PART III -- Swept Away
By Mark McGuigan
Third of four parts
Oct 2 -- By the end of 1964, the City of Santa Monica was ablaze with hearsay and innuendo. News of the City’s plan to build a six-mile-long causeway running parallel to the coast wasn’t something that could be contained for very long.
At first it had been treated as something of a joke, so audacious as to be laughable. But as the months passed, people realized the joke wasn’t going away and the rumor-mills began to churn.
One rumor circulating at the time was that the cost of the project was so prohibitive it would end up being financed by the oil companies, thus flinging open the doors of City Hall to anyone who wanted to drill for oil in Santa Monica Bay.
Another was that the financial benefits of growing Santa Monica out into the bay -- thereby creating prime real estate that would boost the City's tax base -- was the real driving force behind the project, not the need for new roads.
As the City’s plans inched forward, opposition began to solidify. Even the surfing community, renowned for their too-cool-for-rules attitude had awoken to the fact that the plan would impact the very element on which their culture was founded -- the causeway would steal their waves.
The scene was slowly evolving into a classic sixties battle of counter-culture versus the establishment. The Goliath of City Hall and local business interests locking horns with sun-worshippers, surfers and environmentalists. And as with any classic coup d’etat, things were about to get ugly.
The causeway project was expensive, that was the bottom line coming from the office of financial consultants Stone and Youngberg. It was clear that the City needed some outside financial support to shore up the numbers. There was just no way Santa Monica could afford to proceed with the project alone.
In addition to all the technical issues dogging the process, the causeway presented both legal and legislative headaches, requiring watertight inter-agency agreement just to get the project to the next planning phase.
In December 1964 City Manager Perry Scott presented council members with a legislation strategy. Scott had taken up the torch from former City Manager Ernest Mobley, who had gone to Washington, D.C. to trumpeted the causeway. The project had been on the horizon for two and a half years already and the last thing the planning office needed was yet another year to mull things over.
“It is clear that implementation of the causeway concept will require special legislation and that failure to proceed immediately may result in delays extending beyond the 1965 legislative season,” the letter informed council members.
To finance the initial stages of the project, council members and commissioners had come to realize that the City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County were prime sources for some of the much-needed cash. According to Stone and Youngberg, Los Angeles County had an assessed value of $13 billion in 1963. Against this figure, the County could acquire bonds totaling $670 million. Santa Monica needed only a fraction of that amount.
Besides, the City of Los Angeles already had a vested interest in the causeway idea. The new Santa Monica Freeway (I-10) ran straight into the heart of Downtown LA and traffic headed West needed somewhere to go once it reached the coast. The causeway would provide an ideal outlet for the river of rubber and steel flowing out of Downtown.
“The use of the joint powers concept would require contracts among and between the cities of Santa Monica and Los Angeles, as well as the County of Los Angeles,” Perry Scott explained in his letter to the council. “Obviously such a mutual undertaking would require a high order of cooperation and co-ordination.”
As planners and commissioners buried their heads in the blueprints and legislative minutiae that was required to shunt the causeway dream one-step closer to reality, storm clouds were gathering on the horizon. In fact, a whole new problem was about to come rolling down from the Santa Monica Mountains.
So much attention had been directed toward problems such as littoral drift, cost, inter-agency agreements and landfill tonnage, that somewhere along the way a number of important factors had been overlooked or at least swept conveniently aside.
The causeway plan involved taking 97 million cubic yards of landfill from the nearby Santa Monica Mountains and piling it into the ocean to create a six mile landmass on which to build a highway. But very little was being made of the effects removing so much rock would have on the local wildlife. A mountain is not like a forest; it doesn’t just grow back once a large part of it has been removed.
This may have been the sixties but local environmentalists had by no means turned on, tuned in and dropped out. They had been watching the to-ings and fro-ings in City Hall, and opposition in the community began to mount.
The Santa Monica Canyon Civic Association (SMCCA) had been formed in 1947 to promote and protect not just Santa Monica Canyon, but the beaches to which it connected. It was undoubtedly the most powerful environmental movement in the City at the time, and its members viewed the causeway as nothing less than an assault on the local ecosystem.
“You’re looking at all these people that come from inland on a hot day to go to the beach,” says Tony Veschio, President of the SMCCA at the time. “You’re looking at all the people from the Palisades, Santa Monica and the canyon area that have herds of children and you’re going to take their beaches away from them? Their only free enjoyment and it’s wiped out because of a stupid road?”
The way the SMCCA saw things, cutting off the waves would cause the water to stagnate, the marine life would suffer and the beaches would have been abandoned. The City was on a collision course with an environmental disaster and the Civic Association was not prepared to stand-by and just let it happen.
Instead its members began to organize. “We were David fighting Goliath,” recalls Veschio. “They say you can’t beat City Hall and City Hall wanted to build a causeway, but our little old association with 1,300 family members at that time, whipped them.”
The notion of a battle between David and the giant Goliath seemed appropriate to the members of the SMCCA, but this David was about to launch not one small pebble, but 97 million tons of rock right back into the face of the colossus.
The whipping began on the very beaches the Civic Association was trying to save. The organization recruited Hollywood star Jim Arness, already famous for his role as Marshal Matt Dillon in the TV series Gunsmoke, to appear in a short film entitled “Save Our Beaches,” financed and produced by the SMCCA.
Arness was the perfect choice, hugely popular, amiable but with a tough, no-nonsense screen image. He was also no stranger to the occasional fracas over a stretch of beach. During World War II he had been wounded in the Allied assault on the Anzio beach-head in Italy for which he received a Purple Heart
“We had a regular Hollywood Premiere for the Save Our Beach campaign,” recalls Veschio. “We had movie stars and it was just a wonderful, wonderful evening -- it had terrific support.”
The public had finally begun to sit up and pay attention. The battle lines were being drawn in the sand and the time had come to choose sides -- you were either for the causeway or you were against it.
“We went about it the right way, we had people power,” recalls Veschio of those turbulent times. “We formed committees just like we were running an election. It worked. We made people well aware of what the tragedies could have been taking our beaches away.”
The Civic Association began to collect the signatures of people bitterly opposed to the causeway plan. The hope was to provide enough names to show the decision-makers in Sacramento that the people of Santa Monica did not in fact want a causeway fouling their beloved coastline.
“We walked up and down the beach,” says Veschio. “We had booths on the sand down at Will Rogers beach where people signed petitions. No one with any kind of sense at all could possibly have wanted that causeway to be there.”
And the SMCCA was not alone. Throughout the City, groups of concerned citizens began to gather to oppose the plan. Surfers, hippies, school teachers and editors, people from all walks of life who would ordinarily not have passed the time of day in one another’s company, now sat side-by-side on committees and scoured the streets for signatures.
Robert Feigel represented the surfer set on a committee of concerned citizens chaired by Santa Monica Independent editor Herb Chase. The Independent newspaper was vehemently opposed to the causeway, standing in direct opposition to its rival the Evening Outlook, which had thrown its considerable political weight behind the project.
“The expanded proposal was being actively promoted by the Evening Outlook, the Council, Chamber of Commerce and real estate interests,” says Feigel who greatly respected Chase for standing his ground “against tremendous odds.”
Feigel created an informal sub-committee “whose members sat outside surfing movies, surf shops and at beaches at card tables borrowed from family and friends. It was the first time any of us had been involved in such an adventure.”
For the roughly 5,000 surfers who signed the petition, it wasn’t just the beaches that were at stake, it was their way of life. The essence of Southern California cool immortalized by The Beach Boys in song and in movies such as Endless Summer was being threatened. No way was The Man going to take it away from them.Next: The Dream Sinks
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