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PART II -- The Tide Turns

By Mark McGuigan
Staff Writer

Second of four parts

Sept 30 -- Two months after President John F. Kennedy pledged in May 1961 that the United States would land a man on the moon and return him safely "before the decade is out,” closer to earth the City of Santa Monica was embracing this decade of grand ambition and charging after its own dream.

The planning process for a causeway that would span a six-mile strip of land atop the Pacific was in full swing, and the idea pitched by eccentric millionaire John Drescher to the City Council had spawned a commission charged with pulling together an engineering firm and financial plan to see the project through.

But over the course of the next two years, a number of setbacks would befall the plan supporters had christened the Sunset Seaway. Not least would be the technical problems involved with any attempt to contain the Pacific Ocean and the costs associated with trying to pull off an outlandish scheme that could cost nearly half of what the city was worth.

"It was a daunting task for a bunch of volunteers, but we were able to come up with a plan that had more than an outside chance of success," commission member Jim Mount would write years later.


The search for an appropriate engineering firm was neither a long nor an arduous process for commission members. A project of this size and scope required a firm that could back up the City’s vision with sound engineering sense, talent and experience. Of course, knowing where to find a decent steak around town didn’t hurt either.

“We went along swimmingly,” Mount recalls. “We interviewed some really high-powered firms, and one of the perks of being on the commission was that they would inevitably dine us at some place nice.”

The commission evaluated nine engineering firms and their associated consultants, but, in the end, the firm chosen to turn the visionary blueprint into an engineering marvel was Moffatt & Nichol of Long Beach, California.

Founded in 1945 by John Moffatt and Frank Nichol, the firm seemed best suited to the task at hand boasting a background in the construction of harbors, marinas, urban waterfronts, highways and bridges. It was little wonder that their seasoned and rounded Scope of Work won over council members.

Their approach as outlined in a document presented to commission members on February 11, 1964 was straightforward, calling for a 12 to 14 week assessment of the project that would cull together the collective knowledge of some of the best minds in the business. Their suggested list of engineering, planning and legal consultants reads like a list of ‘Who’s Who’ of architects, planners and consultants at the time.

Among the names dropped into the mix by Moffatt and Nichols was William L. Pereira. Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, Pereira designed many large buildings around Southern California, including the Firestone Plant in Los Angeles in 1958, the offices and laboratories of General Atomic in San Diego in 1959 and the futuristic Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport in 1961.

Pereira would also later employ a young architect by the name of Frank Gehry who would become famous in his own right for creating curvaceous buildings in materials such as titanium. Pereira was another visionary cut from the same cloth as John Drescher but without the quirks of a millionaire who lived alone with his pet parakeet and once won a lying competition. Pereira's name leant credence to the City’s lofty ambitions.

The City Council thus appropriated $20,000 to retain Moffatt and Nichols, assisted by William Pereira and Associates, to “conduct engineering, economic and legal studies, and prepare a report on the problems to be faced and the best methods of solution,” according to the City Annual Report provided by the Santa Monica Historical Society Museum.

The excitement was now palpable and council members began a campaign of persuasion and cajoling, bending the ear of anyone that would listen to the causeway idea. The City Annual Report of 1963-1964 records that upon receiving a U.S. Corps of Engineers Report on the feasibility of the causeway project, Mayor Rex Minter, City Manager Ernest Mobley and Commissioner Holliday descended on Washington to whip up support on Capitol Hill.

Meeting with the Bay District Representatives in Congress and the Undersecretary of Commerce, the three men went about trying to secure more funding for the plan and to highlight that an engineering project of this magnitude would be good for the City of Santa Monica and the State of California as a whole.

“Everywhere they went,” the annual report says, “they discussed the causeway concept, acquainting people with its potential value.”

“In summary,” the report continues, “the major accomplishments of the year by the Commission might be said to be the presentation of the causeway concept to the representatives in Washington, before the State Highway Commission, Los Angeles City and County officials and the local community to acquaint them with both the feasibility and desirability of having the causeway in Santa Monica Bay.”

It would perhaps be the pinnacle of the Commission’s achievements. As the train gathered momentum, the wheels slowly started to work their way off the tracks.


With the construction of the Marina Del Rey in the early sixties at a cost of $13 million, the City of Santa Monica had a paragon of engineering success to which commissioners could hold up their own plans for the causeway.

