End of the road

Nonprofits await new homes after lawmakers pull the plug on the 710 tunnel

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 9/19/2019

The state Legislature passed a bill last week that brings nonprofit tenants of Caltrans-owned properties such as Arlington Garden one step closer to purchasing their properties from the state transportation agency.

Recently named Nonprofit of the Year by state Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-Pasadena, Arlington Garden, Pasadena’s only dedicated regenerative Mediterranean Chaparral climate garden, is holding its annual fundraiser on Sept. 29.

“Instead of a freeway, we built a garden,” said Michelle Matthews, executive director of Arlington Garden. “In that same vein, in addition to purchasing the garden property, we hope to purchase one of the Caltrans homes and turn it into an urban design and ecology library and nonprofit co-working space. That way, we don’t have to build structures that impact the garden and we get to continue our same successful gardening principles, to help everyone understand the value of regenerative landscaping.”

If signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Senate Bill 7, introduced by Portantino, a former La Cañada Flintridge mayor and council member, also effectively kills the 710 North freeway tunnel as a replacement for an overland connector by removing the planned extension between the 710 and 210 freeways — something that’s been on the books since the 1940s — from the state highway code as of Jan. 1, 2024. SB 7 also includes housing provisions such as a rent hike freeze and an extended deadline for Caltrans tenants in its Affordable Rent Program.

A second bill, Assembly Bill 29, introduced by Democrat Assembly member Chris Holden, a former Pasadena mayor and council member, contains language identical to SB 7 regarding the tunnel, minus the additional housing provisions. If Newsom decides not to support the housing provisions in SB 7, signing AB 29 will still effectively kill the tunnel plan. He has until Oct. 13 to sign the bills. Whichever bill he signs last becomes law.

‘The Final Nail’

For decades, Caltrans has tried to connect the 710 and 210 freeways first by acquiring more than 460 properties in the 710 Corridor — which includes portions of West Pasadena, South Pasadena and the Los Angeles neighborhood of El Sereno — with the intention of razing them to build a surface freeway, and then, when that was defeated, by exploring ways to build a tunnel through portions of West Pasadena to connect the two freeways.

Due to environmental, health and cost concerns, along with local opposition from the cities that would have been most impacted by the project, Caltrans capitulated to political pressure and decided not to move forward with the tunnel project, according to an environmental impact report released by the state agency on Nov. 28.

The department instead chose to pursue transit improvements, increased bus use, traffic signal optimization, intersection improvements and other projects. Cities in the region, including

Pasadena, have been allocated hundreds of millions of dollars from Measure R funds for those and related projects.

“Generations who have been fighting this freeway can rest in peace knowing that they made this day happen and that the freeway will never get completed,” Portantino said in a statement. “Many people worked collaboratively to get us to this place, giving moral support for those of us in office and providing the runway to let this 60-year-old plane land.”

Claire Bogaard, a long-time anti-710 activist and member of the No 710 Action Committee, said she was “extremely grateful to our senator for putting the final nail in the 710 tunnel’s coffin. He has been by our side for two decades. When SB 7 is signed we can all finally sigh in relief.”

However, Caltrans successfully negotiated the removal of language from the original bill that would have compelled the state agency to immediately relinquish control of the freeway “stubs” — areas where the existing freeways end — to the cities of Pasadena and Alhambra. Caltrans now retains control of the stub lands until 2024, which worries some anti-710 activists.

“I’ve long suspected Caltrans is not an honest broker,” William Sherman, a member of South Pasadena’s Freeway and Transportation Commission, told the South Pasadenan newspaper. “This gives them four years to do something. I don’t know what, but I suspect the tunnel is not dead. Caltrans has been strongly opposed to giving back the stubs to the cities and they have said so on multiple occasions. It’s not a shocker but I expected more from our state legislators.”

SB 7 authorizes the California Transportation Commission to relinquish the north stub area near California Boulevard to the city of Pasadena “upon terms and conditions the commission finds to be in the best interests of the state, if the department and the city enter into an agreement providing for that relinquishment,” the bill states. “The city of Pasadena shall ensure the continuity of traffic flow on the relinquished portion of Route 710.”

For several years, a group of Pasadena residents have been working on the Connecting Pasadena Plan, developing a vision for what the stub land could look like if the city of Pasadena were to acquire it. That could include reconnecting east-west streets that were divided by the freeway and building new green space or parkland, a boulevard and new retail, office and residential development.

Garden Party

SB 7 also makes permanent a rent hike freeze for tenants who reside in Caltrans properties in the 710 Corridor and are in the Affordable Rent Program. It also gets rid of the so-called “2012 policy,” an arbitrary rule Caltrans used to prevent tenants who moved in after August 2012 from being eligible for the Affordable Rent Program. The new eligibility deadline is July 1, 2019.

The bill also helps the nonprofit tenants in the 710 Corridor purchase their properties in a fiscally prudent manner,” including Arlington Garden, Ronald McDonald House, Sequoyah School and others. In late 2016, Caltrans announced it would sell the 710 properties in three phases, but so far has only sold a handful. Caltrans has not released a timeline for when the hundreds of remaining properties will be sold. More than 160 houses — including about 50 percent of the houses that Caltrans owns in Pasadena — are vacant and falling into disrepair, according to an investigation by the Pasadena Star-News. Caltrans does not rent out houses again after they become vacant.

Arlington Garden will hold its annual fundraiser, Autumn in the Garden, from 4 to 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 29. During the event, the garden’s newly completed custom Batchelder tile fountain, designed by local artist Cha-Rie Tang, will be dedicated to the founders of the community-built, climate-appropriate garden, Charles McKenney, who died in 2015, and Betty McKenney, who died last year. Charles McKenney served as a member of the Pasadena Board of City Directors, now called the City Council, from 1972 to 1978.

Tickets are $45 and $65. There will also be a special VIP reception from 3 to 4 p.m. Tickets for that event are $150.

Autumn in the Garden will be “an immersive, sensory experience with music curated by dublab, a listener supported, nonprofit radio station dedicated to the growth of music, arts and culture,” according to a press release from Arlington Garden. There will also be other live music performances.

Matthews said Arlington Garden and the other nonprofit tenants are excited to move forward now that the 710 tunnel is officially dead.

“With the passing of SB 7, Sen. Portantino is helping to ensure that our nonprofits, which provide so many public benefits, can afford the properties that we have made improvements on and have long sought to own,” said Matthews.

For more information about Arlington Garden, visit arlingtongardenpasadena.org.