Like many aging beauties, Pasadena’s Rose Bowl is most fetching from afar. Glimpsed a mile away, the elegant contour and creamy-gray façade that have welcomed 84 years of blockbuster football games remain as classic as ever. It’s inside the rim where the old girl’s age shows up, specifically in the 28 narrow pedestrian tunnels that make up a circulatory system requiring intensive efforts to keep unclogged in a post-9/11 world.

Long shot that it was, some had hoped the warren-like tunnels, along with other stadium deficiencies, would vanish with a $500 million to $600 million stadium makeover bankrolled by the National Football League. Pasadena’s disinclination for change proved too stiff, though, with voters crushing a November ballot proposal to coax a professional football franchise to the stadium, nestled in the leafy Arroyo Seco.

Since then, Rose Bowl officials have scurried to “Plan B”: a stripped-down renovation, half the price of the NFL’s, with no luxury boxes or elevated concourses, and not much flash. It would furnish basics — better seating, wider aisles, a new scoreboard — for a landmark that’s gorgeous on telecasts but notoriously cramped.

Widening the stadium’s entry tunnels, or adding another ring of them, so people can move around easier, or flee more quickly if they have to, may be the hairiest job of all.

That’s because the engineering challenges are as formidable as the politics. Since the bowl sits on the National Register of Historic Places, and the even more prized National Historic Landmark list, hauling out a wrecking ball for any proposed retrofit is sure to inflame the city’s omnipresent preservationist forces, if not the well-wired neighborhood groups.

Yet doing nothing is a calculated gamble because of the threat of terrorism, earthquake or some other evacuation-triggering crisis. It’s also a public-relations swampland for Rose Bowl officials, who are campaigning for modern amenities even while insisting that their somewhat unusual, manpower-heavy approach to crowd control makes the stadium one of the “nation’s safest.”

“It doesn’t matter what the event is,” Rose Bowl general manager Darryl Dunn says. “Our top priority is safety, safety, safety. Just because the stadium is old, you still have to work with it.”

Some critics might suggest he work faster. At the USC-Michigan bowl game on January 1, several hundred fans chomping to return to their seats with snacks began to fear they would miss the opening kickoff, because only 25 people are permitted into the aging tunnels at a time. In a somewhat alarming scene, also repeated at the USC-UCLA rivalry game on December 1 and at other sellouts — which are when the worst crowding occurs — fans mobbed the tunnel entrance while overmatched ushers tried to maintain order.

UCLA officials say they haven’t had any complaints about the tunnels. But a USC fan, who asked that his name not be used because he works for USC, left the Rose Bowl after Texas’ last-second victory over USC at the BCS title game in January 2006, and found himself “trapped” in a packed tunnel for 10 frightening minutes with no room to wiggle free.

“I thought, ‘Oh, good. Not only did we lose to Texas, we’re going to die in a tunnel.’ I’ve been to football games all over the nation, and those tunnels are the worst. You can’t make an orderly exit from the Rose Bowl,” he says.

A recent building-code analysis didn’t pull punches either. The study, by the Kansas City–based FP&C Consultants Inc., concluded that the tunnels — located in the stands, halfway between the field and the stadium’s top — create a “poor” exit system.

Think of the 405 freeway: “The tunnels have the potential to develop overcrowded conditions behind a queue due to people continuing to move forward behind the stoppage,” warned the report.

Hard up against the San Gabriel Mountains, the Rose Bowl is iconic and creaky, famous for hosting “the granddaddy” bowl game January 1 — and for being a continual money drag. Owned by the city of Pasadena, it holds about 100 events a year, including all UCLA home games, and attracts crowds of 20,000 or more about 10 times per year.

The bowl’s curvy interior is also its Achilles’ heel. It is essentially a one-level ellipse, where capacity crowds of 92,500 must rely on one set of tunnels, though field-level tunnels can be used in an emergency. Roughly the same age and capacity, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum also funnels spectators into long tunnels — but takes the pressure off with a second set of tunnels for fans in the upper seats.

