PART IV: The Dream Sinks
By Mark McGuigan
Oct. 6 -- As the Cold War chilled the political climate across the globe, opposition to the causeway gathered heat. Environmental opponents eyed the plan as an ecological disaster waiting to happen, contending that dumping millions of tons of rock in the open ocean a mere 4,000 feet from shore would have catastrophic effects on the coastline.
Wave patterns would be disrupted and beaches choked with sand. Water would stagnate and wildlife would be wiped out. The need to protect the beaches far outweighed the need for a more convenient highway up the coast. But supporters of the project begged to differ.
The race was now on to persuade the locals that this was not an ecological war; this was simply a matter of solving a traffic problem in a creative and beneficial way. The coastline would not be destroyed; if anything, it would be enhanced, supporters argued.
To counter the tens of thousands of signatures being gathered by a rag-tag coalition of anti-causeway groups, including surfers and environmentalists, council members began their own assault, collecting signatures from just about anyone who could hold a pen.
“The pro-causeway coalition was doing some amazing things to get signatures,” recalls Bob Feigel, a surfer working with a committee of concerned citizens chaired by Santa Monica Independent editor Herb Chase.
“For example, the city sent a fire truck to my old elementary school (Roosevelt) at Ninth and Montana and would give free rides to any kid, teacher and parent who would sign,” Feigel says.
By the beginning of 1965 causeway petition booths in support of the project began to crop up across the City. In a report to City Council members in April of that year, Perry Scott outlined the tactics.
“Causeway petition display booths have been located in the City Hall lobby,” the report said, “in virtually every office in the City Hall; in each of the libraries; in the courthouse lobby; in each of the firehouses; at the Transportation Department offices; on most, if not all operating buses; at the Civic Auditorium; in the municipal offices at the Airport; and at all the offices and installations operated by the Recreation and Parks Department.”
This method of saturation was supposed to draw support for the causeway from anyone who so much as ventured anywhere near a piece of City property. But it wasn’t working. The same report provides the number of signatures that had been filed as of April 27, 1965 -- the figure came to 8,000 names.
“However, there are a great many petitions currently in circulation that are partially filled and will not be returned until late this week or early next week,” the report notes optimistically.
But considering a motley collection of surfers had managed to collect 5,000 signatures by simply bumming around the City, officials were not about to pat themselves on the back. Just what would the Santa Monica Civic Canyon Association (SMCCA), comprised of well-organized residents, achieve? The City had to stand firm.
Perry Scott’s letter ends with a crack of the whip to all City employees. “It is, in the opinion of this office, the obligation of every employee of the City during duty hours to support the policies adopted by the City Council,” the letter says.
“If this were not true, the processes and functions of government would be discharged in a state of virtual anarchy. Each employee, as well as each citizen, has the privilege and the obligation of determination with respect to a personal position on matters such as the pending Causeway legislation.
“Therefore, one must separate an employee’s actions during his tour of duty from those actions taken as an individual and in pursuit of a personal position,” it concludes. In other words, while you work for the City, you toe the City line.
Scott cast a long shadow in the corridors of City Hall. He was headstrong almost to a fault and was refusing to let the causeway project die. He was utterly determined to see this vision of a highway in the ocean through to its completion.
But the thinly veiled threats had little impact on the collection of anti-causeway signatures. A tidal wave of public opinion was now forming against the plan and before long, groups of concerned citizens had met their target of 50,000 signatures.
“We were able to get the requisite number of signatures and the boxes containing the petition were delivered to the proper party in Sacramento before the required deadline,” recalls Feigel of the process.
Every line on every petition page represented a voice in direct opposition to the causeway project. Lawmakers in Sacramento would have to pay attention to this groundswell of public disapproval.
The boxes were packed, sealed and dispatched to Sacramento supposedly without incident. But in the sixties the political arm of Santa Monica had a long, long reach. Somewhere in the City, the giant stretched, and 50,000 voices disappeared.
“We got the news that the boxes had somehow been ‘lost’,” says Fegiel. “It was a major setback, but in view of the resources and influence of those supporting the causeway proposal, not a complete surprise.”
It was back to square one for the environmentalists.
Meanwhile, the Causeway Freeway Commission, charged with seeing the project through, was not having an easy time of things either. To make the project financially viable required the buy-in of both the County of Los Angeles and the City of Los Angeles. The resulting triumvirate would be better able to absorb the estimated costs of between $50 to $100 million for the causeway dream.
The County of Los Angeles seemed willing to form a partnership, but the City of LA refused to be drawn into the plan. Somehow, a strange resistance had sprung up within the corridors of City Hall in Downtown Los Angeles.
“Actually what had happened was the City Council and the county of Los
Angeles had agreed on a three part participation and the city of LA was
to be the third party,” says former commission member Jim Mount. “And
then Marvin got elected as a councilman for this area and pretty successfully
sank the whole thing.”
