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How do you change the world when you’re the underdog? Set your goal. Find friends – quickly. Fight (and celebrate) together.
By Melanie Hooks
That’s the overriding message of South Pasadena Mayor Dr. Marina Khubesrian, who started her second term this January. Her tenure as a Councilmember had proven that a “little town” really can win.
Taking on Goliath
When Khubesrian first ran for City Council in 2010, the three square-mile city was still in the thick of the SR-710 extension fight. Citizens and leaders were weary from the decades-old effort to prevent bulldozers from razing a path right through the historic heart of town. Believing there was no way to fight Caltrans without agreeing to either a surface route or a tunnel, they went with the tunnel.
A long-time active parent and a South Pas resident since 1998, even Khubesrian almost had come to think of the SR-710 controversy as white noise–an idea so blatantly terrible that it had to fail. After all, South Pasadena passed its first resolution opposing it in 1947.
As a Council member, Khubesrian discovered not only that construction was likely to start soon, but that it was considered unstoppable at state levels. Lobbyists told her it was a “boulder” already rolling downhill. She knew the city wanted and needed a course reversal and so she asked city consultants: “How do we do this?”
Khubesrian was told South Pas could not do it on its own. She knew her city was not alone. Vocal critics had been in the fight from La Cañada, Pasadena, Alhambra and other neighboring cities, but there had been little cohesion. Khubesrian formed the C3 Connection coalition for the public and a Five Cities alliance for city staffers to share technical details. She invited councilmembers, mayors and a LA Metro representative to come to the table together.
Khubesrian said she realized that the effort needed a political campaign rather than legal strategies. The legal push had been only a stopgap, a delaying tactic and very costly for the city. “What we needed was to change hearts and minds” she said. She and other campaigners also put in a great deal of time traveling to Sacramento, speaking at meetings, lobbying commissions and making an impact as a region instead of acting alone as dissatisfied cities.
Beyond the 710
From the beginning, Khubesrian knew the city needed a vision to replace the tunnel. The campaign is named “Beyond the 710.” Khubesrian is almost giddy over the possibilities.
“We have in some ways been on hold…because…that battle [the SR-710] has consumed so much…resources, energy, thought. It was the number one goal of the city for decades,” she observes. Now “we can really do the fun stuff.” With Stephanie DeWolfe, an experienced urban planner as the new City Manager, South Pasadena is reinvigorated.
First up, the first ever Arts Commission, recently opening a free Art Gallery in City Hall. The Council has approved an investment in public art of 1.5% of all new development project revenues and enlisted jazz musicians like drummer Jaz Sawyer and the visual artist and CEO of the non-profit South Pasadena Arts Council Howard Spector.
Khubesrian also established an all-new Commissioners Congress banquet honoring the city’s dozen-plus Commissions that keep the city running. Volunteer heads of the groups, such as Youth Commissioner high school junior Cole Chuang, each gave a brief summary of their 2018 accomplishments and 2019 goals. Initiatives included a Senior Citizen Center tech training day helping grandparents navigate Skype to video call their grand-kids and the Animal Commission’s community meetings on safe and healthy coyote ecosystem sharing. Khubesrian wants to celebrate everyone publicly because none of the work is paid and historically it has been difficult to recruit enough volunteers
Thanks to some ‘beating of the bushes’ and a more public call for volunteer applicants this year, the City boosted its female representation in government from 34% to 54%. Inspired by the recent surge of women running for and winning Congressional seats, Khubesrian also encouraged more diverse applicants across all identities, age and professional backgrounds, knowing that more involved citizens make better citizens and create better policies. With a long history of hiring as part of her medical practice and faculty experience, Khubesrian’s top priority is and always will be always getting “top quality people.” Expanding the call, she says, did exactly that. “I was blown away by these amazing [new applicants]…. I was so excited.”
More Isn’t Better…but It Could Be
Business support and manageable, sustainable and pedestrian-focused development also is part of her vision of the long-term health of the city. South Pasadena has caught the eye of many investors who want to be part of the Mission Street/Fair Oaks shopping corridors. Addressing fears of overdevelopment, Khubesrian stresses that the city should be picky but should not close the door on everybody: “When [we] don’t change, change will be forced on us, and at that point, we won’t like it.”
Khubesrian also is optimistic about the potential for attractive, affordable housing, citing design that can add density without incongruous high rises. She notes that 55% of city residents rent, and their needs as well as the needs of those on fixed incomes are a top priority (“inclusionary housing”), although the City Council is not convinced that official rent control is the best option.
Also on the priority list is redirecting Caltrans funds from the tunnel into better local traffic flow, using Caltrans funds for a right-hand on-ramp to the SR-110 from the northbound lanes on Fair Oaks instead of a left hand light, and timing the lights down Fair Oaks to improve traffic flow.
When she first “speed dated” South Pasadena residents as she ran for office back in 2010, Khubesrian says South Pasadenans were vocal about their love of their city. She believes a key factor in the ‘small town’ feel of the city is its density and walkability (95% rating on a major site, an official ‘Walkers’ Paradise’). As a family physician, she was especially aware that loneliness is an enormous health risk factor, bigger even than smoking. Meaningful social interaction gives people purpose and actually saves lives. People know their neighbors because so many residents can and do walk to work or school, the grocery store, favorite coffee spots and dinner and night spots in South Pasadena.
Even when people disagree over details like how to spend or fund city coffers, Khubesrian expresses her extreme good fortune in living where people stand together for the public good. Without that community spirit, South Pasadena would never have defeated the project that almost devastated the town.
Turns out, having friends means the city is thriving and the future looks prosperous.
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The Controversy That Never Was
One local paper first reported on the Commissioners’ bumper crop of new appointees with outrage, citing an anonymous male emailer who believed Khubesrian’s actions “could be illegal.”
The high proportion of women in the new class (incorrectly first reported as all-female) caused one disappointed applicant to demand a public records disclosure of the women’s qualifications. In fact, the City Council unanimously reviewed and approved every single appointee, not just Mayor Khubesrian.
The high proportion of women among the appointees simply rectified years of under-representation. Khubesrian herself was the only woman who ran for one of three Council seats 2010–and received more votes than the other eight male candidates. Before 2010, no woman had served on the Council since 2003. Khubesrian now is joined on the Council (of five) by Diana Mahmud and the City has a female City Manager and Attorney.
Khubesrian says she and the Council certainly meant no ill will towards people who might have expected a de facto renewal of their positions based on past practices. She is pleased with how quickly the mini-ruckus has quieted down as facts have been set straight and hurt feelings soothed. “There’s always something to learn,” she reasons.
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