ATC History


Michele Zack, Altadena: Between Wilderness and City, Altadena Historical Society, 2004, p. 192-201.

Amid the social change of the 1960’s and 1970’s, some segments of Altadena life ambled along unperturbedly on course: American Legion, Chamber of Commerce, neighborhood associations, churches, and scout troops carried on as they always had—many, but not all, with a tentative new diversity in membership.

At a meeting of the Altadena Unit of the Pasadena Area League of Woman Voters in early February, 1975, the idea of forming a “coordinating council” of local groups was discussed. A similar body had existed in Altadena in the 1930’s and 1940’s, but had petered out in the 1950’s sometime after the advent of TV.

Impetus of new cooperation had been provided by Los Angeles County when it issued an Altadena General Plan in 1947 as part of its Model Neighborhood Program. A proposed $200,000 budget to help Altadena meet such goals as “preserving its unique character,” “increasing public participation,” and “encouraging logical neighborhood development” had caught the attention of the League of Women Voters and other civic groups. No one quibbled with these goals, but ideas varied on how to reach them. The desire to funnel this county budget and other money toward the community provided motivation for Altadenans to organize in ways not seen since the 1930’s and 1940’s.

At this juncture factionalism—between eastsiders and westsiders, those for and against incorporation, business people, and those more motivated by social issues—raised its head. It seemed that as soon as the need for some kind of united voice expressing community interests and problems to the County Board of Supervisors became apparent, suddenly it was long overdue.

Decisions and disagreements quickly came down to two points. The first was representation itself: who would sit on such a council—how could it be arranged that groups with varying geographical interests, agendas, and views would all have a say? The second was what, if any, influence would a community council have with the real powers of County government? A representative of the La Canada Coordinating Council came to the League meeting to explain that its council had been effective in lobbying the County Board on local issues, and that groups used it as a forum to work out neighborhood and other problems as well as to study the cityhood issue.

The Board encouraged town councils because they allowed a representative, a body with whose members supervisors could develop relationships and trust. This is more efficient then dealing with an array of less predictable and manageable splinter groups and individuals. Quasi-official town councils also provide supervisors with political cover while projecting a greater sense of democracy. This is true even though the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, one of the most politically powerful institutions at the local level in the country, is vested with significantly more authority than any city government. Altadena, for example, shares a single supervisor with almost two million fellow constituents in the 5th District.

Groups with distinct agendas competed for leadership of the still-unformed council. The Steering Committee to Form an Altadena Council was inspired by the League of Woman Voters, and was co-chaired by Judith Krauser and Ralph Riddle. They were primarily interested in equitable representation and held the most liberal outlook.

The Altadena Civic Association (ACA), mainly a reconstituted East Altadena Improvement Association led by Oscar Werner, had a strong interest in incorporation ad was gearing up for a renewed campaign in 1975. Their driving concern was the new state-wide initiative requiring all unincorporated areas to either become cities themselves, or to be declared within the “sphere of influence” of another city. There was fear that should Pasadena succeed in getting Altadena placed in its sphere, fending off annexation would become a lost cause as a vote among those being annexed would no longer be required. In more than three dozen nibbles from the turn of the century, Pasadena had gradually consumed a good deal of Altadena along its western, southern, and eastern edges—the fear that given a chance the larger city would finish off the smaller community in one big bite was not an idle one.

The Altadena Chamber of Commerce, with Dr. James McDaniel as its spokesman, was close to ACA in its position, but emphasized the revitalization of the North Lake Avenue business district. Indeed the chamber and ACA considered joining forces and including one member from each census tract to broaden representation and give its business agenda a more democratic face.

Werner and Krauser sparred in a June 10, 1975 Pasadena Star News story with Krauser characterizing fighting annexation “a very limited scope for coming together” because the annexation was not in inevitable, and Werner calling the Steering Committee “something out of Baxter Ward’s (County Supervisor then overseeing Altadena) office whose mailings were geared to the west side of town. They want to handpick their membership by having two from each census tract,” he complained. Star News reporter Mary Hayes was able to report a few days later that the three groups had “smoked the peace pipe” and were working on “some kind of marriage” so they could function as one instead of as disparate voices.

In the end, the plan adopted for the council was the one recommended by the League of Women Voters. It emphasized equal geographical representation over the model adopted in La Canada in which council members from institutions such as the chamber and other civic groups shared clout with census tract representatives. In Altadena there was concern about encouraging minority resident participation; the community’s racial make-up was still in flux and any appearance of a takeover of the new council by entrenched (mostly white) powers would have started it off poorly. This was a real issue as much of the county money to be funneled toward Altadena was earmarked for economic development and neighborhood improvements, and to solve problems of crime and delinquency, animal overpopulation, and transportation difficulties more prevalent on the west than the east side of town.

The weekend of October 11-12, 1975 was set for the “unofficial election” of council members. Ballots were printed in the newspaper and available at various locations. More than 1,500 ballots were cast to elect two members and one alternate from each of seven census tracts in a field of 40 candidates.

