SOUTH PASADENA — The store owner paused, glanced toward the door, then whispered, "You know, I am very much in favor of having a freeway here. It should have been built a long time ago. But please don't use my name. People in this town would hang me out to dry."
Such an opinion, even cautiously voiced, has been rare in this city that for 22 years has been battling plans by the state Department of Transportation to extend the Long Beach Freeway through the heart of South Pasadena.
An advisory referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot will tell city officials whether opposition to the extension still outweighs sentiment to throw in the towel.
A yes vote on Proposition GG signifies that voters want city leaders to continue the battle. A no vote signifies that the city should accept what some residents say is the inevitable and give in to Caltrans.
If Caltrans has its way, a 6.2-mile extension, known as the Meridian Route, would snake north through town along Meridian Avenue.
Another proposed route, called the Meridian Variation, which is under consideration by the Federal Highway Administration, would spare some, but not all, of the historical landmarks threatened by the Meridian Route.
Most members of South Pasadena's Committee for Yes on Proposition GG oppose any extension of the freeway.
Margaret Wallace, a 30-year South Pasadena resident, is furious.
"I hate to see this monster come roaring into this pretty little town," she said as she sat in her comfortable home amid boxes of committee literature.
The committee is flooding the community with pamphlets and has dispatched members door-to-door to outline what it contends are the evils a freeway could bring.
The committee, which meets weekly, has about 20 working members, Wallace said.
'Useless to Keep Fighting'
One South Pasadenan said he wants to see Proposition GG defeated because continued opposition is futile.
"I think it is useless to keep fighting the freeway," said Robert Cook, who lives west of both extension routes and sees a need to relieve "unbearable traffic congestion" on city streets.
"But after 22 years of brainwashing in this community, this is probably the minority opinion. If we lose by 5 to 20 points, it would still be a victory," Cook said.
Cook, who heads the organized opposition to the proposition, acknowledged that his forces are smaller and less vocal than those who want to continue the struggle against the extension.
At a public hearing sponsored by state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) on Monday night, most of the 500 people who attended seemed to favor the ballot measure.
Caltrans representatives answered questions and said every effort was made to avoid demolition of as many historical landmarks as possible.
Torres, who opposes the extension as a member of the Senate Transportation Committee, asked Caltrans representatives to supply more information about such things as noise levels, the impact on schools and toxic waste that may have been buried in the area.
After the hearing, South Pasadena resident Rex Chambers remained unconvinced.
"This hearing was very informative for the community, but I can't see how (executives) at Caltrans are earning their salary," Chambers said. "They did not seem very well prepared."
The Meridian Route would bisect the city and destroy 106 historical landmarks.
In the face of strong opposition to that plan, Caltrans came up with the Meridian Variation, which would save half the historic structures by swinging westerly toward Prospect Avenue before it connects with the Pasadena Freeway. However, the variation still would cut through the center of the city. The variation would bypass the business district, moving two blocks west of the original plan.
City Manager John Bernardi said that if the proposition passes, the city as well as private groups may continue the fight in court.
"We don't have any strategy now," he said. "The City Council has taken this option to see what the community wants. This will send a voice to Washington that it is more than just the elected officials who are opposed to the freeway."
The Federal Highway Administration already has approved the Meridian Route and will pay 82% of the more than $375-million cost.
On the city's sample ballot, the five council members, including the mayor, support Proposition GG.
"We have been fighting this for more than 20 years, but the fight is still going on," said Mayor Lee Prentiss.
The fight could continue well into the 21st Century. Commissioner William Leonard of the California Transportation Commission said construction on the freeway probably would not get started until the year 2000, or later.