Western Neighborhoods Project is dedicated to the history of San Francisco's Richmond, Sunset, OMI and West of Twin Peaks districts.   read more ...

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 481: The Great Highway - Part 4

It's time for the fourth (and final) installment in our history of the Great Highway. Join Nicole and Arnold for the journey from WWII to today. And if you need to catch up with Parts 1-3, check out Podcasts #468, #470, and #475.
by Nicole Meldahl - Nov 12, 2022

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 481: The Great Highway - Part 4 Outside Lands Podcast Episode 481: The Great Highway - Part 4

(above) Great Highway & Lincoln, circa 1955

View north to Cliff House and Sutro Heights

Podcast Transcription

481 - Great Highway, Part 4
Nicole: [00:00:00] It's Outside Lands San Francisco, Podcast of the Western Neighborhoods Project. I'm Nicole Meldahl.
Arnold: And I'm Arnold Woods.
Nicole: All right, everyone. We are recording this the day after election day, so if anything changes between now, Wednesday, and Saturday when this airs, full disclosure, this is the timeline we're working on because the election results that we are aware of are in and San Franciscan have spoken local proposition I to allow cars on Great Highway and JFK Drive and Golden Gate Park has failed at the ballot box, which is why we decided to record our final installment of our four-part history of Great Highway today.
Arnold: So as a refresher, we recommend you listen to episodes 468, [00:01:00] 470 and 475, which took us from the 1910s up to the 1940s—that last one—when the war in sand really started to heat up. And the story of Great Highway's modern era really is defined by futile attempts to mitigate the effects of Mother Nature, but also by local bickering, as everyone fights for their own priorities, often without concern for the greater good.
Nicole: Yeah, it's wild how, you know what they say, history just repeats itself, right? So, we ended the last Great Highway podcast by briefly mentioning the Taraval Sea Wall, which was built after Great Highway was damaged by storms. A low bid of $67,000 and, $67,675, ooh historians and money numbers, from CW Caletti was accepted for the project, which is perhaps the last time something was built on Great Highway without controversy. [00:02:00]
Arnold: And there'd be more controversy in the future. In any event, the next month in March 1941, a local builder named Herman Hogrefe wanted to build a four-family dwelling with a nautical theme on a triangular piece of land on Great Highway and Santiago. Neighbors protested. They complained that the land should be a municipal park and that Herman's plans were unsightly. This pushback is likely indicative of an increase in development in the area that would pause for World War II, but only briefly.
Nicole: And I wanna look more into Herman because, he was like, what? It has a, it’s like based on the ocean like I'm trying to do right here. And I was looking up briefly and that he does at more things elsewhere. So, you might have a further podcast on Herman Hogrefe. So, what was happening on Great Highway during World War II? [00:03:00] Well, in February 1942, police raided the home of a German national named Hartwig Reese at 1668A Great Highway, and they found a shortwave radio with a recording device as well as German-American Bund membership paraphernalia. So, the Bund existed to promote a favorable view of Nazi German in the United States during World War, during the war.
So, I guess maybe, what I'm intimating is, that Great Highway was a quiet place where international spies could do their international spy work. But, also that month, shrapnel from practice bursts of US Army anti-aircraft fire nearby one of the local Army Post caused brief excitement when it literally showered down on Great Highway near Balboa. So don't worry, nobody was hurt and no [00:04:00] property was damaged. And this too is also part of a long legacy of stuff the Army does nearby that causes havoc and damage along Great Highway.
Arnold: Meanwhile, Outside Landers were fighting another foe that is far more persistent than fascists and communists. And that is sand. Combating sand dunes out here is a tale as old as time. We were told we couldn't build a park out here because of the sand, but gosh darn it, we did it. We won the first Sand War due to the courageous leadership of general, I, I mean Park Superintendent, William Hammond Hall and his successor, John McLaren.
Nicole: And you guys, I can't believe we missed the 60th anniversary of the start of the Second Sand War, which after this podcast you'll remember began on June 26th, 1942. That week, the Park Commission asked Mayor Rossi for emergency [00:05:00] funds to clear away sand on Great Highway, which was and I quote, "faced with a traffic menace as a result of knee-deep sand."
Arnold: An ongoing problem. It's always along the Great Highway.
Nicole: I know.
Arnold: Commissioner Herbert Fleishhacker estimated the Park Commission needed $10,000 immediately. He said, quote, "unless something is done quickly, much of the Golden Gate Park's Ocean Front landscaping will be lost." End quote. God forbid that happens. To show the full extent of this emergency, the Examiner printed a photo of a young lady in a swimsuit who had to sit on her knees to drink out of a water fountain on Great Highway because the sand was so high. And you know, this is not an old phenomenon because, during the pandemic, when I was taking lots of walks along the Great Highway, there's a Ocean Beach sign, right at the end of Lincoln at Great Highway, and [00:06:00] sand got up so high that it was partially covering that sign for a while.
