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Freeway Fans Seek Allies as Torres Backs Off

Times Staff Writer

After a last-minute withdrawal of support by state Sen. Art Torres, the City Council and its allies in Sacramento are scrambling to find another champion in the Legislature for a plan to build the final leg of the Long Beach Freeway on the west side of town.

Torres (D-Los Angeles), who agonized for more than a month over his stand, last week decided not to introduce legislation that would have permitted the California Department of Transportation to build part of the freeway in the Arroyo Seco, the dry riverbed stretching from Devil’s Gate Dam to downtown Los Angeles and skirting South Pasadena’s western edge.

“After many meetings and discussions with the South Pasadena mayor, City Council members and persons from the affected communities,” Torres said, “I have decided that the best course of action at this time is to continue to seek alternative solutions to a very complex issue.”

Near Deadline

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His decision Wednesday came three days before the final deadline for individual legislators to introduce bills during the current session. Now, an Arroyo Seco bill would require either a waiver by rules committees in both houses of the Legislature or sponsorship by a legislative committee.

The legislation was to have been the linchpin in the city’s attempts to stop Caltrans from completing the Long Beach Freeway along an eight-lane corridor through the center of the city. By eliminating state restrictions on building new freeways in the Arroyo, the Legislature could have removed a major stumbling block facing Plan B, the route now preferred by city officials.

Plan B is a variation of the option once known as the Westerly Route, rejected by Caltrans as too costly and destructive. Plan B veers from the Westerly Route north of Avenue 60 and rejoins the Westerly Route about 1 1/2 miles to the north at Orange Grove Avenue.

The Arroyo Seco, which has been designated parkland by cities along its edges, is protected from freeway projects both by a 1975 state law and by federal restrictions on building in parks.

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Torres’ decision was a victory for residents of the city’s west side, who were vocal in their opposition to city efforts to shunt the freeway to their neighborhood.

“We’re elated,” said Mavis Minjares, a representative for South Pasadenans Against the Westerly Route, which had actively lobbied Torres not to introduce the Arroyo legislation. “Once Sen. Torres heard our voices, he became concerned about his other constituents too.”

Torres represents much of the eastern edge of Los Angeles, as well as South Pasadena and the City of Commerce.

Caltrans officials in the Los Angeles district office, who have been studying Plan B, were on the verge of declaring the plan dead Thursday. What are Plan B’s prospects now? “Poor,” said Jack Hallin, Caltrans’ chief of project development for the region. “It’s dead.”

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Then, pondering the freeway link’s meandering 30-year history, Hallin offered a quick caveat. “Of course, nothing’s dead,” he said. “Things die and they’re resurrected.”

Disappointed city officials and their Sacramento-based lobbyist echoed those sentiments last week, insisting that other legislators could be persuaded to go to bat for a bill that would permit the freeway to encroach on about 15 acres of the Arroyo. They also considered legal strategies, challenging the applicability of state and federal laws.

“I don’t believe that this really means that the end is near or imminent,” said City Manger John Bernardi.

Officials would not offer names of would-be sponsors of a new Arroyo Seco bill.

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Caltrans’ preferred route, the so-called Meridian Variation, would join the San Bernardino Freeway with the Pasadena and Foothill freeways by plowing an eight-lane corridor through El Sereno and South Pasadena. The South Pasadena segment would roughly follow Meridian Avenue, near the center of the city, though veering around some historic homes in the north of the city.

City officials have charged that the Meridian Variation would “split the city in half” and strangle its vitality.

The Federal Highway Administration, which will provide most of the funds for the freeway, is reviewing the state’s final environmental impact report on the Meridian Variation. The federal agency’s approval is expected within two months.

The city, on the other hand, wants to build the freeway link along its boundary with Los Angeles, following a route that swings away from the middle of the city and crosses the Arroyo before connecting with the Pasadena Freeway. Plan B calls for the new freeway to become a second-deck over the 49-year-old Pasadena Freeway for about half a mile before veering north into Pasadena.

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Preliminary studies of Plan B by Caltrans, done at the city’s request, showed that it would require taking 7.9 acres of Arroyo parkland in South Pasadena and 7.6 acres in Los Angeles, said Hallin. It would require the demolition of 265 dwelling units in South Pasadena, as opposed to 599 for the Meridian Variation.

