‘An island in the sea of madness’

South Pas strives to maintain its small-town feel as Caltrans pushes freeway tunnel option

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 2/28/2013

On Saturday, the city of South Pasadena will be celebrating its 125th anniversary with a litany of free events. The library will host authors Mary Ames Mitchell tonight and Jim Gallo and Dan Rice tomorrow night, accompanied by the local band Cottage Industry.

Then, from 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday, the city’s actual birthday, a “Neighborhood Night on the Town,” sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, will feature open houses, art exhibits and live music throughout South Pasadena.

But while the city certainly has reason to celebrate, residents and community leaders are all too aware of the lingering threat that is the Long Beach (710) Freeway extension.

For one thing, the freeway problem has not gone away; it has just moved underground. Caltrans is now considering five alternative options to an overland connector route: build nothing, increase bus rapid transit lines, build light rail lines under Fair Oaks Avenue, improve traffic management, and build the tunnel.

Citizens are equally opposed to the tunnel connector plan as they were to the surface route, which Caltrans has said is off the table, though the agency still refuses to sell the homes it bought up through eminent domain as surplus properties.

“We think the tunnel is too harmful,” said 710 opponent Joanne Nuckols, who served as chair of the city’s Transportation Commission. “We don’t like the no-build option either, because we think something needs to be done to resolve the stub ends of the freeways, which is something they do not have in any of the plans. We think the combination of the [bus rapid transit option], surface improvements and resolution of the stub ends of the freeways, and extension of the Gold Line as opposed to the rail line they’re proposing, would do a long way to improve the traffic flow in the [freeway extension] corridor,” Nuckols said.

“The combination of the non-tunnel alternatives would be a lot less expensive than the tunnel and, cost effectiveness-wise, would move a lot more people and solve a lot more of the transportation problems,” Nuckols said.

Former Mayor Harry Knapp agrees that something needs to be done to improve traffic flow in the corridor.

“Let’s say this whole freeway thing goes away. You still have to do something,” Knapp said. “One of the major ways we proposed to improve traffic on Fair Oaks [Avenue] was to eliminate the two northbound lanes that turn left onto the 110 Freeway just before State Street, and instead extend the defunct exit ramp on the right. But Caltrans owns that ramp and doesn’t want to pay for it. If Fair Oaks moved a little bit better, a lot of people would use Huntington [Drive] and go up Fair Oaks.”

Other issues that face the city in the coming years include balancing preservation needs with economic growth.

“There’s some growth desired, but we just want to keep the mom and pop stuff here and keep out the big box stores,” said Knapp. “Downtown development is one concern. In the original plan, the Rialto Theater was going to be an anchor. But Landmark owns the building and they don’t want to do anything with it, so it’s kind of demolition by decay right now.”

Preservation and self-protection will continue to play a big role in shaping the city for years to come, with strict laws on the books limiting the trimming and removal of trees, as well as a 45-foot height restriction for buildings.

“South Pasadena is much more preservationist than just about any community in Southern California,” said City Librarian Steve Fjeldsted. “It’s surrounded by much larger more populated communities, which have, in part, lost a lot of their identity with development and so forth. South Pasadena has been threatened by the 710 Freeway, and it’s really galvanized the community. Pridefully and stubbornly so, South Pasadena has strived to retain its own identity because it’s like an island in the sea of madness.”