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

April 27, 1986|JILL STEWART | 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.

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