Barred by Law

But Caltrans officials have emphasized the legal hurdles besetting Plan B. “There are two problems with that alignment,” Hallin said recently, “state law and federal law.”

The 1975 state law protecting the Arroyo Seco, sponsored by then-Assemblyman Richard Alatorre (now a Los Angeles City Councilman), is reinforced by the Transportation Act of 1966, which prohibits construction of federal projects on parkland unless “there is no feasible and prudent alternative.”

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But city officials contended last week that a motivated Caltrans could still build Plan B. “This whole business about a parklands act is just sort of a ploy,” said Councilwoman Evelyn Fierro. “I don’t see it as impeding any sort of move we want to make.”

Councilman James Hodge said that Torres had been in a “no-win” situation. “He’s got a whole constituency to represent,” Hodge said. “If he picks one route or the other, he’s going to have opposing groups after him. If he says ‘no-build,’ he’ll be seen as an obstructionist. If he takes no stance whatsoever, he’ll look like a wimp.”

Changing Bill

But Hodge said other legislators were interested in modifying the original Alatorre bill because the wording is flawed. As written in 1975, the bill appeared to protect only areas of the Arroyo that had been declared parkland by the end of that year, Hodge said. The idea of an amendment would be to “clean up the wording and protect the rest of the Arroyo,” he added, while allowing a 15-acre encroachment to complete the Long Beach Freeway.

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Ralph Ochoa, the city’s Sacramento lobbyist, added that federal restrictions on building in parkland could also be attacked. “The federal protection extends to both parkland and historic sites,” Ochoa said.

The necessity of destroying many of South Pasadena’s distinctive old homes, some of which have been designated as “historic” because of their distinctive designs, has already forced the state to reroute the freeway. The Meridian Variation was drawn to limit the amount of damage to such structures, Caltrans officials say.

But the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, a Washington-based group set up to advise the federal government, recently expressed continuing dissatisfaction with Caltrans’ design for the last link of the Long Beach Freeway.

John F.W. Rogers, chairman of the advisory council, said last month that other alternatives to the Meridian Variation, which would damage or destroy 69 historic properties, should be studied. He advised the Federal Highway Administration to withhold its final decision on Caltrans’ preferred route until other routes could be studied.

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In weighing whether to protect parkland or historic sites, “a court may have to look at both types of monuments,” Ochoa said. “The court would look at the historic properties and be impressed. Then it would see the concrete mess that’s being called parkland. You hear the word parkland and you think of an idyllic setting. But it (the land the city wants to encroach on to build the freeway) is not. It’s a home for hobos.”

The continuing debate about alternative routes appears to have pushed many toward a “no-build” option.

Former Mayor Alva Lee Arnold, for example, resigned recently as chairman of the Committee for the Westerly Route and as a member of the city’s transportation commission, saying the freeway should be stopped altogether.

Councilwoman Fierro, until now a firm proponent of Plan B, said she also was having “no-build” thoughts. “I’m personally leaning in the direction of not wanting to see a freeway in our town, period,” she said. “I feel very strongly that we already have our freeway (the Pasadena Freeway, which slices across the city on an east-west axis). We’re only 3 1/2 square miles, and I don’t think such a small town should have to have two freeways.”

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Fierro contends that the completed Long Beach Freeway will be of more benefit to truckers, who carry produce between the San Joaquin Valley and the Port of Long Beach, than to ordinary motorists.

“This is not a people freeway, it’s a truck freeway,” she said. “I don’t want to see a wonderful, quaint small town ruined for trucks.”

Torres, who declared himself a “no-build” advocate in 1982, said in a statement that the state should study other alternatives for “closing the gap” between the San Bernardino Freeway and the northern freeways, such as a light-rail system or mass transit.

“He’s suggesting that a freeway is just too disruptive,” said Torres aide Beth Bonbright. “Perhaps mass transit is an alternative that hasn’t been sufficiently explored. Caltrans’ attitude in the past has been one of just ramming a highway through.”

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Torres, who could not be reached for comment, was suggesting that alternatives could at least reduce the north-south traffic without destroying communities, Bonbright said.


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