is one of the foundations of our general plan, which involve 1000s of people in his preparation, was Pasadena will be a place where people can circulate without cars, it doesn't mean people will be a place without cars, or that you can't use a car, it means you won't have to use a car that we'll have attractive, safe, affordable alternatives. If you want to walk if you want to bike, use public transit, whether it's healthier or quicker, or more affordable, we need to make those choices attractive right now they are mostly not. It's unsafe to bike in most parts of Pasadena, it's unpleasant to walk in a great many parts of Pasadena. And you can wait a long time for public transit. So we have to work on that. And I think, again, if you get people around the table, the question is not "yes or no" to changes. I think it's "yes, if." I think most people will say yes, if it doesn't mean that I'm going to double my commute time. Yes, if I have an alternative, that will get me where I need to go that's reasonably safe and affordable. I don't underestimate the challenge. But if Pasadena is going to be a leader, I don't think there's you know, fighting these battles one issue at a time, like, "Oh, should we allow scooters?" or, you know, "should we do bump outs at this particular corner?" I think that has not worked out well. I think we need a fundamental commitment as a city to making streets and travel safer, and not so dependent upon cars.
CG: Any big bike projects in mind?
RC: Again, I think that we've stubbed our toe. The city was very excited about this $10 million cycleway on Union Street. And it's proven to be wildly unpopular and not particularly effective. So it was a big bike project. But the city made the mistake of listening to people who did not want to have a bike lane on Green Street. And so said, "oh, we'll just double up and put it on Union." And that's what (A) cost $10 million (B) made union much less efficient as a street for cars, and (C) drove up the cost of it enormously. And just a an end to end single bike lane doesn't solve the real problem of bike safety in Pasadena, which is you want to get from where you are to where you're going in a safe way. And if Union Street is not where you're going, or if you have to get to Union Street, or get from Union Street to get where you're going and you're taking your life into your hands, then you're not going to use the Union Street cycleway. So, again, I think we need to take a much more comprehensive approach. Look, when I was knocking on doors, and I knocked on 1000s of doors talked to 1000s of people. The number one issue that people volunteered that their biggest gripe was traffic, and mostly speed on their street. They were worried about their kids, their pets, themselves, and the cars screaming down their street at all hours of the day and night. And then what could the city do you know whether it's speed bumps, or roundabouts or what have you. And then almost in the same breath, often from the same people. "But what about all those screwy things the city's doing to make traffic slower on the places I want to drive faster?" Right? And so it's not --
CG: Having your cake and eating it too.
RC: Yeah, it's not that people are stupid. It's people, I don't think have really thought through the trade offs. And I think most people are actually, if they if they have to think about the trade offs, will come to actually pretty good solutions. And people will put up with things that maybe they wouldn't be wild about, because it's better than the alternative. And also that they need to think not just about themselves, but their neighbors and their children. And when they'll be older. They won't always have access to a car. And so thinking about how to make this city safe, pleasant, and affordable to get around with, not just in a car, I think is is something we can come to a consensus on. But I don't think it'll be easy or quick. And I think if we skip that step and just do a project here or project there, we're going to have some fiascos like we had on the Orange Grove Road diet, and I would argue on the Union Street cycleway, and we'll have probably more things blow up in our face than we'll have successes.
CG: So this is my last question for you. And it's colored by my own point of view, which I'm asking because I welcome the potential difference in your point of view. So Pasadena has a reputation for a couple of things. It's an old money stronghold. It has a very nice downtown. It's a major job center. And there's a lack of good Mexican food. Do you see this portrait of Pasadena changing? Or do you think it was ever true?
RC: Well, I don't know that there's a shortage of good Mexican food. I might quibble with that. Most of the rest of those stereotypes probably largely fit the city. But you know, here's my view, and why I feel so strongly loyal to this city. I am less committed, as I suggested at the outset, with the world we live in today, as the world that's changing in the world, we'll be living in 5, 10, 20, and 30 years from now, because previous generations of Pasadenans created our assets and our advantages, because they were looking ahead. They didn't just stumble into it. It wasn't a gift from God. Previous generations had the courage, the vision; they didn't always make the right choices. But they made choices; that looked ahead to where the city was going in the relationship to the way the world is going. And the world is changing more rapidly in this time than in any previous time in human history. And so for Pasadena to think, "well, we can stand still" is unrealistic. So what my hope is, is that we can bring the whole community be thinking not just about "what's in it for me," you know, what are the issues of this exact moment when I look out my door and I'm frustrated, or look out my door and think, "Well, things are relatively fine," but rather, where are we going to be 10, 20, 30 years from now? I personally don't have all the answers. I personally don't have a set of things I want to impose as a council member, and as one member out of eight, it's unrealistic to think I would be successful if I did. What I want to do is to create a new era of community activism in this city, to ask people not to come forward and just say, "well, this is what I want," which is typically having your cake and eating it too, right? It's the classic Junior High School election campaign. You know, "if I'm elected, we'll have coke in the drinking fountains and recess all day." Everyone recognizes that that's juvenile; that a city is a complicated, challenging, dynamic reality. It's what Jane Jacobs called organized complexity. And similarly, democracy has to recognize that, and we need to bring in not just the old money voices, or the established voices, or the older voices, or the homeowner voices, but a majority in our community who rent, a majority in our community, both now and in the future, who are younger, a majority in our community, who have a stake, not just in keeping what they have, but also in in what their future is going to look like, where they're going to work, whether they're ever going to be able to own a home, whether they're ever even going to be able to afford to rent in Pasadena. And those are the questions I'm going to ask and I'm going to, I'm going to push our community starting in district two, to take an active role in that. And again, not just speak out about what you want, but work together to listen to other people to figure out what we can do together.
CG: Rick Cole, incoming council member for Pasadena in district two. Thanks for coming on SGV Connect.