The Altadena Town Council was born. It represents a compromise for a community whose residents have been arguing for 100 years over whether to become a city or not. Since the Board of Supervisors declared Altadena as its own sphere of influence in 1980, and the change from property tax to sales tax as the city–financing mechanism in California occurred after passage of Proposition 13, pressure to incorporate solely to ward off annexation by Pasadena has waned.

Other towns such as La Canada Flintridge use their councils’ advisory role to the Board of Supervisors as a stepping stone to cityhood. But while Altadena’s Town Council has existed for more than a quarter century, its mission has not changed since 1975—nor has the area’s legal status evolved as an unincorporated section of Los Angeles County since it was first established in 1887. Even as “Altadena: Between Wilderness and City” went to press in 2004, another intermittent but apparently irrepressible incorporation campaign was afoot. If the mood among residents has shifted enough for it to succeed where every previous attempt has failed—now that would make history!

The council has been primarily a reactive rather than a proactive institution, providing a forum to discuss local problems and facilitating a two-way channel with county government. On occasion it has become distracted by national hot button issues, such as when in 1988 it passed a motion supporting a constitutional amendment to criminalize flag burning even as after-school youth programs were being cut. There have been several instances, however, in which the council has taken the lead in forging community plans and policies with important, even profound, effects.

The Town Council created a “Heritage Committee” in the early 1980s to fight the planned demolition of Scripps Hall on Mariposa Street by developers wanting to build houses on the old Scripps/Kellogg property. Due to its efforts and an offer from the Waldorf School, instead of losing one of its most historic buildings, Altadena gained a quality kindergarten through eighth grade school in a successful example of adaptive reuse. The preservation committee, started over a single issue, grew from there, in this case into Altadena Heritage. Established in 1986, Heritage undertook a town survey that found over 3,000 buildings of architectural and/or historic interest, an unheard of number for a Southern California community of Altadena’s size. The group remains vibrant, enhancing the community through activities as divers as conducting home tours, graveside dramatizations of historic Altadena characters, and in 2003, endorsing Eric Lloyd Wright design for the Lincoln Corridor Redevelopment of a neighborhood and business district.
The Town Council got together with organizations such as Altadena Heritage and the Altadena Historical Society in the late 1990s to produce an anti-mansionization ordinance. This is means to preserve neighborhood integrity and stability by creating bulk and height limits as well as setback guidelines for new construction. Now, these must be in harmony with existing conditions. Communities such as Arcadia that did not create such guidelines in time saw a rash of “McMansions” sprout from small residential lots next to old farmhouses.

A Community Standards District for Altadena, distinct from that of Los Angeles County, has been established, and building plans requiring conditional use permits now must be approved by the Land Use Committee of the Town Council. This mechanism allows Altadena to set its own design standards, and prevent higgledy-piggledy or out-of-place development. Whether neighbors support or object to plans that would require zoning variances or conditional use permits is determined before approval is granted.

The Town Council also acted in an important planning capacity a few years ago when it was discovered that Altadena had been left out of maps redrawn for county vector control districts—and thus was not included in any mosquito abatement or rodent control programs. It arranged for representatives from several districts to present plans at public meetings, and in the end recommended the San Gabriel Valley Vector Control District. An information campaign ensued and property owners were informed that they must levy a five to twelve dollar tax per parcel on themselves in order to be included in a district. Even though the mailed ballots arrived in most homes on September 11, 2001, the day the World Trade Center in New York came under attack, enough residents approved and returned them that Altadena is now covered by a program. In light of the advance of West Nile virus, killer bees, and fire ants, it appears the Town Council was prescient on this issue.

Many would like to see Altadena directly control the kinds of businesses and projects that locate in the community. Despite the town’s modest size, it had 56 group homes housing 724 people in highest concentration per square mile in the San Gabriel Valley, according to a November 30, 2003 Star News article. Most are located on the west side; they became popular businesses in Altadena in the late 1970s when decreasing property values coincided with state and nationwide movements to return people with disabilities to their communities. Incorporation advocates cite this along with foothills development, as powerful reasons for Altadena to take charge for its own development and preserve its charms. Another solution might be to upgrade the Town Council’s Land Use Committee to a local planning board.

The Town Council’s current and potential role will not be covered in this history. But Ken Balder, who has chaired the council for six of the eight years he has been a member, summed up his view of its relevance in 2004:
“Bureaucracy works slowly. I thought I’d be on the council a year or two, do my duty, and get off. But I’ve come to actually appreciate the process itself—including interminable meetings, long discussions, waiting to hear back, and so forth. It actually often works in our favor. Eventually we get something better than if we just acted quickly to provide immediate satisfaction. Altadena is far from perfect, but it is also the closest thing I’ve seen to an integrated community—and that’s an achievement. We have improved, we do work better now than when I started. We have Michael Antonovich’s (the County Supervisor overseeing Altadena) ear, and he is responsive. There’s a lot to be said about the form of government Altadena has chosen, although I suppose people will still be arguing about incorporation 50 years from now. We have volunteer council members, not on any payroll, who put in as much time as they can. People get involved with the council because they care about the community—not career advancement; that’s not an issue if you don’t have professional politicians. When you look around at some cities, and then at our little Town Council, you think maybe what we have is closer to what the founding fathers envisioned.”