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
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
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
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.
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
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.”
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
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
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