Even Rose Parade floats can’t afford to live in Pasadena

The 2017 Rose Parade theme was
The 2017 Rose Parade theme was "Echoes of Success."
Ben Bergman/KPCC

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When dozens of flower-covered floats roll down Colorado Boulevard in the Rose Parade on New Year's Day, it will mark the first time that not one of them was constructed in Pasadena. Thanks to high real estate prices, the giant warehouses where the colorful floats are built have moved elsewhere.

The float-building tradition in Pasadena began with the rose-covered carriages that Valley Hunt Club members rode to promote tourism to California in 1890. But the economics no longer pencil out, said Lance Tibbet,  Tournament of Roses president.

For years, Tibbet's organization rented warehouses in Pasadena and then decided it wanted to buy its own buildings. This year it completed its transition to new warehouses in Azusa and Irwindale.

"When we looked for a new facility certainly, we wanted to stay in Pasadena, but unfortunately the fact of the matter is is that buying a building for us is a big step to begin with. And pricey," Tibbet said. "So Irwindale offers a much more attractive value."

Beyond price barriers, it was difficult to find buildings with enough indoor space for floats that can be up to 55 feet long and 16 feet tall. Testing them on open streets had become increasingly difficult in Pasadena in the two locations the Tournament of Roses rented.

One of the now vacated locations, the Rose Palace on South Raymond Ave., is in an industrial neighborhood that  is home to a hospital, medical buildings and an arts college. Traffic from those venues was not a good mix with driving a massive float around the block.

"They were being tested out on Raymond and the volume of traffic the speed of that traffic," Tibbet said. "It was frankly just getting a little scary out there."

The other Pasadena location, Rosemont Pavilion near the Rose Bowl, was in the Arroyo neighborhood, popular with walkers and bicyclists. An increase in the Rose Bowl's concert schedule and the prospect that surrounding streets might use medians or speed bumps to calm traffic also made that area seem less attractive for float-building.

The exodus of float construction from Pasadena has been a long time coming. Starting in 2007, the Tournament of Roses bought buildings in Azusa and Irwindale, and made the space available to three of the four companies that build most of the commercially-sponsored floats in the parade. (Those are Paradiso Parade Floats, Fiesta Parade Floats and Artistic Entertainment Services.)

The fourth builder, Phoenix Decorating Company, moved this year. In January, following the post-parade public viewing, the company towed its 2017 floats that had been built at the Rose Palace and Rosemont Pavilion to the new quarters in Irwindale. There, they were disassembled and renovated for 2018 use.

Consolidating float-building in Azusa and Irwindale has advantages for the companies, volunteers and tourists who visit the decorating venues, Tibbet said. The Rose Float Plaza South, at 5400 Irwindale Ave., is not far from the Gold Line station in Irwindale.

The new buildings in Irwindale have far more space for the hundreds of float decorating volunteers. It’s also a better experience for the thousands of visitors who buy tickets to view the floats as they are decorated, Tibbet said.

Of course, moving float construction miles from the parade start adds a logistical challenge of getting the floats to Pasadena.  On New Year’s Eve, about 4 p.m. in the afternoon, is the parade before the parade. The convoy of mostly-decorated floats takes six to eight hours for the journey, and it provides a free sneak peek for the many families who know to come out and watch.

“The coming in is quite its own event,” Tibbet said. “I wish there was some way we could monetize that,” he joked.

The floats leave their barns in Azusa and Irwindale and head west on Arrow Highway to Huntington Drive, then north on Fair Oaks Avenue before lining up on Orange Grove Blvd. where the parade steps off.

Other floats, so-called self-built floats, are built outside Pasadena by their owners in Burbank, Downey, La Canada, Sierra Madre, South Pasadena.

The Rosemont Pavillion, while no longer being used for float construction, will continue to be used as a tourist draw. Four of Paradiso's already-constructed floats that were built outside Pasadena, will be decorated there, Tibbet said. Also, students at Cal Poly Pomona and San Luis Obispo build portions of their float at their separate campuses, bringing the two halves together at Rosemont Pavilion for decorating in the final week before the parade.