Mayor James Woollacott leans against the railing of the York Boulevard Bridge, on the city's boundary with Los Angeles, and lets his eyes sweep across the scene. A segment of the Pasadena Freeway, buzzing with morning traffic, bends away to the east. Water trickles down a flood-control ditch.
Extending north of the freeway, a narrow swath of greenery--bushes and grass littered with a few rusty automobile parts--stretches up the Arroyo Seco.
"A piece of dirt," says Woollacott wryly, dismissing the undeveloped green strip. Here's where the city would like to see the long-planned missing link of the Long Beach Freeway merge with the Pasadena Freeway. Put it here, Woollacott and his fellow council members fervently argue, not where the California Department of Transportation wants to build it, along Meridian Avenue, a block or so from the commercial center of the city.
"What's more important?" muses the 71-year-old mayor, a slim, dapper man with a neat white mustache. "Putting a piece of useless land to productive use or putting 500 families out on the street just to save that piece of dirt?"
The cluttered strip of urban back yard below the bridge, seemingly far from South Pasadena's quaint mansions and tightknit suburban neighborhoods, represents the last battleground in a war that has consumed the city for more than a quarter of a century.
A group of residents of the city's west side will discuss various freeway options at Arroyo Vista School Auditorium, 335 El Centro St., at 7:30 tonight.
As Caltrans moves quickly toward completion of environmental studies for the proposed freeway extension, which will ultimately link the 10, 110 and 210 freeways, Woollacott and the City Council are making a last-ditch stand on a proposal that would encroach on the Arroyo Seco.
"Plan B," as they call the proposal, to distinguish it from a dozen or so other plans considered since 1960 by Caltrans, would not only take the freeway out of the middle of town but reduce the number of homes that would have to be demolished by about 500, Woollacott says.
As drawn by freeway consultant Jess Reynolds in 1973, the Plan B route slants across the southwest corner of the city and follows South Pasadena's boundary with Los Angeles to the Arroyo Seco, the dry riverbed that runs south of the Rose Bowl. Then it would "co-mingle" with the Pasadena Freeway, either running side by side with the older freeway or joining it as a second deck.
It would require using a half-mile-long corridor in the Arroyo Seco.
The plan is a variation of the option known as the "Westerly Route," rejected by Caltrans as too costly and destructive. Plan B veers from the Westerly Route north Avenue 60 and rejoins the Westerly Route about 1 1/2 miles to the north at Orange Grove Avenue. As plotted by Caltrans, the Westerly Route would also swing away from the center of South Pasadena to the city line. It would have knocked out dozens of homes along Monterey Road and Pasadena Avenue, crossing the Pasadena Freeway near Orange Grove Avenue.
But Plan B is beginning to look more and more like a long shot, some state officials and residents say. Just to get it on the Caltrans table may require action by both the state Legislature and the U. S. Congress, bypassing the green patch's designation as protected "parkland," to say nothing of overcoming a burgeoning resistance movement from the west side of town.
In the meantime, the Long Beach Freeway continues to abruptly drop off the map at Valley Boulevard in Alhambra. With no link to the freeways to the north, complain residents of neighboring cities, north-south traffic has been hemorrhaging into local streets in Alhambra, Pasadena and South Pasadena.
The pressure is on Caltrans to close the gap. "It's probably the most outstanding example of a freeway gap in the Los Angeles region," says Jack Hallin, Caltrans' chief of project development for the region. "It's indicative of the problems of building in a built-up area. Everyone wants the freeway--'but not in my back yard.' "
As the 29-year-old debate moves toward its fateful conclusion, the strategy sessions and behind-the-scenes maneuvering are picking up markedly in intensity, all parties concede. In the past month, city officials have held a series of meetings with Caltrans officials, and they have huddled regularly with their Sacramento-based lobbyist and their special legal representative.
"No big deal," cracks City Manager John Bernardi, who has been in the thick of it. "We just have to extend our days to 26 hours."
Among the hurdles the city faces:
Caltrans is an eyelash away from putting its money on the so-called "Meridian Variation," a route that would complete the freeway by plowing straight through the middle of town, roughly along Meridian Avenue. A final environmental impact study on the "Meridian Variation" was submitted more than three months ago to the Federal Highway Administration, which would provide most of the funds for it. Final approval could come as soon as May, Caltrans officials say.
Plan B must overcome state law, which specifically prohibits the use of Arroyo Seco land for building a freeway, and federal law, which prohibits any federal project on previously designated parkland.
Recent arrivals to South Pasadena's west side have provided new energy in building resistance to what some refer to as the "Eastern Establishment," the city's elected officials, and their determination to shunt the freeway westward. Organized as South Pasadenans Against the Westerly Route, they have begun forging alliances with residents groups in adjoining cities.
Nevertheless, city officials are optimistic that they can wrest major concessions from the state.
"South Pasadena is not a freeway obstructionist," Woollacott said. "Everywhere we go, we get the response, 'Oh, you guys are the freeway fighters.' But we've been trying to get this thing built since way back in the late 1960s. It's just that we thought that there was a better way to do it."
