Meet Mayor of Pasadena Terry Tornek

Mayor Terry Tornek came to Pasadena as a city planning director with a background in historic preservation, and as mayor he continues to work on making the old new again. 

BY: Cuyler Gibbons

It’s not easy to replace a legend. Bill Bogaard’s 16 year term as mayor was not only the longest in Pasadena history, it was by all accounts a great success, with the revitalization of Old Pasadena and the extension of the Gold Line among other significant accomplishments. Mayor Terry Tornek, Bogaard’s replacement however, was the city planning director for much of that revitalization. He came in not only with vital and significant city planning experience, but with a genuine personal affinity for the unique and often historic charms of Pasadena. Now a year and a half into his mayorship, we met up with Mayor Tornek at the Espress Yourself Coffee Bar, alongside Pasadena Public Library, as he was leaving one event with a slice of time before he was off to the next one. A typical bit of time management given Tornek’s heavy event schedule.

Though you’ve been here for some time, and raised 3 now grown children here, like so many others, you are an east coast transplant?

I am. I was born in New York, born in Brooklyn. Then graduate school, and the army. Then we moved to Springfield, MA, where my three kids were born. We lived there 10 years. Then we came to Pasadena in 1982.

That’s a twenty-nine hundred mile move. How did Pasadena even get on the radar?

Well my wife’s family had moved out to North Hollywood and she had always had a fascination about California. So we had to make a family decision. We had already decided to leave Massachusetts. The opportunities weren’t great, and we just weren’t enjoying it anymore. My family was in Florida. Her family had gone to California. So I said, “Well, let’s go to Florida” and she said “NO!” That was the end of that discussion. I’d worked out here one summer when I was in college, but neither of us was really familiar with California. And interestingly, my wife spotted this job in one of my professional journals, in Pasadena. I didn’t know exactly where Pasadena was. But she said, “Well, you gotta apply for this job.” And I said “Okay.”

It was really luck of the draw. I came out here, I had a bunch of interviews, with both public and private companies and I just liked Pasadena and the Pasadena city job (as city planning director) seemed like the best fit. I came out and spent some time, a couple of months getting around, and I felt like for someone from back east, someone with an interest in historic preservation, it was a good fit. It felt like a place that had a real sense of community.

You mention historic preservation. I understand back in Massachusetts you had a lot of experience in this regard

Well, that’s why they hired me! The hot topic was preservation. Pasadena Heritage, which was sort of a fledgling organization, had saved Old Pasadena from the wrecking ball.

Claire Bogaard was the driving force. They were very influential, and they were agitating for a planning director who had experience with historic preservation and redevelopment of historic property. Because of what I had been doing back in Springfield it was the perfect fit. So they are largely responsible for getting me out here. And I’ve never regretted it.

Old Pasadena is really a marvel on a national level—it took a lot longer than most people realize, but the point is we figured it out. We figured out how to do it. And there are a lot of people who can claim credit in terms of having had a hand in it. For me, it was a singular achievement and something I’m very proud of.

Old Pasadena is a nationally recognized model of redevelopment. How exactly was it accomplished?

Technically the way we did it was we made it a redevelopment area. Which meant that we could capture the increasing values—what they call the tax increment. But the type of redevelopment area we designed had never been done before. Typically, redevelopment areas were designed so you could take properties by eminent domain. We had to reassure people that our intention was not to take any property but just to make the financing available that redevelopment brought along with it. So we did that, and the other piece of it was locating and financing the three parking garages. Those are the drivers (of the plan).

In terms of making it happen, we had a lot of real interesting people who were involved in Old Pasadena. We had a guy named John Wilson who was a wild entrepreneur who assembled a bunch of property. He ultimately busted out but he was largely responsible for some of the early activity there and he was a sort of a shameless promoter and he really helped to create an atmosphere of excitement.

My experience is that this stuff rarely works as well as it might if it’s just government. It has to be combination of government and private interests to really make it work. And Wilson and some of the other early pioneers like Jim Plotkin, who is not around anymore, and Danny Mellincoff, who is still around and owns property in Old Pasadena and Tony Canzoneri…there are certain individuals on the private side that were buying and investing and making things happen so the government’s role was to facilitate that and to help provide some additional funding for the infrastructure. That’s less exciting, but equally critical to making it happen.

