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Sam Hall Kaplan

A Historic Area at the Crossroads

October 18, 1986|Sam Hall Kaplan | Kaplan also appears in The Times' Real Estate section.

Ted Shaw and family live in one of those gracious, turn-of-the-century, rambling South Pasadena bungalows that evoke the spirit of a simpler time.

In Shaw's neighborhood just north of the curving Pasadena Freeway at Orange Grove Boulevard, under a canopy of towering palms, are other handsome historic houses set back on expansive, well-attended lawns.

On Buena Vista Street behind Orange Grove Boulevard the houses include a medley of proud, spacious structures, among them the Craftsman Swiss-style Garfield House at 1001 and the Longley House at 1005, with its inventive mix of Mission, Moorish and Romanesque styles.

However confused the styles, the houses were designed with characteristic concern for detail by the brothers Charles and Henry Greene, and are on the National Register of Historic Places.

That neighborhood--bordering Pasadena and known as the South Lower Arroyo Seco--is always a pleasure to tour on weekends; nearby also is a section of Pasadena blessed with other Greene and Greene historic homes--and the Wrigley House, a Beaux-Arts extravaganza that now serves as the headquarters of the Tournament of Roses Assn.

But recently an excursion to the South Pasadena area took on a more somber tone. A meeting had been scheduled at the Shaw house to review the latest round in the Long Beach Freeway controversy.

For the last 30 years, those living in these historic houses, and the surrounding neighborhoods, have been under the shadow of a proposed five-level interchange--part of a regional traffic master plan developed in the '50s that would connect the Pasadena, Foothill and Long Beach freeways.

If funded by the Legislature, the interchange would be part of the so-called Meridian Route, a six-mile stretch proposed by Caltrans that would condemn those houses, about 1,400 other residences and half a dozen historic districts as it slices through the communities of El Sereno, South Pasadena and Pasadena.

Caltrans has argued that the connection is an absolute necessity to stop the region from being strangled by traffic. Its plea is supported by an ardent trucking industry, the Automobile Club of Southern California and by many drivers, who daily commute between the San Gabriel Valley and points south and west.

As someone who once had to contend with the curving, increasingly congested, dated and dangerous Pasadena Freeway, I sympathize with the drivers, but cannot side with them. The price seems just too high.

In South Pasadena, in fact, the Meridan Route--with an estimated $500-million price tag-- would displace about 10% of the population and consume about 10% of the land.

"For a city to qualify for federal disaster aid only 5% of it has to be affected," remarked Alvalee Arnold, a leading opponent of the freeway who has served as mayor of South Pasadena twice. "But the disaster has to be a natural one, not man-made, like a freeway.

Arnold and Shaw, who also has served as the city's mayor, had gathered with others in Shaw's dining room to talk about Proposition GG, an advisory measure on South Pasadena's Nov. 4 ballot that calls upon the city to continue to oppose the Meridian Route.

But the issue is not as simple as it might seem, for there is an alternative to the Meridian Route known as the Westerly Route. By swinging along an edge of the city, Westerly would destroy fewer houses and cause less damage to the historic districts.

Still, this is not particularly comforting to those who would be affected by the Westerly Route. They see a "yes" vote for Proposition GG as a "yes" vote for the destruction of their homes.

"We should vote 'yes' on Proposition GG and oppose the Meridian Route, and we should also oppose the Westerly Route," urged Mary Ann Parada. She and others contend that the freeway connection is really not needed and, at best, might save a few minutes of driving time for the truckers.

"For this we need to spend a half a billion dollars, pollute the air, and destroy a community?" asked Parada. "And every one knows by now that freeways don't solve traffic problems, they just create more."

Others are not so sure. There is a sentiment in South Pasadena that the Westerly Route, if designed with sensitivity, would be a reasonable compromise.

After the meeting, I gathered my wife, Margaret, and 1 1/2-year-old son, Josef, up from a local park to tour both the Meridian and Westerly routes to see, if either was constructed, what would be savaged in addition to the historic South Lower Arroyo Seco.

Up and down the streets we went on an overcast Saturday, glimpsing an array of predominately modest, well-maintained houses. The architecture bespoke the 1910s and '20s, middle class and pleasant.

But more engaging were the children playing on lawns, homeowners gardening, teen-agers washing cars, and people bicycling, walking the dog or just walking, checking out garage sales and sharing gossip with neighbors.

The streets were alive, offering scenes that could have provided a backdrop for the play "Our Town," and in the air there seemed to be that elusive, irreplaceable sense of community.

Proponents of the freeway talk a lot about the need to improve the "quality of travel" in Southern California, but I wondered as we wound through South Pasadena why it had to be at the incalculable cost of our quality of life.

It appears we have reached a stage in the region's development where some hard choices are going to have to be made.

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