The future of a well-established neighborhood in Bakersfield is on the rocks. The reason: a three decade old freeway project with intentions to connect Bakersfield with the rest of the state. Valley Public Radio's Ezra Romero visits the community, speaks with community leaders and reports on the future of what some call a better connected Bakersfield and California.
A quiet community of 1950 style ranch homes along Highway 99 in the heart of Bakersfield is facing an uncertain future – it soon may not exist. Homeowners young and old are preparing for the possibility that they may be forced to leave the neighborhood to make way for a new freeway.
The Westpark community – a group of more than 300 homes – lies in the path of the Centennial Corridor Project – Caltrans’ plan to connect Highway 58 with Interstate 5. The freeway, which carries travelers from Tehachapi and beyond, currently ends at a shopping center near Highway 99. The new freeway will cut through homes and businesses to connect with the Westside Parkway and eventually, to I-5.
The Westpark community is quiet and well groomed. Kids play basketball in the community park, and Thai chi is taught in the same park on Sunday mornings. Those who live in Westpark aren’t pleased with the freeway plans.
"It’s going to ruin our neighborhood, it’s going to devalue our homes, it’s going to make life for those that are left behind miserable and it is a betrayal of our city against its own citizens," says Amy Richardson, co-chair of the Westpark Home Owners Association (WHOA) and a homeowner in the area.
But the dispute over the Centennial Corridor isn’t new to the region – the idea has been on the table for over 30 years. The root stems from a decision made by city leader’s decades ago.
“Back in the 70’s there was a decision made by the politicians or people above my pay grade that we’re not gonna build freeways anymore and that we’re not going to extend 58 to any further to the 99 and to the I-5. Once that decision was made that freed up all that land and it got further developed. That is currently where the west park neighborhood is,” said Stephen Milton, Caltrans project manager for the Centennial Corridor Project.
Over the past two decades the state conducted two major studies of possible routes for the new highway. But building a new freeway through an established community is difficult, and opposition from community groups, and cost effectively ended those efforts.
But with an infusion of new federal money, from the Thomas Roads Improvement Program, the project got a new life. In 2012, Caltrans released a study of three potential routes for the new freeway. Late last year, it selected Route B – Westpark - as the only realistic option.
“It is the only alternative of the three alternatives that doesn’t have 4F issues. 4f issues is issues that are related to historic property, park and those types of items,” saus Milton.
Even though alternative B, according to Caltrans, is free of impacts to parks and historic properties, it will displace over 300 residential properties and around 120 businesses. Alternative A has negative impacts all around, including more displacements, while alternative C affects fewer homeowners, but more businesses. B is also the cheapest of the three at an estimated $575 million. The project will be funded through federal funds, bonds and loans.
Because Caltrans ruled out options A and C, the only alternative left beside B is to not build at all. And according to Milton, the option to not build isn’t a practical option.
Bill Thomas, former chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, led the effort to secure $630 million for Kern County road projects in the 2005 Federal Highway Bill.
“This is our last chance to complete a highway system. Not have an everlasting constant building Los Angeles type freeway network. One, we don’t need it, but two, we need a fundamental east-west major highway, because we are an east-west county in a north-south state. And what happens is the state builds highways, three of them, north and south. We need east-west, and this is our opportunity. Yes, it’s a little late. The population grew up around areas we would have preferred to run the highways,” said Thomas.
But for those that live in the Westpark community, the freeway extension is an end to nearly five decades of memories and a part of the city they take pride in.
“Basically I am going to leave a lot of memories that I have in the home that I never anticipated that I’d have to leave behind. I think it affects people emotionally. It’s a financial stressor, but you are also saying goodbye to a life that you had established and feel comfortable in a home that represented you,” says Isabelle Boyd. She is a high school teacher in Bakersfield and a homeowner whose front yard will be sliced in half by the freeway connector.
Margaret Smith – whose home will be demolished by the highway project – raised her four sons in the single story ranch style home that she currently lives in. Smith had no plans to ever move.
“Me in my situation, I am a widow and I’ve lived here forty some years. And if it comes to that I will probably have to relocate to a condo. That’s my plan – I’ll downsize,” said Smith.
Smith isn’t alone. The average age of those that live in the community is well over 50 with many homeowners in their 70's and 80's.
“There’s a woman down the street here and she is in her mid-80s. She is so upset. She does not want to move. She's a widow. If she moves she said she is going to have to move to a retirement home probably which she doesn’t want to do. Those kinds of people are going to be very, very distressed,” says Smith.
The city has applied for permission to start buying homes in the neighborhood early. Milton says the soonest approval would be given is early this summer.
Don Anderson, the City of Bakersfield’s real property manager, says the city will do its best to relocate those whose homes will be destroyed.
“It’s our obligation to help them move and we’ll pay their cost to help them move to a new house. We actually find them the house and help them through the process. They can use other people if they choose to, but as part of our obligation when we make them an offer we have to give them three comparable homes that area available for purchase. And then we pay all the reasonable and necessary costs to move their personal property,” said Anderson.
But those living in the community don’t feel like they are going to get a fair price for their homes.
“We believe that the people’s whose property is going to be taken are going to have to fight for everything they get in compensation and we don’t think it is going to be that easy to get a just compensation without a lot of litigation, negotiating and legal wrangling,” said Tim Stonelake, a homeowner who lives a block from the site of the new connector freeway.
But despite the pleading from WHOA and its members, Caltrans and Thomas insist that the connector freeway is in the best interest for the region as a whole.
“Ten years from now, everyone is going to see the significance and the importance of what we’re doing. There have to be decisions made, and we’re making decisions. We’re making decisions in the most reasonable environment,” says Thomas.
And when it comes to the statewide transportation, Thomas says the extension just makes sense.
“But I think when you look at the larger picture there are people who are directly, several hundred homes, directly in the path of what we are planning on doing for connectivity, the Centennial Corridor, there are thousands and thousands and thousands of people who see and appreciate what’s being done,” says Thomas.
At this point the effort to connect east with west in Bakersfield is still a few years from becoming reality, and those in Westpark hope to defer Caltrans’ plans to cut their neighborhood in two.
“I talked to the city council a couple weeks ago and I assured them that the Westpark Homeowners Association is still here, the people are not going away, that defending one’s home is a noble endeavor and we are going to resist this freeway through every means possible through political action, community outreach, litigation, delays of every possible description – We will fight for our homes," says Stonelake.
Before construction on the Centennial Corridor Project can begin a draft environmental impact report and a final environmental impact report must be approved.
Once the draft report is finished it is then the community’s opportunity to let their voices be heard. The open comment period will last from 60 to 90 days.
“This is the time for the community and anyone involved in this job to put their comments forward that we can address in the final environmental document,” says Milton
Even though Milton says the freeway project is pretty much set in motion, members of Westpark feel like they still have a window of time to save what they’ve called home.
“I do retain some hope that yes it’s very difficult of a battle ahead but again I think if we are united and persistent we can make a difference and hopefully, hopefully we can win this battle,” says Boyd.
WHOA plans to continue fighting against the freeway project through community meetings, yard sales and a potential lawsuit if the group feels like they have cause after the draft environmental impact report is finished.
Caltrans plans to begin construction in 2016 and hopes to have the freeway fully functional early in the next decade.