To consolidate, disseminate, and gather information concerning the 710 expansion into our San Rafael neighborhood and into our surrounding neighborhoods. If you have an item that you would like posted on this blog, please e-mail the item to Peggy Drouet at pdrouet@earthlink.net

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The War Against the 710

For almost half a century, the threat of a planned freeway extension has been slicing through the heart of the San Gabriel Valley. Is a happy ending even possible any more?


By Matthew Fleischer,  January/February 2014 issue


It’s rush hour at the intersection of Pasadena and Fremont Avenues in South Pasadena, and neighborhood resident Rick Madden stands on the sidewalk in front of a beautiful Craftsman that has run into disrepair. A line of traffic creeps slowly at his back.

“That used to be Julia Child’s house,” he says over the din of startlingly noisy street traffic, pointing to the now-abandoned childhood home of the legendary chef. “No one has lived there for over a decade. It’s a tear-down now. All because people have been afraid to put any work into these homes.”

The fear Madden is referring to has loomed like a shadow over this historic, tree-lined neighborhood for more than four decades: the knowledge that at any given moment, the entire area could be bulldozed. Since 1965, California’s state transportation agency, Caltrans, has planned to level the entire neighborhood to make room for a surface freeway connector linking the 710 in Alhambra to the 210 in Pasadena. And throughout those four and a half decades, South Pasadena has fought the project-often putting itself at odds with the state and with the larger San Gabriel Valley political structure. A clear majority of nearby city governments see the 710 extension as an invaluable regional transit facilitator, capable of easing traffic on their car-choked surface streets.

Despite the odds that seemed initially stacked against them, South Pas and its allies in the neighboring cities of La Cañada Flintridge and Glendale have so far managed to fight off the development. As the years have passed, the civic battle has taken on the contours of a slow, grinding, permanent war. Generations of area residents have grown up staring at protest signs against the 710. Any public meeting on the subject of the freeway connector can expect a raucous presence from the opposition to the project. Arguably no development in the history of Southern California has been more contentious than the 710, pitting city against city, community against community. Even with recent developments that have seemingly taken the surface connector option off the table, the future is anything but clear.

Madden, though late to the fight, now finds himself in the center of it all-a pawn in a high stakes regional transit game. He and his wife, Jen, bought the house next door to Child’s old haunt in 2008, at a time when the 710 freeway project seemed all but dead.

“When we bought here, it was in the middle of the financial collapse and there was an injunction stopping the 710 project,” he says. “There were public statements saying it was done. So we figured it was done.”

A year after the Maddens purchased their home and fixed it up, however, the rumblings started anew. And this time, the potential impact spread even further. After unsuccessfully battling South Pasadena for years, Metro and Caltrans decided that the lower-income neighborhoods of Northeast Los Angeles-Glassell Park, the flats of Mount Washington, Highland Park, Eagle Rock and El Sereno-might make a suitable freeway path, even though the route through those population-dense areas would raze swaths of homes and be circuitous at best. Anti-710 meetings and signs quickly became part of the fabric of life in Northeast L.A., as well.

Suddenly, for people like Madden, a victory in the fight against the freeway would mean it would potentially land in his poorer neighbors’ backyards. “You definitely had to deal with a pit in your stomach,” he says.

On October 1, Madden and thousands like him in the proposed bulldozer zones received what looked like a reprieve. California Governor Jerry Brown signed SB-416 into law, which sped up the sale of state-owned land long earmarked for the 710’s northward spread. The bill essentially killed all plans for a surface freeway connector that would have plowed through South Pasadena’s downtown and wiped out homes in its path-Madden’s included.

L.A. County Metro, for its part, insists that the plan is dead. “There is no surface route being studied,” Metro spokesperson Helen Ortiz-Gilstrap says. “That is off the table.”

Instead, Caltrans and Metro are currently debating whether or not to put the entire freeway connection underground via a 6.3 mile, four-lane tunnel, which would connect the end of the 710 freeway in Alhambra with the 210 freeway in Pasadena. The tunnel option would preserve the homes on the chopping block and, in Caltrans and Metro’s view, ensure that the sights and sounds of the freeway stay underground.

So that’s that, right? Homes and neighborhoods have been saved and decades of struggle resolved in a neat, tidy package?


Days before speaking with Madden I met with South Pasadena resident Joanne Nuckols and Pasadena resident Claire Bogaard, leaders in the No 710 Action Committee, on an overpass overlooking the terminus of the 210 freeway in Pasadena.

“That is where the boring machine will reach its deepest point,” Nuckols explains, pointing to a scrubby patch of land on the hills near Huntington Hospital. “Up until that point, the freeway will be all cut and cover. This entire area will be a construction site for the next decade.”

Combined, Bogaard and Nuckols, who tools around town in a black Volvo with a license plate that reads “NO 710,” have spent sixty-five years fighting against the 710 North extension. Despite the apparent death of the surface option, they say, they plan on fighting another sixty-five if they have to.
“If anything, we’re even more organized against the tunnel,” said Nuckols. “I don’t think there’s anything that can get us to change our minds at this point.”

