Long Beach Freeway's Missing Link: Neighbors' Nemesis, National Issue

Times Staff Writer

The specter of the "missing link" in the Long Beach Freeway has thrown a long and profound shadow over South Pasadena, El Sereno and Pasadena for nearly 20 years.

In South Pasadena, city officials say candidates for office haven't got a prayer if they support Caltrans' plan to complete the freeway through the heart of the city along Meridian Avenue, wiping out or damaging six historical districts. City leaders want to build it along the western edge of the city, over the Monterey Hills.

In El Sereno, residents take it one step further--they are swamping the Federal Highway Administration in Washington with post cards demanding that no freeway be built, because any route will turn their neighborhood into an isolated "urban island."

But in Pasadena and the other communities, north-south streets such as Fair Oaks and Fremont avenues are choked with traffic morning and evening--40,000 vehicles that each day try to find the shortest distance between the Pasadena and Foothill freeways to the north, and the beginning of the Long Beach Freeway to the south. And Caltrans is determined to correct the problem.

Neighborhoods Polarized

The controversy has set neighborhood against neighborhood and raised the hackles of the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, which says that hundreds of examples of old bungalow-style architecture would be destroyed by nearly every route proposed. The buildings are typified by quaint wood-shingled, wood-beamed homes designed by pioneering California architects, including Charles and Henry Greene.

While preservationists are fighting the freeway, 30 California legislators, joined by the cities of Los Angeles, Pasadena and Alhambra, are demanding that the Federal Highway Administration approve the Meridian Route and move ahead on funding.

Now, with a final environmental impact statement expected to be completed by Caltrans within a year, the controversy has become a national issue.

Most Significant Fight

Preservation experts say it is the most significant freeway fight in the country involving the question of whether historical resources--in this case mostly homes--should be sacrificed for progress. Federal Highway Administration officials say they will base their decision on the merits of Caltrans' investigation into the best route, and not on public pressure.

"The letter-writers are wasting their paper, because we don't make these decisions based on referendum or public opinion," said Harter Rupert, chief of project development at the Federal Highway Administration. "We've got historic sites up the kazoo in South Pasadena, and Caltrans is doing its level best to avoid them. We'll make our decision based on the merits of their work."

A final environmental impact statement by Caltrans will include a detailed examination of the Meridian Route, the Westerly Route favored by the South Pasadena City Council, and six alternative routes designed to bypass historical buildings. However, Caltrans officials say they have not found "a wonder route" since they began work on the report in late 1984.

One route, known as the E Route, would cause slightly less historical damage, but does not "go where the traffic goes," and would cut a wide swath through the Altos, one of South Pasadena's most exclusive neighborhoods, said Caltrans spokesman Wayne Ballantine.

"We still believe the Meridian Route is superior, as we have said many times before," he said.

Reviewed by Entire Council

Robert Fink, director of the Western Regional Advisory Council on Historic Preservation in Denver, said the issue is so controversial that it has been the only one reviewed by the entire council in the past five years. That review led to the council's stand against the Meridian Route in 1984, and prompted Caltrans to return to the drawing board, seeking alternatives that would spare historical sites.

"We have never seen anything of this scope before in the Western Region, except perhaps when hundreds of archeological sites are threatened by a reservoir," Fink said.

Fink said the last major battle over historic districts threatened by a freeway occurred in New Orleans in the early 1960s, when the city proposed an elevated freeway through the picturesque French Quarter.

Although the Federal Highway Administration agreed with the council then, and withheld financial support for the unsuccessful New Orleans project, Fink said the council generally is unable to stop freeways.

Redesign Often the Result

"More often than not, frankly, a redesign is the result that we get. . . . Of course, our council's bottom line is that if there are no alternatives to the Meridian Route, there should be no freeway."

The scope of the Long Beach Freeway project is vast. If completed along the 6.2-mile Meridian Route, it would:

- Destroy or require the relocation of 200 to 300 historically significant buildings.

- Displace 2,500 residents.

- Uproot 6,500 trees.

- Require more than $400 million in federal and state funds, which have not been allocated and are at least five years away from being approved.

The 7.1-mile Westerly Route would displace 3,000 residents, while the 6.5-mile E Route would displace about 1,600. Most of the Meridian Route would be constructed in a wide trench below grade level, with one-fifth of its length camouflaged by two tunnels, but the Westerly Route favored by South Pasadena officials would be elevated in order to climb in and out of the Monterey Hills. It would vault over Orange Grove Avenue and other city streets.

