Playing for Keeps
Playhouse District Association Executive Director Erlinda Romo talks about the organization’s strategy for revitalizing Pasadena’s cultural heart and ensuring its future.
By Bettijane Levine 07/01/2014
People are walking and talking about the Pasadena Playhouse District, the city’s reinvigorated neighborhood where history and culture coalesce with a spirited futuristic vibe. New buildings are going up and new shops and dining spots are moving in. New displays of public art and a continuum of free cultural events have imbued the district’s 32 blocks with an exciting sense of place and a feeling of community.
How did this happen? How do you make a neighborhood “hot”? How does an area evolve from an undefined group of blocks into a destination — a place where people want to live, work, walk, shop, dine, invest and build? How do you actually define a neighborhood, so that it becomes an “experience” that ignites the senses and stimulates the mind?
An expert on that subject is Erlinda Romo, the economic development diva of Pasadena’s Playhouse District, which has the venerable and charming Pasadena Playhouse at its core. When Romo signed on as executive director of the Pasadena Playhouse District Association in 2007, its board of directors made her mandate clear: Enhance the district’s economic vitality and confirm it as Pasadena’s center for culture, commerce and community. In short: Make it hot.
She had a lot of fine raw material to work with. Many historic, architecturally important buildings dot the district’s landscape, along with museums and iconic businesses, such as Vroman’s Bookstore (opened in 1894)and The Ice House comedy club (started in 1960).
What was lacking when she took over? A sense of vitality, an infusion of energy and, most important, a feeling of neighborhood that would define the district and meld the modern with the historic, the cultural with the commercial. It needed an overlay to envelop those 32 blocks — roughly between Walnut Street to the north and Green Street to the south, Catalina Avenue on the east and Los Robles Avenue on the west — and mark them as a cohesive, up-and-coming neighborhood where people want to live, work and invest in the future.
In the seven years since Romo took on the challenge, the district has blossomed. Just a few years back, neighbors gave a street name when asked where their home or shop was located. Now they often say, “It’s in the Playhouse District” — a sure sign that a sense of place has been established, a neighborhood revitalized.
Arroyo Monthly interviewed Romo to learn some secrets of her trade:
Did you have previous experience doing something like this?
I’ve been working in downtown development and economic revitalization since the early 1980s. I was the economic development specialist for the City of San Gabriel, and I’ve worked in a number of different capacities for the City of Pasadena: as an arts coordinator, as a business recruitment and retention specialist for the Pasadena downtown development office and in other assignments. I know how City Hall works and how the community works, so I can blend those two together in my current job.
What exactly is the Pasadena Playhouse District Association?
It’s a nonprofit corporation formed in 1995 to manage and market the district. It’s governed by an 11-member board of directors representing the district’s property owners, businesses and institutions, and it uses pooled private dollars assessed from members to fund activities and services in the district.
How does it function?
There are five committees consisting of community members who are property owners, residents and business owners in the district. I staff each of the committees, and with each one, I discuss possible programs, projects and budgets. Then the basic skeleton for a project is developed by the committee, and I and my staff implement the project. The committees focus on five areas: design and physical enhancement, economic enhancement, promotions and marketing, parking and organizational resources, which deals mainly with budgets and succession on the Board of Directors.
Who pays your salary?
I work for the Board of Directors, and I interact with the committees to help carry out their ideas and projects. Salaries for me and my staff of three are paid by the association.
What are some services provided for residents and businesses?
One of the key things the association does is provide enhanced maintenance and security in the district, with extra security personnel seven days a week in public areas, streets and sidewalks. This is a low-crime area to begin with, but we offer additional security which has nothing to do with the City of Pasadena Police force. We also have ambassador guides who walk the district seven days a week.
What do ambassador guides do?
They’ve done everything from help people find their keys to suggesting restaurants, to dealing with minor graffiti situations and giving directions to those who can’t find the place they are looking for.
From where you started seven years ago, there’s been an immense change in the Playhouse District, all of it positive and invigorating. Can you explain how this was accomplished?
It’s been a process. In 2008, when the market was so low and we could not fill up shop space, we focused mostly on enhancing the brand of the Playhouse District. We’ve been doing that ever since, in a broad sphere.
We work on many free events to enhance the district as a cultural location — events such as ArtWalk, Make Music Pasadena, the free community films at Laemmle to bring people here during the holiday season. We’ve invigorated a series of nine free summer jazz concerts sponsored by the association in Vroman’s courtyard. We also instituted high-visibility visual enhancements, such as banners, art wraps on utility boxes and street art on crosswalks.
Explain how that came about.
