Motorists driving on the Arroyo Seco Parkway in recent months have seen several notable changes to L.A.’s first freeway, including a new concrete center divider stamped with sections of a line that swoops up and then down. What is the undulating pattern supposed to represent – if anything? Officials with state highway builder Caltrans said the decorative median – part of a $16 million safety improvement project – was inspired by the arches in the bridges over the parkway (commonly known as the Pasadena Freeway), according to Northeast L.A. residents who attended an agency presentation in 2009.
But Caltrans’ decorative touch has fallen flat with some neighborhood preservationists, who say the median motif median resembles nothing more than six miles of alternating frowny and smiley faces. Activist Martha Benedict, who was at the Caltrans meeting in 2009, said the frowny-smiley design prompted one neighborhood council leader to dub the freeway the “bipolar parkway.”
Benedict was among a group of historic preservationists and Arroyo Seco Parkway advocates who had opposed Caltran’s improvement project because it destroyed some of the highway’s original features, including decorative walls and curbs designed to resemble stonework. Benedict, a member of the Arroyo Seco Neighborhood Council, for one was no fan of the median motif she saw in 2009. But the end product that now lines the middle of the parkway is even clunkier than originally presented, looking like pieces of elbow macaroni.
“The swoops are much shorter and further apart than the design originally presented,” said Benedict (who contributes photos to The Eastsider) in an email. Meanwhile, the stamped stone pattern on the edges of the freeway also failed to reflect the detail and tinted stone originally proposed by Caltrans. “Rather than emulating the look of mosaic/broken concrete with stains to emulate different rock components, the side barriers resemble dried mud.”
Benedict and others were so offended by the design that they tried to pressure Caltrans to stop the stamping along a portion of the parkway. “We were told they would, but then they did it anyway.”
Is Caltrans’ decorative touch that bad? Benedict and other preservationists think so. But what troubles them even more are some of the highway’s historic features that were reduced to rubble. Still, last week, the National Park Service announced that the Arroyo Seco Parkway had officially joined the National Register of Historic Places.
“The Parkway defines the community. It is unique,” Benedict said. “Yet this resource was defaced and destroyed in ways that had little to do with safety and more with expedience and ease of maintenance for Caltrans.”