Caltrans officials say they have reached a critical point and are under increasing pressure from the city of Los Angeles and state legislators to move ahead with the Meridian Route.

Key Decision

Within a few weeks, they say, they will make a key decision on whether to continue their yearlong study into routes that bypass historical sites, or wrap up those studies and complete the environmental impact statement.

"We are aware of the consensus to move ahead--we got that message loud and clear," Ballantine said. "But even the people involved closely with the project, both in Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration, don't agree on whether to keep looking into these questions or to say enough is enough."

In South Pasadena, the delays are viewed by many residents with a sense of triumph.

"We've been fighting Caltrans for 20 years, and that's why we can sleep at night," said Mary Ann Parada, secretary of the Westerly Route Committee, which has been lobbying for that route for several years.

Parada, who is hotly opposed to the Meridian Route, said, "We have a saying here, 'Don't break the heart of South Pasadena.' We were practically in our cribs when this thing started 20 years ago, and I think Caltrans hoped we would get tired. But we aren't going to stop."

Warm, Small Town

Elizabeth Madley, another member of the committee, said she was born in South Pasadena in 1917, and still views it as a warm, small town.

"I know people who were born here and went away, but they came back because you can't find a community like this--beautiful and friendly and a world apart," she said. "We are an inspiration for other small towns, because we are saying, 'Is it progress to knock out an established community like ours?' "

Andrew Chute, who bought the architecturally notable Garfield House 32 years ago, said the freeway would run through his backyard. The Greene and Greene home, built in 1904 by President James Garfield's widow, has six bedrooms and three bathrooms--the perfect place for raising the 10 Chute children.

However, Chute takes a more moderate tack than many residents.

"I favor any route that doesn't come through here, but I have mixed feelings because that means hurting some other part of town," Chute said. "We've had many fine memories here, but we have gotten our use out of this home. Now that I'm retired, and my last child moved out just two weeks ago, we won't need much space. We'll get ready to sell it."

'An Emotional Thing'

Chute said the attitude in South Pasadena has become "anyplace is fine as long as it's someplace else. It's really become an emotional thing."

The Westerly Route Committee's proposal to divert the freeway around the city has caused bitterness among west side residents, who say that the citizens of the east side are willing to sacrifice the west end of town.

For instance, they point out, committee members criticize the Meridian Route because one of its tunnels would pass several hundred feet behind South Pasadena High School. However, the Westerly Route they support would pass within a few hundred feet of Arroyo Vista Elementary School.

"We're second-class citizens over here," said Bob Cook, a proponent of the Meridian Route who twice ran unsuccessfully for City Council. "The people who live on the east side of town don't care about the intrusion into our hills. We're almost touching L.A., and they think we can be dispensed with or discarded."

Would Be Wiped Out

Cook's home on Collis Street would be wiped out by the elevated freeway, as would most of the houses in his attractive, tree-lined neighborhood. He said the Meridian Route, because of its construction below grade level, would have far less impact.

"They've been offered a state-of-the-art sunken freeway with tunnels and they can't understand why that's a good idea," he said.

Cook and other west side activists say the committee is trying to shunt the freeway into a less affluent section of town that doesn't have enough political clout to fight it.

Resident Bob Mulvin said western area residents are not as well organized as those on the east side, who he said have amassed votes for pro-Westerly Route candidates on the City Council for more than a decade. All the candidates in the April 8 election supported the Westerly Route.

"Our area was just a place where they grazed sheep until the homes were built in the 1950s," Mulvin said. "The voting power and wealth has always been on the eastern part of town, and frankly they don't care that the Westerly Route would be an ugly elevated freeway that would wipe out this end of town."

An Excuse to Stall

Mulvin and Cook contend that city officials have used the historical preservation argument as an excuse to stall the freeway.

They point to the City Council's approval of restoration funds for an old building known as the Meridian Iron Works, once a foundry. The building, constructed in the 1890s, stands near the path of the Meridian Route. Caltrans was for many years under pressure to divert the Meridian Route around the simple two-story structure, which resembles an Old West storefront.

"When outsiders see the Iron Works, they can't understand what the fuss is all about," Mulvin said. "It's an old dilapidated building--nothing that anyone would try to save. . . . They want to keep it only because it's in the path of the freeway."

But Mayor Sam Knowles said the idea of saving the Iron Works to disrupt the freeway plan "has never entered my mind. . . . We want to save it for the heritage of the city, nothing more."

The bitterness within South Pasadena has spilled into nearby communities as well, where uncertainty over the freeway's future has profoundly altered some neighborhoods.