Braude did not like what he was hearing concerning this outlandish scheme to relocate part of his beloved mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The environmentalists now had their man on the inside, and the playing field was leveled.
“Marvin Braude scared them with the environmental damage it would do,” says Mount of the new stance being taken in Downtown LA. “It wasn’t proven that the damn thing (causeway) would work, and you spend millions of dollars on it and your perched beach goes away because you didn’t figure it out right.”
This was the seed of doubt that now took hold of people’s minds and would prove to be the death knell for the causeway project.
“One of the things that happened was that the public didn’t really understand the concept of the construction and how it could benefit the coast per se,” contends former Council member Jim Reidy. “All they could think of was a big pile of rocks all along blocking their view.”
With Braude opposing the plan from within and myriad committees of concerned citizens, surfers and environmentalists loudly shouting down the proposal on the streets, the stress proved too much. The plans for the causeway in the ocean, the glittering jewel of the City, imploded.
“I don't know how -- maybe the public had seen through the proposal -- but we were able to get those signatures all over again and in a much shorter time than the first lot,” says Feigel.
It was as though the local population had had enough. This time round, the signatures made it to Sacramento.
By September 1965, the news came down from the Capital that the Governor of California Edmund “Pat” Brown had vetoed the causeway bill.
In a letter to City Council members discussing the Governor’s rationale, City Manager Perry Scott stated that “in vetoing the causeway bill, the Governor cited as his principal reasons the need for further studies and the personal opinion that the bill should have provided for executive approval or disapproval of the final plan by the office of the Governor.”
Despite a report from Moffatt and Nichols stating the causeway was a viable proposition, the Division of Highways wanted to pursue their own agenda. The term ‘further studies’ would become the catchphrase for anything associated with the causeway, denoting nothing more than a euphemism for ‘not an option.’ Besides, without the support of the City of Los Angeles, funding the project would be virtually impossible.
On January 20, 1966 the Causeway Commission penned its final letter to City Council members in what was a last ditch effort to garner support for the dying plan. The letter called for concurrent resolutions to be sent to “the Governor, State Highway Commission and the Department of Natural Resources” calling for detailed model studies for any State Department proposal for an offshore highway.
In reality, commission members would have had more luck swimming out and building the causeway themselves.
A few months later, the Causeway Freeway Commission was disbanded. The City Annual Report for 1966-67 fails to mention that such a commission had even existed for part of the year. By that time, the City’s audacious plans for a highway in the ocean had sunk from sight. The causeway dream was over.
The Space Program cut it pretty fine, but on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the moon and the mission’s crew -- Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins -- did indeed return to earth safely before the decade was out. At least one vision, conceived almost in parallel to the causeway project, had been seen through to completion.
Although the final demise of the causeway project was an amalgamation of many things, few would argue that it wasn’t an ambitious plan. Some still feel it a pity that the causeway never got off the drawing board; still others breathe a sigh of relief that the City saw sense and stymied the plan.
Whatever your opinion, it should be remembered that the causeway was conceived in an age when the Nation’s dreamers reached for and touched the moon. The causeway may have been a Quixotic dream but it was perfectly suited to the times.
As for the protagonists of this piece, eccentric millionaire John Drescher -- who first championed the plan -- went on to other things, not least of these was his noble philanthropic pursuits. In the end he gave most of his money away to colleges and universities throughout Santa Monica and Los Angeles, and his name adorns a number buildings throughout in the city.
Causeway Commission members continued life as normal, returning to their respective careers; few seemed to dwell on their causeway endeavors for very long and only Jim Mount wrote about it in later years as editor of the Petersen Quarterly newsletter.
Jim Reidy from the Junior Chamber of Commerce would later become a council member with the City of Santa Monica.
Tony Veschio was President of the Santa Monica Canyon Civic Association for many years and is still involved with this thriving environmental organization to this day.
Marvin Braude was reelected to four-year terms in 1969, 1973, 1977, 1981, 1989 and 1993 and has sat on many boards throughout the City of Los Angeles.
Bob Fiegel began a love affair with New Zealand “that started almost thirty years ago and is still going strong.” He lives with his wife “on a hill above Matapouri Bay” south of the Bay of Islands in New Zealand.
As for Perry Scott, the man who pushed so hard for the causeway project continued as City Manager for a number of years. He would later float an idea for an island off the Santa Monica Pier complete with multi-story hotel and private beaches. There would be uproar and acrimony and still more political intrigue.
But that’s another story.
In writing this feature The Lookout would like to thank the following
people for their input, support and tireless patience: Jim Mount, Jim
Reidy, John Bohn, Bob Gabriel, Herb Chase, Bob Feigel, Stan Scholl, Jim
Lunsford, George Wolfberg, Tony Veschio, City Clerk Maria Stewar and,
Ho Nguyen and the Santa Monica Historical Society.
Copyright 1999-2008 surfsantamonica.com. All Rights Reserved.