So I understand your general approach and some of the private help you got, but where did the idea to “preserve” rather than “raze and rebuild” come from

That came from Pasadena Heritage. We just made a trip to China a couple of months ago to our sister city, which is a district in Beijing. It’s the district in the middle of town that has the forbidden city and the great hall of the people. Tiananmen Square. I was meeting with the local officials there. The guys that really run the show were the communist party officials and we were talking about the role of government and the guy said very firmly, “the role of government is to lead” and I said, “Well you know, sometimes the role of government is to listen. It’s great for government to lead but you have to make sure you’re not leading people off a cliff.” I used the example of Old Pasadena where the government had a policy that said were going to tear this whole place down. And the people said, “NO that’s not the way to do this. We should do something differently,” and they were right. And the government had to modify its policy and follow the will of the people and of course now everybody thinks that Pasadena is a home run and great triumph. But that wouldn’t have happened If the city hall thinking had prevailed. So sometimes I think you have to be a little bit more humble than those guys are about what the role of government should be.

After your stint as City Planner you went back to the private side. What sort of development were you involved in as a private citizen?: 

My first project was on the corner of Fair Oaks and Colorado. I did the Dodsworth Building. We did a historic restoration on that building, and I also managed that building after we got it renovated. It took us a year to get it done. And then I managed the Braley Building, which is where the Scientology people are now. They bought it. And so my private development career started in the place I knew best which was Old Pasadena.

What then, was the impetus for your return to government

I was unhappy with some of the development activity the city was doing. I didn’t think it was well conceived or appropriate. There was a project approved right behind my house and I was startled by the nature of what was approved there and I started showing up at planning commission meetings and city council meetings. And Sid Tyler, who was my councilman in my district at that time —who I didn’t know—said, “Look, I’m seeing you at these meetings and you seem to know what you’re talking about, would you be willing to sit on the planning commission?” I said, “You know, I used to be the planning director, it could be a little weird.” He said, “No, it’s gonna be a completely different thing. That was years ago and you should get back in the game, you could really make a contribution.” He was very persuasive, so I got my wife’s permission, and I joined the planning commission. I was Sid Tyler’s appointee to the planning commission. And then a year and half, two years later, he said, “You know I’m gonna retire from the city council, would you consider running?” Then I realized I’d been set up. And Sid was a wily guy. So I ran for city council and was elected.

And now you’re mayor. A mayor with a particular expertise in preservation. Is there anything on your “preservation list” that needs to be saved?

I think that this city has done an extraordinary job in terms of preserving not just specifically historic buildings but in terms of being respectful of its heritage. In terms of the built environment – the soft side of it. The people aspect. It’s respectful of its history not just in terms of the building but in terms of respecting the traditions that have taken root here. We had this huge controversy surrounding the Kimpton Hotel—the YWCA project—right across from Central Park. And these folks that I just met for the first time were asking me about it. (You can’t go anywhere as mayor without some questions…which is a good thing. That’s being accessible. It’s one of the ways you find out what the hell is really going on.) And they were asking me about that project. They live downtown, and they had heard about it and they were concerned. It’s very rare that you would see the intensity of debate surrounding the appropriate level of development on a historic building that you do in Pasadena. People do care. They are energized. They are proud of the city. They identify with the city. That is really what makes this an extraordinary place. And the Kimpton is an example. Everyone agreed, and the city took it upon itself to take that building, and paid over $8 million dollars for it. A lot of money. And we did that to save it, because the owner was unable to do anything with it. It was literally falling apart. Decaying before our eyes. So we took it, and then we had to find a way to get it right.

And where does the money for that come from?

We took it out of our reserve. But that’s how important it is. And we’ll get a development out of it that will get us our money back over time, but more importantly will also preserve the building and also bring continued activity to the downtown area. There is no argument on the part of anybody about whether it should be saved and redeveloped. The issue is a much more subtle one, over how much is too much. Or is this the right design? That’s when Pasadena people got engaged and they sued us, because it’s a litigious environment. But it’s also okay. It’s another demonstration of the fact that people take this stuff very seriously and are really protective of the city’s heritage. And there is a tremendous range of opinions on virtually every issue. It makes it cumbersome, it makes it contentious sometimes, but I think it’s great. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I hope this isn’t an unpleasant can of worms but what’s the status of the 710 extension?