In El Sereno, located at the terminus of the existing freeway, Caltrans owns scores of homes in the freeway's path along Sheffield and Lowell avenues. Most homes were purchased by the state in the 1950s when completion of the freeway was believed to be just a few years away.

Vagrants Took Over

Lydia Acosta, one of the organizers of the Neighborhood Action Committee, which is involved in numerous issues in the area, said Caltrans has allowed property and yards to fall into disrepair. Neighbors claim that vandals and vagrants have taken over vacant homes.

Visitors who walk on Sheffield, which lies directly along the freeway's path, can count seven vacant homes in one block. In front of each, rotting newspapers are piled on steps and walks, and yards are overgrown with weeds and tall grass.

Police say that in February, a woman who lived on a street near Sheffield was robbed, tied to her bed and burned to death. Neighbors fear that the killers were drifters attracted by the empty homes.

Mela Borboa, a resident on Sheffield, said the vacant home next to hers was taken over by teen-agers who used it as a crash pad, moving discarded furniture into a back room, which they littered with liquor bottles and burned candles.

"These are things I don't want my kids exposed to," Borboa said.

Borboa's immediate problems are being addressed by Caltrans, which has found a renter for the home and repaired much of the damage. In addition, Caltrans agreed this year to negotiate with the Neighborhood Action Committee to find ways to overcome neighborhood problems. Negotiators are asking that Caltrans lower its rental rates to attract residents.

Renters Would Be Welcome

"We would welcome low-income renters who could fill these homes and make this a neighborhood again," Acosta said.

Ballantine said the "no build" alternative sought by El Sereno residents has not been dropped from consideration, but has no support within Caltrans.

The most promising alternative route his staff has studied in the past year is the E Route, which would bypass two of six historical districts. However, it would cut through a historical district that is not threatened by other routes, and would destroy hundreds of homes in the Altos, where houses sell for $200,000 and up.

Moreover, he said, the E Route would cut through a Southern California Edison substation--a situation "that creates tremendous and complex problems of moving such a facility."

His staff has considered the location of earthquake fault lines, historical impact, noise, air pollution and local traffic circulation in reviewing all six route alternatives suggested by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

"Frankly, the whole city is so rich with cultural resources that it's virtually impossible to thread anything through there that would completely avoid them," Ballantine said. In addition, every route except the Meridian Route would have a greater negative impact on El Sereno, which would be cut more deeply with each move west.

'Prudent Alternative'

The major hurdle Caltrans faces, he said, is satisfying U.S. Department of Transportation laws which require states to prove that any freeway that disrupts parkland or historical sites "is the most prudent alternative" to routes that would not disrupt such property.

Jack Hallin, a spokesman for Caltrans, said his agency intends to "mind every detail" to avoid a long court battle over the final route. He said Caltrans is standing firm on the freeway because the agency believes it will help relieve major surface-street traffic problems and alleviate loads on some nearby freeways.

For instance the Pasadena Freeway, which has been operating at capacity for the past few years, would have less commuter traffic. And San Fernando Valley motorists who now use the Golden State Freeway to travel east to the Long Beach Freeway could take the Foothill Freeway instead, avoiding downtown. Trucks, which are not permitted on the Pasadena Freeway, would have a direct southerly route from the Foothill Freeway to the Long Beach Freeway.

Parada and other members of the Westerly Route Committee claim that harbor-bound trucks would dominate the new freeway link, turning it into a nightmare for commuters and residents who live within earshot. But Caltrans and port officials say they do not expect a large amount of truck traffic that far north of downtown Los Angeles.

'Just Plain Joe'

"Sure, commerce and industry will benefit from this freeway, but it's mostly for just plain Joe," Hallin said. "The Golden State and the surface streets in these communities need some relief, and I'm talking about relief from commuter cars, not commercial trucks."

Don Rutherford, a spokesman for the Port of Long Beach, said produce trucks from the San Joaquin Valley would be the biggest beneficiaries because they would be able to avoid the congestion downtown. But that would amount to only 100 or 200 trucks a day during peak cotton and alfalfa seasons, because most produce trucks head north to the Port of Oakland, Rutherford said.

Art Goodwin of the Port of Los Angeles said container rigs, which represent the biggest slice of either harbor's trucking business, generally head for downtown-area rail yards. "They would have no great need to go that far north on the Long Beach Freeway," Goodwin said.

In fact, local freeways are expected to have less truck traffic in the next few years because thousands of harbor-related container rigs that take loads to rail yards downtown will be diverted to a new multimillion-dollar railroad terminal nearing completion just north of both harbors.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°