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by John Dutton

The highway is perhaps the most ambivalently celebrated feature of the post-war American landscape. On one hand, it is heralded as a symbol of progress and growth, and on the other criticized as a symbol of insensitive urban renewal. It connected new suburbs yet divided many existing urban neighborhoods. The roadside architecture of the 50s and 60s is celebrated, while the highway malls and power centers that clutter the countryside today are decried as eyesores. Highways promise speed and freedom yet often deliver traffic and road rage.

Despite such ambivalence, the impact of the highway on the physical structure as well as the cultural landscape of post-war America is indisputable. The highway has shaped not only the physical form of the city, town, suburb, and hinterland, but has served as an enduring metaphor of mobility and freedom well-ingrained in the American psyche.

It is easy to fetishize the physical form of highways. Their magnitude and scale, the surreal ribbon of concrete flowing over the countryside or soaring majestically above the ground, and the machine-like elegance of a stacked intersection are breathtaking to behold, and impressive as sheer engineering monuments.

It is also easy to mythologize the highway and its culture. Countless books, films, art and songs have contributed to the idea of the highway as a road towards self-discovery, escape, and freedom. The highway is the focus of such diverse works as On the Road, Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde, Catherine Opie’s photographs, and Jonathan Richman’s seminal song “Roadrunner.” It is no coincidence that it is America, where mobility and freedom are often synonymous, which is the most mobile industrialized country as well as the country with the greatest linear feet of drivable roads.

But if the origins of the highway promised freedom, prosperity and connectivity, the results forty years later are quite different. The construction of highways facilitated the sprawling post-war suburbanization and the associated deterioration of urban centers. Highways decimated many first-ring suburbs, and spatially and racially fragmented cities. They have enabled commuters in their veritable mobile living rooms to speed comfortably above the “surface streets,” avoiding contact with the diverse cultures and communities on the sprawling plains below.

Indeed, nowhere is this more apparent than in Los Angeles, where, like so many neurons firing through the brain’s synapses, urban consciousness is formed by repetitive automobile movements. When the 10 Freeway collapsed after the 1991 Northridge Earthquake, westside commuters were suddenly forced to drive through neighborhoods. The closure of the freeway created for many a new recognition of their city. When else would the Lexus commuter have driven along Adams Boulevard with its spectacular Craftsman houses and grand eclectic churches?

Freeways are incredibly costly, and not just the $300 million per mile price tag for the pouring of concrete itself. Some of the most irreparable costs are not financial, but comprise the loss of mature neighborhoods, historic fabric, and the dislocation of thousands of people (typically those of color and minimal income– i.e. those who offer the least possibility of political resistance). Highways have also irreversibly altered the development patterns of our cities and towns, enabling the centrifugal sprawl of suburbs and edge cities. Such sprawl development has proven to be economically and environmentally unsustainable. These ex-urban areas face continuous revenue shortfalls from the costs of new infrastructure, services, and schools that such development requires. The loss of undeveloped and agricultural land, and the associated air, water, and soil pollution are significant environmental costs.

Despite the massive highway-building program, traffic has become an insurmountable problem. The idea that more freeways and more roadway lanes decrease traffic has been proven a syllogism. (As one progressive transportation engineer puts it: “Fighting traffic by adding more lanes is like fighting obesity by loosening your belt.”).

In fact, the trend in highways these years is not building them, but dismantling them. San Francisco has demolished the earthquake-damaged Embarcadero Freeway, thereby reconnecting the city to its waterfront. (Despite Oakland’s Director of Public Works’ protestation that dismantling the freeway would back traffic up all the way across the Bay Bridge and snarl Oakland’s downtown streets.) Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist is trying to take $500 million in highway funds, earmarked to repair an offramp, to instead dismantle the section of the highway and build a new neighborhood and park in its place.

Other planned freeways in Los Angeles are not being completed. The 710 Freeway was designed about three decades ago as part of a regional highway network, much of which was never built. The 2 (Glendale / Beverly Hills Freeway), for example, was planned to continue along Santa Monica Boulevard through Hollywood, West Hollywood, and Beverly Hills. Caltrans only recently gave up control of this right-of-way. In place of a freeway, the City of West Hollywood is currently redesigning the 2.8 miles of right-of-way in West Hollywood to accommodate the thriving commercial and pedestrian activity. $15 million is being spent on wider sidewalks, a median, street trees and landscape, furniture and lighting. The result will obviously be a greater contribution to the community than an eight lane thoroughfare, and at a fraction of the cost. (Former Forum Board member John Chase is the City’s Urban Designer in charge of the project.)

So why, then, is the 710 freeway still being built? Why such transportation policy atavism? An impressive array of organizations opposes the freeway, including such diverse groups as the Sierra Club, the National Taxpayers Union, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The City of El Sereno, whose historic district will be destroyed, is also opposed, as is the City of South Pasadena which will be bisected by the freeway. Yet the City of Pasadena, holding little to no public debate, passed a vote in support late at night. (Note the vast contrast of Pasadena’s midnight vote to West Hollywood’s extensive public outreach during its Rt. 2 / Santa Monica Boulevard project.) Otherwise, the only groups supporting the freeway are Cal Trans, which stands to lose a lot of federal funds if it isn’t built, and some labor unions, such as Cement/Mason Workers Union, the Southern California District Council of Carpenters, and the Southern California Contractors Association.

The freeway extension will destroy nearly 1,000 homes and 7,000 mature trees, displace thousands of people , and disrupt five historic districts. Although it may temporarily relieve regional traffic, studies show that the 710 extension will actually dramatically increase local traffic congestion.

Although the federal government has given its approval recently to the 710 freeway, the responsibility for building the freeway has been given to the MTA. The MTA, cash-strapped and suffering from the collapse of its subway construction program and the decay of its bus program, may lack the strength and perseverance to see this controversial project through. The MTA must also balance all forms of regional transportation, and a five mile, $1.4 billion project for private automobiles may seem absurd even to them. Especially considering that a range of transportation alternatives (light rail, traffic management) may be much more effective at a fraction of the cost.

It is not very reassuring that we must rely on the incompetence of government to preserve our cities. But in the absence of enlightened bureaucracies, who can provide the necessary vision? The fate of the 710, a question of land-use at a grand scale, has drawn reaction from environmental groups, community activists, as well as progressive traffic engineers, but noticeably absent is the voice of the architect.

Indeed, if the 710 plan is abandoned, the 1.5 mile stub already built in Pasadena (just south of the 134 and west of Old Pasadena) could become one of the most coveted development parcels in the region. It is adjacent to both successful commercial areas as well as the mature and historic neighborhoods, and five minutes from the San Gabriel Mountains.

With no new freeway, the 710 stub will stand as a great urban artifact. The vast gully cradling the freeway separates two distinct sides. How does one, if at all, knit together the two sides? How can the bridges be utilized? What possibilities in section does the terrain provide? Should the land remain as open space? A new district or neighborhood? How does it connect to the rest of the City? How do the remnants of the freeway stub integrate into the future design of the site?

Just as the majority of building design in the near future will be retrofits of existing buildings, the challenge at an urban level will be infill sites such as these. The 710 Freeway site could prove a case-study in how to re-use the very infrastructure responsible for so much of the destruction of the post-war city as a site of reclamation and rebuilding.