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Part of truck-heavy Terminal Island Freeway could become a park

Plan would remove a 1-mile section of Long Beach road and provide green space to an area plagued by port-related noise and pollution.

November 19, 2013|By Christine Mai-Duc and Laura J. Nelson

The around-the-clock rumble and hum of big rigs and cars funneling in and out of one of the world's busiest port complexes have for years defined daily life in west Long Beach.

Streets of tidy homes, schools and playgrounds are boxed in by refineries, rail yards and truck routes to the harbor, including the gritty, four-mile Terminal Island Freeway.

Children are hospitalized for asthma at three times the rate of other Long Beach neighborhoods, and there are far fewer parks here.

But now city officials are considering a radical makeover of west Long Beach that would involve ripping out a one-mile section of one of the Southland's first freeways, now mostly used by truckers, and replacing it with a long ribbon of green space.

The proposal, backed by an array of groups and the focus of a new state-funded study, would mark the first time a stretch of Southern California freeway was removed and converted to a non-transportation use.

Elsewhere, L.A. freeways continue to be upgraded and expanded. But the Terminal Island highway is an outlier — short and disconnected from the region's interstate network.

Removing and repurposing older freeways to improve neighborhoods has caught on in recent decades. As central cities become denser and federal money for maintenance declines, cities such as Portland and Milwaukee have replaced freeways with tree-lined boulevards, redirecting travelers to surface streets and public transit. San Francisco took out two freeway segments, spurring redevelopment near the Civic Center and along the Embarcadero.

One reason is that urban designers with a more motorist-centric view of communities are being replaced by a new breed of planners, said Adie Tomer, a senior research associate at the Brookings Institution. "And our generation thinks differently."

Councilman James Johnson represents the area and says the proposal offers an opportunity to improve the lives of thousands of west Long Beach residents. "The original sin of this whole area is bad land use planning," he said. "If we are able to re-envision this freeway ... [and create] a buffer for neighborhoods, that's a huge win."

At this point, some government, business and trucking interests have declined to comment, raising the possibility of future resistance to the proposal.

Built by the Navy in the 1940s to connect the mainland to its base, the Terminal Island Freeway became a vital postwar link to the burgeoning ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. Regional planners had hoped to connect the Terminal Island route to the region's expanding highway network by extending it to what is now the 91 Freeway.

Completion of the Alameda Corridor freight rail line and expansion of the 710 Freeway made the link a less pressing priority, said professor James Moore, director of USC's transportation engineering program. "This was a freight workhorse," Moore said. "Now, it's more or less become obsolete."

The freeway starts near the waterfront and ends abruptly at Willow Street in Long Beach, spilling cars and trucks onto a city boulevard. The portion being studied for removal, north of Pacific Coast Highway, is smaller and less busy than most freeways that Angelenos are accustomed to navigating.

Vehicle counts are comparable to some surface streets near downtown Long Beach and one-tenth those on the 710 Freeway, a short distance to the east.

Replacing any portion of L.A. freeway with parks or bike lanes would mark a shift in thinking about the region's future, experts say. Motorists have demonstrated that they can adapt to such changes, said UC Berkeley city planning professor Elizabeth Macdonald, who helped create plans for San Francisco's Hayes Valley neighborhood after the Central Freeway was removed in 2003.

Long Beach owns the section of freeway being studied. Beginning next year, the city will use a $225,000 state grant to examine various options, including replacing the roadway with an 88-acre greenbelt.

That would be a marked improvement for the homes, schools, parks and transitional housing complex for veterans and the homeless that are now surrounded by industrial operations and freeways. The neighborhood has one acre of open space per 1,000 residents, compared with 17 acres in eastern Long Beach, officials note.

The high rate of childhood respiratory problems has earned the area the nickname "Asthma Alley" among parents and teachers. Recent initiatives to ban older, dirtier trucks and slow cargo ships in the harbor have helped lower pollution, state air quality regulators say. But some residents remain leery of the cumulative health effects of the freeways and industrial activity.

Lisa Lay, 29, has often smelled chemicals in the air when dropping off and picking up her children from Hudson Elementary School, which abuts the Terminal Island Freeway where big rigs often idle. School officials have assured her that indoor air testing is conducted regularly to protect students, she said.

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