Six decades after California traffic officials began to confiscate hundreds of freeway properties, Los Angeles officials have come up with a proposal to replace dilapidated empty houses and flooded areas in the El Sereno area with new parks and housing.
If the plan is implemented, it will be an important step forward in the saga of the 710 cutback, which hit a wall of resistance before it could spread to wealthier communities.
VThe Eastside area has long borne the most visible and enduring scars of an abandoned project, leaving behind a large concentration of abandoned homes. When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, activists repeatedly tried to occupy vacant homes in response to the region’s affordable housing crisis.
“It’s finally time to rebuild the El Sereno community and make it one again,” Los Angeles City Councilor Kevin de Leon, representing the area, said at a Friday morning press conference that unveiled the plan.
The city’s proposal is only part of what remains a lengthy process to end the destruction in El Sereno and neighboring South Pasadena and Pasadena that began in the 1950s. At the time, the communities were on the path of what was to be the last junction of the 710 Highway, which runs from the region’s trading ports to Long Beach through the San Gabriel Valley. But litigation and political backlash blocked construction, and the project was finally scrapped three years ago, leaving a 4.5-mile gap on the highway between the Alhambra and Pasadena.
Hundreds of houses acquired by the California Department of Transportation have been in limbo, from modest residences in El Sereno to craftsmen’s mansions on stately streets in South Pasadena. Caltrans’ most famous real estate portfolio includes chef Julia Child’s 110-year-old childhood home in Pasadena, which has been empty for 35 years.
The agency has been known to have mismanaged property for decades, with tenants complaining of rodent and mildew infestations, and other homes so desolate that they became uninhabitable.
The city plan was to transform the dilapidated empty houses and fenced-in lots nestled among neat bungalows and small apartment complexes in El Sereno into 252 new or refurbished houses or apartments next to small parks and short hillside paths.
The proposal slightly increases the number of homes in the area, with efforts to add additional housing units or backyard homes on single-family plots and build apartments bounded by larger plots on the outskirts of the area. The dusty, cracked concrete corner house where officials held a press conference on Friday will be converted into 16 apartments with a retail store or cafe on the ground floor.
All housing will target low to middle income renters or homeowners. Officials and community members said the proposal would be a bulwark against gentrification in El Sereno.
“We have a chance, a real chance, to rebuild the community in a way that makes sense,” said Lisa Mauricio, 45, an El Sereno homeowner who helped develop the city’s plan. “We welcome new families to join us.”
The proposal, however, is far from reality.
State law requires Caltrans to competitively bid the property to affordable housing developers, and the city’s efforts essentially boil down to a single offer. Aid is a requirement that the government has been selling properties at the original purchase price since the 1960s. Thus, some packages, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars on the open market, will be offered for about $ 30,000.
The city has allocated $ 2.5 million for 77 vacant homes and lots in El Sereno, which De Leon believes will be enough to buy them all.
Caltrans officials expect to start selling properties next year.
De Leon, who was joined by state legislators – Democratic MP Wendy Carrillo and Senator Maria Elena Duraso – at a press conference, said it is vital that all vacant properties are sold together so the city can fulfill the plan in its entirety.
The city plan does not require the acquisition of homes that are currently occupied by long-term tenants, or homes in South Pasadena and Pasadena, where they all have separate selling processes.
However, there will likely be at least one competing bid for El Sereno.
The group, representing some 400 families living in Caltrans-owned housing along corridor 710, plans to create a community cooperative that also wants to take control of the property, said Roberto Flores, a member of the United Caltrans Tenants.
The organization wants to form a land fund to ensure that homes remain affordable to potential homeowners and tenants, he said, and any increase in property value will be geared towards creating wealth for the entire area.
Flores said the group is still developing its real estate proposal, but it will likely also include a mix of single-family homes, small backyard apartments, condos and parks.
“What matters here is not so much what they are going to build, but who will control it,” said Flores, criticizing elected officials for lack of coordination with the organization. “How are they going to allow public participation in the management of all these houses?”
Flores was also disappointed that the city’s efforts did not recognize the actions of members of a group of tenants who increased public pressure to accommodate people in vacant homes.
In March 2020, as government orders on households came into effect to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of homeless and unsafe residents of Angelina stormed into some homes with the intent to stay. Faced with demands to open real estate, the state leased 26 previously vacant housing units to the city as temporary housing, and about a dozen families who entered their homes last spring are still there, city officials said.
A second orchestrated attempt to capture even more the day before Thanksgiving 2020 erupted into chaos when activists clashed with California Highway Patrol officers, who in some cases forcibly removed those who broke into 19 more homes.
The drama, which unfolds over 21 months, was only the latest chapter in decades of controversy over freeway plans.
The cities of the Alhambra and South Pasadena have fought a fierce political battle over whether there should be a freeway expansion at all. Alhambra residents claimed they had to deal with interruptions and vehicle emissions on highways ending in their city as wealthier South Pasadena residents opposed 710 traffic passing through their city.
A Caltrans spokesman once described a long-distance squabble as “like Hatfield and McCoyes.”
At one point, building the longest continuous highway tunnel in the United States by digging underground was proposed as a possible solution to a highway burst problem. Ultimately, federal officials withdrew their approval of the project, and local leaders redirected the hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for its construction to other uses.
The death of the project in 2018 coincided with growing problems for affordable housing in the state, so attention quickly shifted to the fate of the Caltrans-owned property. The attempt to sell them has also been marred by political dysfunction and bureaucratic red tape. Last year, a state bill to cut rules governing the sale of homes fell through because lawmakers did not put it to a vote by the deadline.
On Friday, De Leon said it was time to address all of these issues.
“We can turn the dark period into a great time for all residents of El Sereno,” said the councilor.