Every few miles along the drive up the Long Beach Freeway, cars pass underneath huge, green highway signs that span the roadway’s lanes: “Interstate 710 North,” they say. “Pasadena.”
But Interstate 710 does not go to Pasadena. And therein lies a saga.
You know it already. A determined group of citizens and municipal leaders fought an improbable, multi-generational battle to protect their beloved, 3.42 square-mile domestic oasis from a steamroller of self-proclaimed modernity. The institutional effort to extend I-710 through the heart of South Pasadena was defeated.
The crosscurrents of people, issues and events in that saga are legion. A full account of the names and stories of the players is impossible to render. The amount of money spent tallies in the millions of dollars and the total number of pages generated inestimable. A Historic Log of Events spanning some 70 years – drawn from among the innumerable environmental review documents – records over a 150 milestones.
But, while vigilant of the i’s and t’s that remain to be dotted and crossed, South Pasadena’s legendary Freeway Fighters – the ones still with us – are at last beginning to let their hair down a bit, to celebrate their accomplishment and, most importantly, to receive the thanks of a grateful community.
Exhibits of South Pasadena freeway memorabilia have been produced. Video interviews of activists and city officials have been recorded. A commemorative event dedicated to them was held at the city library June 7. Prospective books and documentaries about their story have been discussed. And their presence in today’s parade will afford citizens another opportunity to offer appreciation.
Opposition to the state’s plan for a 710 extension has become a part of South Pasadena’s DNA. “It’s been the number one issue in South Pasadena as long as I have lived,” South Pasadena native and former Mayor Ted Shaw told the South Pasadenan News.
“Nothing in the history of South Pasadena has produced more dissension than the subject of freeway routing through the city,” wrote Jane Apostol in her indispensable trove, South Pasadena 1888-1988: A Centennial History.
Beyond the innate sense of independence that undergirds the very existence of this 131-year-old city, evidence of the sensibility that foreshadowed the battle is scattered in its history. In the 1930s, for example, with the culmination of a decade-long campaign to make Pacific Electric move its Big Red Car poles to the curb from the median strip of Fair Oaks Ave., where they’d been the subject of no fewer than 37 car accidents.
Likewise in 1936, when the city council voted to support that first Western foray into automobile indulgence, the Arroyo Seco Parkway, even as opponents warned it would segregate the city, destroy property, create dead-end streets and bring no benefits. The council’s 3-2 vote reflected South Pasadena’s ambivalence.
By 1960, the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Arroyo Seco Parkway, residents were worried about the 710, plans for which had been creeping their way up from Long Beach where construction began in 1951. During the 1950s, the California Highway Commission extended the planned route to Huntington Dr., and in 1959, the so-called Master Plan of Freeways and Expressways was amended to include an extension to I-210 (the Foothill Freeway) in Pasadena, also already under construction.
“Isn’t one ditch through our town memorial enough to poor engineering?” asked W. Tog Ericson, then editor of the South Pasadena Review. The city’s Property Owners Association feared the town would be “quartered and chewed to pieces” by a route dividing the city east/west just as the Arroyo Seco Parkway had divided it north/south. The Association, Apostol wrote, feared the loss of $6 million in personal property and over $100,000 in annual tax revenue. In 1962, the city asked the state to consider a route along the town’s western border.
In 1964, the California Division of Highways published seven possible alignments and by year’s end the Highway Commission adopted a route west of and parallel to Meridian Ave., right through six designated historic districts and directly affecting 2,500 people and nearly three dozen businesses.
Of South Pasadena’s 11,000 registered voters, 7,000 signed petitions against the Meridian Route and the city council affirmed as much by resolution.
Property owners and the city countered a detailed version of their alternative that hugged the city’s western border along the Monterey Hills and Arroyo Seco River, one that would displace half as many people and cost a third less. The state “dismissed it in a cavalier manner” according to an editorial written by Jess Reynolds, a retired Caltrans engineer who helped South Pasadena prepare the alternative.
The Western Route was feasible and “could have been done for $90 million dollars” former South Pasadena Mayor Mike Montgomery, said in John McDonald’s 2007 video, Never Give Up: the 710 Freeway Fight.
The city went to Sacramento for a legislative solution, but failed there too. The city council formed a Freeway Study Commission to recommend next steps. “We have just begun to fight!” AlvaLee Arnold so famously proclaimed. Perhaps the city’s most ardent first generation freeway activist and organizer, Arnold went on to serve as councilwoman and mayor.
But in the meantime, things looked grim. Alhambra, Pasadena and Los Angeles all signed freeway agreements with the state. South Pasadena refused, becoming isolated and increasingly tagged as a selfish municipal stick-in-the-mud.
The city’s reputation as simply obstructionist “is a burr in my saddle,” AlvaLee’s son, Ernie Arnold, told the South Pasadenan News last month. In the mid-1960s, “South Pasadena would not have supported a no-build option,” he asserts. “The consensus in the 1950s and ‘60s was that freeways were integral to regional mobility. If there was really a need for that, then we could accept it – if it was on the west side of town.”
The state seemed unstoppable. “Once a transportation project gets into the blood of a transportation bureaucracy, it’s very difficult to ever kill,” David Doheny, former general counsel of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, told McDonald.
“A lot of people thought, ‘Oh little South Pasadena, you can’t win against that big bureaucracy,’” Joanne Nuckols, a long time freeway opponent, said in Never Give Up. “The Federal Highway Administration and Caltrans. They tried everything imaginable.”