In 2008, consultant Kennedy Smith was hired — she’s an expert who gave advice on how to use art as an economic generator. She said the district is blessed with great art institutions — museums, the Playhouse theater, the Boston Court theater. But the only way people know that the art exists is to go inside these institutions. She recommended that we put art on the outside, use art as part of our branding, so that people recognize it as symbolic of what is in the district. So we worked with the association’s design and physical enhancement committee and came up with a plan for crosswalk art.
What happened next?
[Pasadena-based] artist Cynthia Luna was enlisted. She uses stencils to create repetitive patterns on both large- and small-scale artworks that transform spaces. For us she designed templates for the crosswalks, stencils that interpret natural forms related to Pasadena, such as the gingko and the rose. Then we had to get those designs stenciled onto the crosswalks, and we had to be sure they would continue to look good and look fresh.
The crew we hired to install the art is the same crew that makes the white and yellow signs on our streets. These people are not used to creating art, but they are experts at doing work that lasts, that won’t cause pedestrians to trip. This time they were doing attractive designs instead of straight or broken lines in white or yellow. It took a while for City Hall to approve the project. They thought it might confuse drivers, or it might make pedestrians slip and fall. Now they like the crosswalk art; they know it doesn’t cause any problems. We [encountered] the same initial reluctance when we wanted to art-wrap the utility boxes.
How did that come about?
The idea was to use the utility boxes as “canvases” for public artwork, as vehicles for art, instead of trying to make the boxes disappear or putting street maps on them.
[L.A.] artist Susan Silton created text images of quotes that are a tribute to freedom of speech. The quotes are pretty remarkable and powerful. They’re from people like Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt and Frederick Douglass. And they’re very thought-provoking.
The project started when the Occupy movement was in full swing, and one police officer saw writing on the box and reported it as graffiti to the public works department. “It’s pretty good,” he said, “but I just wanted to let you guys know.” We’re right now installing four new utility-box artworks: three on Union and one on the corner of Walnut and Los Robles. The project is growing in size and scope. To keep the artwork fresh and clean, we used vinyl to wrap the boxes. It’s the same medium used to wrap buses and cars. That way, if people use markers on it or put stickers on it, the artwork won’t be destroyed. We can just replace a vinyl panel.
Any other visual markers you’ve installed?
We use large banners throughout the district to highlight art and cultural institutions, and smaller banners to promote the district, with the harlequin motif that’s on our association logo.
Do you and your staff work with developers who are putting up new buildings?
Yes, they come to my office and we share information with them. Our website has been redone since I started working for the association. It’s beautiful, user-friendly and there’s a tremendous amount of information for residents and visitors as well as property owners, investors and brokers on the benefits of the district. Our calendar of events is updated weekly and links directly to the business hosting that event. We utilize Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
What new buildings are planned, and what is your involvement?
Playhouse Plaza is going up opposite the playhouse. It’s a five-story building with 18,000 square feet of ground-floor commercial space and four stories of office space above that, with subterranean parking. The developer, IDS, has been in contact with the committee, and I’ve met with a few prospective tenants, talked and met with their brokers and answered questions about the district.
Three other developments are under construction as well, with commercial on the ground floor and residential up above. A medical office building will start construction next year at Colorado and Madison.
What about new shops and restaurants?
First, I want to emphasize that our district includes some iconic businesses that have been here a long time and give this community a sense of history, culture and class — Vroman’s and Jacob Maarse Florists, to name just two. We want to celebrate them and enhance their business as well as that of any newcomers. And new ones have been moving in. We have Roy’s, which is a micro-chain for Hawaiian fusion cuisine headed by Chef Roy Yamaguchi, Settebello Pizzeria, Tender Greens, Urth Caffé and Blaze Pizza. This is the second location for Rounds Premium Burgers, which has its only other shop in West Hollywood. A restaurant and jazz club, redwhite+bluezz, has [reopened there] and others may be in the works.
With all this increased activity, isn’t parking going to be a huge problem?
We’re the only area in downtown Pasadena that still has free street parking. We don’t know how long that will last. We’re working on a parking utilization study now and want to manage how space is used. If it was up to us, parking would remain free and we would build free parking structures. But we haven’t the funds for that. We are definitely working with the city on this. We advocate for those who live and work here, who are part of our community.
You’ve accomplished a lot. What are you most proud of?
It’s not just me — it’s the team that I work with. And whatever we’ve accomplished has been a collaborative effort. Whatever success we’ve achieved is because we’ve engaged the entire community — property owners, business owners, residents, the board and committee members and City Hall. We are all working together for a more vital Pasadena Playhouse District.