Feisty residents in the western part of the city, who would be most affected by Plan B, have no such qualms. South Pasadenans Against the Westerly Route (S.P.A.R.) has appointed block captains to carry the message door-to-door that the city has been "unfair" to their community.
"We're saying to the mayor, 'We don't think you should save the city by sacrificing the west,' " said Mavis Minjares, a member of the group. "We're a part of the city, too."
The choices are clear cut, city officials insist: Caltrans can split the city in half and demolish 1,267 homes in South Pasadena and neighboring El Sereno to build the Meridian Variation. Or it can skirt the center of town and demolish only 762 homes in the two communities under Plan B.
The Meridian Variation would be 6.2 miles long and cost about $425 million to complete. The Westerly Route studied by Caltrans, somewhat similar in configuration to Plan B, would be 7.1 miles long, and cost $476 million. No one knows how much Plan B would cost.
Caltrans officials say they're open to city suggestions. "We're talking to them," says Jack Hallin, Caltrans' chief of project development for the area. "We're listening to what they have to say."
Caltrans is in the midst of a preliminary feasibility study of Plan B, to determine approximate costs and consequences to neighborhoods in its path. Pressed, however, Hallin expressed doubt. "There are two problems with that alignment," he said, "state law and federal law."
The city has appealed to state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) to help overcome a 1975 state law prohibiting further encroachments of freeways into the Arroyo Seco. According to city officials, Torres, who represents South Pasadena, is preparing a bill to permit a freeway corridor of about half a mile, where the Long Beach and Pasadena freeways would merge.
But a spokeswoman for Torres would not confirm that the senator was committed to such a course. "We're still looking at a variety of options and trying to gather all viewpoints," said Torres' aide Beth Bonbright. "It's a very difficult, emotional issue."
She noted that Torres has until March 10 to "drop something into the hopper" during the current legislative session.
Assuming state restrictions are eased, Hallin said, federal constraints may be even more resistant. The crucial federal law is a section of the Transportation Act of 1966, prohibiting the construction of federal projects on parkland unless "there is no feasible and prudent alternative to the use of such land."
"Congress has not been disposed to waiving environmental law," Hallin said.
The city has adopted a we'll-cross-that-bridge-when-we-come-to-it stance on the federal question. "Somewhere in the great United States there must be a freeway that runs through a park," says Woollacott. "Where there's one, there can be two."
"All we can do is take care of the local (or state) level first," adds Bernardi. "Then we can move to the federal level."
The Long Beach Freeway's missing link has been debated, railed against and fought in South Pasadena ever since Caltrans first adopted the Meridian Route in 1964. In 1973, South Pasadena, which has always prided itself on its small-town atmosphere, joined with environmental groups to successfully sue for a federal injunction on the project. The plaintiffs argued that the state's environmental review procedures were inadequate.
The injunction still stands. Even if the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) approves the project in May, state attorneys acknowledge, Caltrans must go to Los Angeles Federal Court to ask that the injunction be lifted. The city has already stated its intention to challenge that request, should Caltrans proceed with the Meridian Variation.
In 1984, a federal advisory committee on historic preservation dropped another major roadblock in front of the project, recommending to the FHA that the project be rejected because the original Meridian Route took out too many of the city's historic homes. Hence, Caltrans created the Meridian Variation, which swung around the city's historic district on Mission Street and avoided the distinctive homes on Monterey Road and on the small, tree-lined lanes north of Mission.
In 1986, voters were asked in a city-sponsored advisory referendum whether the city should continue to fight against a Meridian route for the freeway. The voters voted overwhelmingly in the affirmative. Ever since, the city has used the 71% "yes" vote on Proposition GG, as it was titled, as a rationale for continuing its efforts to shunt the freeway link to the west side of town.
It's a sore point for S.P.A.R. members. "A lot of people who voted for GG weren't for a westerly route at all," said Minjares "They were for a 'no-build' option."
The west-side residents argue that a Meridian route would be less expensive and have less of an environmental impact than Plan B, because of the two plans' contrasting requirements. "The Westerly route would have to be elevated, while the Meridian route would be submerged," noted Minjares. "Noise and pollution will be much more difficult to control on the west side of town."
Council members express dismay that they appear to be working to protect one part of the city while sacrificing another. "It's not an easy thing to think that you may be part of a decision to take anybody's house," said Woollacott. "That bothers me a lot. But I was elected to represent a city."
City officials, depicting the Meridian Variation as the would-be "destruction of South Pasadena," have said that the city will fight to the end to prevent Caltrans from building along that route.
In December, the council voted to retain San Francisco attorney Antonio Cosby-Rossman to represent the city in a possible court challenge to the Caltrans plan. Council members also voted to use Community Redevelopment Agency funds to pay for the litigation, which they estimated could cost as much as $200,000.
Old-timers in South Pasadena are sticking to their guns in the face of adversity. But most have learned to be blase about the freeway issue even while they rush to shore up their positions.
"It's our main concern," says Bernardi. "It's always been our main concern. But it's been on our minds for so long, it's almost second nature now."