But so did the opponents. “Everything we could think of to do, every gimmick, we did,” said Loretta Neumann, lobbyist for Citizens United to Save South Pasadena.
Over the decades there were several iterations of organized opposition groups. Among these are the Committee for Civic Action; the Citizens Committee for the Westerly Route; the South Pasadena Arroyo Seco Parkway Association; Citizens United to Save South Pasadena; and finally, the No 710 Action Committee.
Beginning with respectful listening and engagement, the predominantly female-organized opposition availed itself of the full grassroots playbook. Over the years they held and attended countless meetings near and far; organized seminal marches packed with kids, banners and balloons; gave away T-shirts; distributed buttons; solicited media coverage; wrote letters; formed alliances; hired consultants; lobbied legislators, bureaucrats and neighbors. They scrutinized environmental documents. They even branded their movement – before branding was a thing – with their iconic No 710 logo.
And they filed lawsuits.
As of 2011, seven groups had joined South Pasadena as parties in suits challenging the freeway, and there were resolutions of support from 27 neighborhood groups, nine other organizations and a dozen city councils and civic leaders.
But at times, the city came close to capitulating. In 1968 the city’s Freeway Study Commission split 8 to 6, Apostol wrote, with the majority ready to fold on the Westerly Route and settle with the state “on the best terms possible” for the Meridian alignment.
In addition, locals here today still talk of the impact of the untimely death of city councilman William U. Osborn, 47. They say Osborn’s demise in December 1968 lead to a special election that altered the Council’s make up to a no-build majority. Former Mayor Ted Shaw tells the story of an unidentified elderly woman whose challenge to a Caltrans official at a public meeting in the junior high school auditorium put an abrupt halt to a freeway signing ceremony. “That little old lady saved our ass,” he says.
But in 1970 President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act and Governor Ronald Reagan, the California Environmental Quality Act. These new laws’ protections for historical resources gave the opposition vast new leverage, especially after 1982, when the state passed a law withdrawing a city’s ability to stop a freeway by refusing to sign an agreement.
The environmental laws’ historical resource provisions formed the basis to secure new allies and move the battle to the courts, where in 1973 the city won the first of two injunctions pending further environmental review – a saga within a saga that defined the next 30 years of the epic conflict.
The laws also helped to grease the city’s somewhat rocky shift from a position of reluctant willingness to accept a westerly route to a full-on, no-build stance.
Feeling the pressure, Caltrans in about 1984 produced a video, “Closing the Gap,” in which it rounded up a slate of officials from the government and interests such as the Auto Club to talk to the camera from behind their desks. The awkwardness of their advocacy is palpable in the halting, scripted voices and shifting eyes of the pro-freeway officials.
Mark Pisano, of the Southern California Association of Governments, argued “this vital, important freeway link (would) enable trucks accessing the harbor to have an alternative route (and) link a number of important growth centers. It would take traffic off of local streets and roads and improve air quality and safety.”
Caltrans project engineer Dave Kilmurray said the agency was doing all it could to mitigate adverse impacts so that “the benefits of completing this freeway will outweigh its disadvantages.” He said the freeway was designed “to be as unobtrusive as possible.”
2003 and 2004, the federal and state governments formally rescinded their approval of the 710 extension. But the state did not sell the property it had acquired in the 710 corridor, and more ominously, the agencies began referencing the prospect for a tunnel.
Trust in Caltrans had eroded so much by then that many South Pasadenans, including former city attorney Mike Montgomery, believed the tunnel was a “bait and switch.” A feasibility study, Montgomery said in Never Give Up, would show a tunnel was too costly and infeasible, “so we’ll just put it back on the surface.”
The question of a tunnel went on to take center stage in the debate during the years prior to the state’s issuance of a final environmental report in November 2018.
But the Forces That Be were exhausted. The No 710 movement had outlasted the mindset of freeway orthodoxy. A new generation of urban planners was looking for ways to deemphasize reliance on cars. The final EIR/EIS concluded a tunnel would cost over $3 billion and result in substantial short and long-term effects on a long list of resources and values. Its preferred alternative was a $126 million strategy of increasing the efficiency of existing facilities and reducing the number of vehicle trips while increasing vehicle occupancy. It was strangely reminiscent of a Low-Build, Multi-Mode Alternative that South Pasadena had submitted 25 years earlier.
Unaccustomed to lowering their guard, the 710 opponents are now carefully watching two bills in the state legislature. Senator Anthony Portantino’s Senate Bill 7 addresses the disposition of the hundreds of properties Caltrans acquired in the former 710-corridor, its notoriously poor management of which has been documented in no fewer than a dozen State Auditor reports.
Assemblyman Chris Holden’s Assembly Bill 29 formally removes the section of State Route 710 between I-10 and I-210 from the state’s Freeway and Expressway System – regarded as the final stake in the heart of 710 North.
Both bills have passed their respective chambers and are in the transportation committees of the other body awaiting votes. Legislative aides anticipate no serious opposition. The Governor has taken no formal position, but that is standard protocol for uncontroversial measures. Sponsors believe the final bills could be signed in September.
And what then for the Freeway Fighters?
Perhaps a quiet visit to Arroyo Park, a tour of the historic South Pasadenan homes, or catching a bus to Long Beach.