James Woollacott , mayor of South Pasadena, 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 South Pasadena 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.
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.