The Marina Del Rey was being built to provide more than 6,000 recreational boat slips, making it the largest manmade marina in the world. But there had also been a huge problem. The groins for the channel stretched directly westward embracing both the Pacific Ocean and the incoming waves. In building the marina, the engineers had opted to forgo a breakwater, and this proved to be a bad design decision.

“We were still all fresh from the big debacle from the Corp of Engineers at the Marina Del Rey,” says Mount. “They built two groins out into the ocean for the main channel and winds would blow the ocean water down that main channel and create tides of as much as fifteen feet -- talk about embarrassment.

“The marina had just been finished and people were finding their boats torn away from the dock because the water went up and down so fast, and so they were anchoring their boats out in the middle of the marina,” he said.

Construction of the offshore breakwater began on October 15, 1963, and was completed in January 1965, creating the perfect barrier to the tidal surge that had wreaked so much havoc. But the very reason why the engineers had opted not to construct a breakwater in the first place came to pass.

“They didn’t want to use it because it would silt up, and they had problems with dredging it,” Mount explains. “They thought they’d just leave the county to handle the silt when the silt all came down that channel and deposited itself in the marina.”

The steady accumulation of sand or silt is an effect of hampering a tidal phenomenon known as ‘littoral drift,’ the term used for the sand moved onto beaches under the action of waves and currents. Building a breakwater affects this natural process in much the same way as a dam obstructs the natural flow of a river. Unlike a dam however, the ebb and flow of tides cannot be controlled, and the result is a steady build up of sand in a harbor or breakwater area.

It was a problem the City had known about for decades. Following the construction of the breakwater next to Santa Monica Pier in the 1930s, the council had to hire a dredging company to periodically suck sand from the little harbor created by the rows of pilings supporting the pier, called dents, as well as by the artificial breakwater.

"There were so many dents on the pier it effected the littoral drift of the sand and kept filling up the harbor,” says Jim Reidy of the dredging. “Periodically the City used to hire a company to come in and dredge out the sand and pump it under the pier and kept the harbor open.”

If this could happen to a small harbor by the Pier, what would happen in a causeway with a breakwater stretching six miles up the coast? How long before littoral drift choked the waters of this new marina?

Although the proposal from Moffatt and Nichols addressed this issue -- hinting at the fact that the causeway would require dredging on a regular basis -- in the minds of some City officials, the problem remained a niggling doubt.

“Maintaining this (causeway) would require a periodic dredging operation and what effect this would have on beaches both above and below where the causeway was installed was an open question,” explains former City Council Member John Bohn. “These were negative considerations to be taken into account when considering the causeway.”


Despite the specter of reality that was slowly creeping up on the causeway project, it didn’t take too long before Santa Monica was joined by like-minded dreamers. The Malibu community was caught up in the tide of enthusiasm, and in a letter presented to the Santa Monica City Council on March 24, 1964, the Malibu Community Organizations Freeway Committee proposed their own plan for a highway in the hills.

In keeping with the futuristic monikers that were so popular at the time, the plan was labeled ‘The Skyway to the Sea.’ It had been formulated to counter a supposed recommendation from the California Highway Commission to build “a route closely parallel to, and in some stretches, the same as the existing Pacific Coast Highway,” according to the letter.

“We urge your consideration and support of the new SKYWAY TO THE SEA, which would connect nicely with the proposed causeway presently under study by the City of Santa Monica,” opined J.L. Ayers, President of the Malibu Freeway Committee.

“The California Highway Commission will hold official record open until March 26,” he continued. “A wire from you to Mr. Robert Bradford, Commission Chairman, would be appreciated.”

There are no readily available records of a response to this letter, and it remains unclear whether or not the City Council actually did anything to further the ambitions of their neighbors to the north. Perhaps council members were becoming so entangled in their own troubled plan that any thought of becoming ensnared in the fanciful notions of others was simply too much to bear.

As the plan ground on through the chambers of Santa Monica City Hall, elsewhere numbers were being crunched. In October 1963, the City had retained the financial services of Stone and Youngberg, a San Francisco based firm to evaluate the approach to the causeway and provide an estimation of the costs involved.

A report prepared by Stone and Youngberg lists the City of Santa Monica as being valued at $211,287,610. Against this sum, the project could obtain a bond of $31,900,000, far short of the estimated cost of $50 to $100 million for the entire causeway.

Next: Swept Away

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