The Rose Bowl is “an existing nonconforming” structure under California building codes, acknowledges Pasadena Deputy Fire Marshal Mark Fasick. The stadium is code-compliant nonetheless, he says, because of the unusual countermeasures intended to exceed public-safety requirements.

It’s not simple. Officials regulate the human tunnel traffic from a command post in the press box, where fire, police, stadium and security personnel use walkie-talkies and roving supervisors to direct the ushers — a system that requires more than 120 people and immense coordination.

“We know we have a problem,” Fasick said. “We mitigate it with personnel. To make the bowl conform with today’s code, we’d have to tear a lot of the structure down and redo it. I’d rather have the people staged outside the tunnel, waiting, than to have them inside, packed like sardines.”

One idea being floated is a $50 million walkway around the stadium’s top rim, with stairs leading to the concession area.

You might think, with Pasadena’s blue-blood reputation, it could modernize its most recognizable claim to architectural history, and still protect its historic designation. The city has committed hundreds of millions in taxpayer dough to seismically updating its architecturally admired old City Hall, a new water-treatment plant and the conference center.

But the Rose Bowl has long struggled to pay its bills, wobbling by on $2.5 million annually from the adjoining public golf course and another $1.8 million per year from the Tournament of Roses and the flea markets held on stadium grounds.

So, who will bankroll the renovation? Experts believe it will be a public-private blend, including perhaps a corporate sponsor, once unthinkable in Pasadena’s conservatively progressive culture. Without some infusion soon, officials worry that the old girl will fade to irrelevancy, as Dallas’ Cotton Bowl has.

Pasadena Mayor William Bogaard, who was against the NFL initiative, says the Rose Bowl’s update “is coming,” and that the tunnels must be addressed.

“It’s true, this grande dame of football stadiums is not as efficient and modern as a structure just completed last year,” he says.

Asked via e-mail about their experiences, some Michigan fans were less diplomatic. One compared going through the tunnels to being “herded like cattle.” Another said he was stuck so long in one that he missed the military-jet flyover and that as many as 1,000 people waiting outside “were ready to rush the gate.”

An exclamation point on the tunnel situation came from the Rose Bowl itself, in a February 7 press release several weeks after the L.A. Weekly’s inquiries. In previous communications, the tunnels were a lower priority. Now they are listed at the top, and the press release states, “It is more than an issue of comfort. The world is a much more dangerous place than it was in 1922, and public safety is a major issue.”

Last summer, the bowl’s fireworks extravaganza reinforced that. Late in the show, a wayward firework exploded outside the stadium’s northern lip, catching some dead brush and several trees on fire. As thick black smoke billowed, spectators briefly panicked and rushed toward the tunnels. (Firefighters doused the small blaze without incident.)

Sue Mossman, executive director of Pasadena Heritage, the city’s most influential preservation group, downplays the notion that she and others were resisting tunnel-system improvements, but stresses that tinkering with the bowl, one of just 200 national historic landmarks, is risky.

“Some people could care less it’s a national landmark, and that’s why we spent five years fighting the NFL,” Mossman says. “We’re not ignoring the fact we need to look at the ingress and egress as part of the public safety. [But] the tunnels are a very important preservation issue because they are character-defining. If you start messing with that, the risk is very great you lose that [historic] designation.”

In an evacuation, Fasick said, bowl personnel would guide fans seated above the tunnels back into the 75-foot-long passageways. Spectators seated below the tunnel ring would be herded onto the field and eventually led out through four ground-level exits.

“I do think we can effectively control the crowd in an evacuation,” Fasick says. “We’d do it systematically… What we’d [still] have to contend with is mass hysteria.”

The code consultants, however, dispute this, saying it’s likely people seated below the tunnels would rush toward them in a crisis. Thus, the report concluded, the Rose Bowl has “one-half the exit capacity of contemporary facilities.”

Copyright Chip Jacobs