We’ll beat it. I’m optimistic that most people at every level of government now realize it’s an artifact of an earlier time. It has a certain amount of momentum because it’s been on the books for so long, but when you drill down and really look at the facts the project doesn’t make any sense at all. I think that it’s a nonsensical project. Look, they spent 6 years and almost $1.5 billion adding a lane to the 405 and the net result was that congestion on the 405 was worse within weeks of the new lane opening. There is no mystery to this. Additional capacity attracts additional traffic. So all that you do is shift it around, you don’t actually enhance the movement of people. For us to be investing as a society—to invest $5.5 or $6.5 billion dollars in that tunnel apart from all the environmental consequences and the disruption that it would cause—on a cost benefit basis it’s just nonsensical. And I’m pretty confident that within the next six months that project will be finished and by finished I mean DEAD. Look, people think that the Cal Trans project that’s happening in the middle of the freeway now—that batch plant—they think that’s the beginning the of the 710 construction. I can’t tell you how many phone calls I’ve gotten. But it’s NOT.

When you look ahead today what are the biggest challenges you face?:

The biggest concern is the budget. I’m a business person. I’m used to having to meet a payroll and sign the front of the check. The business model that the city has constructed is not sustainable. If you look…I devoted my whole state of the city address last year to a budget primer and I gave people an explanation of where the money comes from and how we spend it and what the future looks like for the rate of increase for revenues and the rate of increase for expenditures…and they don’t work. I’m a big believer in five year budget planning and after this year, unless we start to do extraordinary things, we’re going to be in the red. And we can’t have that. This isn’t Washington. We don’t get to print money. So we have to change our way of doing business and that is the biggest challenge.

How big a piece of the budget problem is the pension issue?: 

It’s a big piece. It gets a lot of attention. It’s like a tsunami I think. We’d read about it but it was so far off shore that nobody could see it. It was just one of those things that got talked about. Now you can actually see it on the horizon. So we’re not inundated yet, but it’s coming. Pasadena is in somewhat better shape than some cities are, but there is no question that it continues to eat a bigger and bigger piece of the budget and when you get to the point where you are paying more retired cops than active cops it’s a problem. So we’re working on it, piece by piece, and we have to do all kinds of things. We have to try to increase revenue we have to conduct business as efficiently as we can to keep expenses down but the reality is that we have twenty-two-hundred employees and we can’t sustain that number. So a couple months ago the city manager in a very unusual move brought us a mid-year correction that will reduce the budget by $2 million dollars. Eliminated some positions. There is going be more of that. Pasadena is a high service city. People have expectations that they are going to get a high quality of service. This is actually a service business. That’s what we do. We have to be very careful about what we undertake and how we deliver that service but we have to pay our people well in order to be able to attract the best. To be competitive in the marketplace the same way any business is, and we can’t afford to pay twenty-two-hundred of them. That’s the biggest challenge.

Maybe we could wrap up with some of your favorite memories or impressions of Pasadena?

I think my favorite Pasadena experiences relate to the Rose Parade. It’s a uniquely Pasadena experience. We came here in ’82. Actually I came on January 2nd, because my wife wouldn’t let me go for New Year’s Eve. I wanted to see the parade! Now, I’ve never missed the parade since we moved out here. We used to just walk down Colorado Boulevard. Then I got fancy and we sat in the grandstand. Now, of course, I ride in the parade. Which is not as much fun as watching the parade, although the grandkids like it. But I think the whole run up to New Year’s, the Colorado Boulevard craziness the night before and the parade itself, and all the activities that happen around it—watching the whole world come to Pasadena for New Year’s is really sort of extraordinary.

I think a close second is the stuff related to JPL. I took one of my granddaughters, who was then 14 or 15 I think, to see the Mars Rover landing up at JPL (in the control room). I took her because she is a bit of a science geek, and we were there for the countdown and the seven minutes of terror, and the whole thing, all the cheering and everything. Then at the end of the night I said, “So what was the best part of this?” And she said “Bumping into!” because he’s apparently a big space guy and she latterly bumped into him and, of course, at 14 that was her memory.

I have to tell you being mayor of Pasadena is, all kidding aside, really a privilege. It’s more than the Rose Parade, what really sets this place apart is what people here give back. We have 1,100 non-profits in Pasadena. I’ve been to all of them. Last night I was at the Pasadena Community Foundation party and during the afternoon I was at the Assistance League 75th anniversary luncheon. You have no idea—it doesn’t matter what the issue is, whether its environmental or human rights or homelessness or whatever, there are organizations in this town where people volunteer to give back to their neighbors and that’s why I feel confident we can modify what the city delivers because we have so many people who are willing to step up and take responsibility. The Tournament of Roses is a volunteer organization. All this stuff is volunteer. So whether it’s that huge organization, or any of the other foundations of all sizes and focus—the point is, people care and they invest in their community. And it’s staggering. Representing this city really is a privilege.

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