The women’s greatest fear is that the armada of trucks leaving the Port of Long Beach each day will use the 710 connector as a shortcut to Las Vegas-spewing diesel fumes out at both ends of the tunnel.
“This freeway plan is an environmental catastrophe in the making,” says Bogaard, who happens to be the wife of Pasadena mayor Bill Bogaard. “The only vents for the exhaust for this tunnel will be at either end. So there are going to be noxious fumes spilling out over all of Old Town if this tunnel gets built.”

Though 710 project officials have mulled banning trucks from the proposed tunnel, no such assurances have been made.

Both Bogaard and Nuckols cite other environmental concerns, including groundwater contamination and potential dangers from earthquakes. Ultimately, however, their objection to the project may just boil down to what kind of community they would like to live in. At a time of ever-rising concern about carbon levels and global warming, how much should we destroy in order to support a driving-heavy lifestyle?

“We don’t see why we should have to suffer so a few people can get to where they’re going five minutes faster,” as Nuckols puts it.

Instead of a multi-billion dollar freeway, the 710 opposition movement wants to expand rail and bus infrastructure, as well as improve surface-street signaling in the region.

“We should be getting people out of their cars,” says Nuckols, “not making it easier for them to drive.”

It’s hard to fault that argument. Los Angeles County has spent billions on light rail projects like the Gold Line and the Expo Line in the past decade, trying to build a functional regional public transit infrastructure capable of weaning L.A. off its smog-inducing car culture. Viewed in the context of that effort, a monumental new freeway project seems schizophrenic.

Yet 710 tunnel supporters aren’t car-crazed throwbacks to a 20th-century reactionary school of urban planning. In fact, there is a perfectly modern rationale for building a new freeway extension. Despite its path through tony South Pas, the proposed 710 tunnel route isn’t currently a bucolic field of daisies. According to Metro, more than 110,000 cars travel on surface streets through the area every day-mostly up Fremont Avenue as well as Fair Oaks Avenue to and from I-10. During rush hour, these streets turn into a traffic-snarled mess, alternating between high-speed current and bumper-to-bumper parking lot.

When you talk to officials in Alhambra, the tunnel option might even seem like a downright enlightened solution to that city’s smog problem. “We have so much traffic on our arterial streets, especially on Fremont,” says Alhambra city councilwoman Barbara Messina, a major supporter of the tunnel. “If this tunnel is built, the pollution and the air quality will improve unbelievably. We have elementary schools whose playgrounds are on those streets. We have kids out there all hours of the day on those playgrounds inhaling this exhaust.”

Count Madden’s two kids among those whose quality of life has been compromised by ever-present cars.

“I see at least one major accident in front of my house every month,” he says. “No way are my kids allowed to play in the front yard. It’s backyard only for them. I feel for the people in Alhambra. I’m dealing with the same issue.”

As of now, the tunnel option is purely hypothetical. Metro is in the midst of compiling a draft environmental impact report (EIR) for what can be done to improve traffic flow in the existing 710 North corridor. Five options are currently being considered: the contentious freeway tunnel; improved light-rail commuter options; new rapid bus lines; improving surface-street signaling to help smooth commuter traffic; or doing absolutely nothing at all.

“No decisions have been made,” says Ortiz-Gilstrap. “We are looking at all five alternatives equally.”

On that score, she has a lot of convincing to do. It’s costing $780 million to complete the environmental study. One can only imagine the taxpayer wrath that would rain down should that kind of cash be spent on a study that concludes that no work should be done in the 710 corridor. In all likelihood something is going to get done, and Nuckols and her No on 710 compatriots feel the fix is in for the tunnel option.

“They’re stacking the deck for this plan,” she insists. “Despite the fact that no one in the affected communities wants this thing.”

That, as Alhambra’s Messina demonstrates, isn’t exactly true. And, though Nuckols can largely count the Pasadena City Council and Mayor Bogaard on her side, in 2001 Pasadena voters passed Measure A, declaring the city to be officially pro-freeway connector, by a margin of fifty-eight to forty-two percent. The resolution cannot, by law, be changed or repealed without a public vote.

Messina, meanwhile, notes that twenty-eight of the thirty-one cities in the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments have announced their support for the freeway connector. “South Pasadena and La Cañada feel they are God’s chosen people,” Messina says. “The ridiculous part is that the surface route is no longer a threat. And the tunnel will help their traffic, which is as bad as everyone else’s. We have to think regionally on this issue, not individually, because individually you get nothing done.”

Nuckols agrees to disagree. If the 710 EIR comes back in support of the tunnel option, she and her compatriots plan to file enough lawsuits to wallpaper the entire tunnel.

Strangely enough, perhaps, should that day come, Nuckols and the 710 opposition can count Madden on their side.

“It’s tough, as someone directly affected,” he says. “It seems natural to get behind the tunnel. Your house will be safe. If you block the tunnel you bring back the specter of the surface route. But neither is the right answer. You’re degrading the overall quality of life in Pasadena- and, frankly, so people can live too far away from where they work.”

That’s right-even the man who won’t let his kids play in the front yard for fear of traffic accidents and who believes his home could face the wrecking ball should the tunnel plan fail doesn’t support the tunnel’s construction. When it comes to the 710 North extension, one thing, and perhaps only one thing, is clear: No matter what decision gets made-tunnel or no tunnel, rail upgrades or surface freeway-expect a massive fight.