Nicole: Yeah, if you learn nothing else by the end of this podcast, you'll learn that we've known that this is a problem for a long time and we're still not properly addressing it. So, so this sand, which was, and I quote, "invading lawns and homes" had to be beaten back behind enemy lines, aka, Great Highway. But who would fund this campaign, Arnold? Money could come from the mayor’s emergency fund, but no one felt great about using that money for this purpose. So, the city turned to financing from state gasoline tax funds, but those funds wouldn't be available for the affected portion of Great Highway for a couple reasons. One, it wouldn't be administered for a really long time, but more importantly, it wasn't considered a main thoroughfare. So, this portion wasn't actually eligible to use those gas funds.
Arnold: [00:07:00] Because westerly winds in 1942 had increased the annual expenditure on sand management from $1,000 to at least $10,000, something had to be done. On June 28th, 1942, quote, "City engineer John J. Casey and members of his staff made an inspection to determine the best means of attack." End quote. See the use of tactical language there? It's go time. And what comes after go time? Yeah, another conference to discuss the situation, this time with Park Superintendent Julius Girod and Park engineer T.M. Grabow.
Nicole: The United States Soil Conservation Service was also brought in for long range planning and they keep asking around to like use heavy equipment owned by someone in the area. Which is hilarious. So, like, oh my god! We need emergency funds. We're not sure where this funding's gonna go. Okay, somebody ask neighbors if they have like a tractor [00:08:00] or some sort of bulldozer. Like we need heavy equipment. Like, I'm not kidding, they bring this up a lot. And all of these, like they're going through like what they're doing to mitigate this. They're like, well, we're still asking for private equipment. Like, way to go guys? So, and I quote, "the first moves to check the encroachment of sand dunes on Great Highway," end quote, is engaged on June 30th, 1942, otherwise known as what we're referring to as S-D Day, which is Sand Dune Day. And as the anniversary of the beginning of the Second Sand War blows into the next year, that $9,000 allocation for sand removal blows in as well.
Arnold: Meanwhile, the expansion to the city's master plan, announced in August 1943, included a, get this, 23-mile waterfront in order to boost post-war employment and turn San Francisco into a quote, "visitor's [00:09:00] paradise.” The plan identified Great Highway and the Marina as the most completely developed and effective pleasure drives in the city at the present time. Well, except for that constant encroachment of sand that we have to keep dealing with.
Nicole: It's wild to me that over here they're like, oh my god, sand. How are we gonna do this? And the city's like, I think we should put more cars on this highway. Because the goal was to build better connections so motorists could tour the city with greater ease, connecting Great Highway and El Camino Del Mar through Lincoln Park, and of course building a freeway south of Embarcadero. Mayor Rossi named a citizens group to oversee the shoreline program that also included the enlargement of parking areas along the shore, the addition of picnic areas at the beach and development of bicycle pass and trails among other things.
Arnold: This plan also called for construction of sewage treatment plants and trunk line sewers. Because director of planning L. Deming Tilton warned that quote, "the postwar [00:10:00] development plans of the Bay Area will be distorted and unbalanced if enormous sums are spent for the construction of modern high-speed highways along the waterfront and only small ineffective sums are available to reclaim the polluted tide lands through which these highways run." End quote.
Nicole: In the shoreline report that came out of this, concerns were expressed about beach erosion and land slippage. Tilton recommended and I quote, "an immediate program of scientific surveys to determine the best method of controlling sand movement, erosion slippage, and other destructive forces. Surveys needed would cost from $5,000 to $10,000 and they might easily be worth half a million dollars saved. Over a period of 10 years, for instance, the city has spent approximately $180,000 to repair erosion damage and give protection to the $600,000 investment in [00:11:00] the Great Highway. This drain upon public funds may go on for years, but it can be stopped by intelligent, timely planning." End quote.
Arnold: And here's the kicker. Given our current debate over whether a Great Highway should be a park or a highway, Tilton went on to say quote, "in fact, a small sum wisely spent may create acres of new land along great highway, giving the city an almost continuous ocean front park from Golden Gate Park to Fleishhacker Pool. The city Planning Commission would use taxpayers’ money whenever possible to build new land and community assets." End quote.
Nicole: Oh, imagine that. A pragmatic city employee. I like this guy because even while he praises the city's vision for creating things like Golden Gate Park, he called on city officials to display that same kind of vision, but I quote, [00:12:00] "harnessed to an overall plan so that the building of tomorrow is integrated rather than haphazard." And interestingly, these conversations are happening just as the lights on Great Highway were illuminated for the first time since citywide blackouts were ordered to protect San Francisco from enemy invasion during World War II.
Arnold: In 1944, Herbert Fleishhacker, the man behind the Park Commission's widening and landscaping of Great Highway from the Cliff House down, who also personally financed so many attractions along Great Highway, like the Fleishhacker Pool and what we now know as the San Francisco Zoo, well, he retired from the Park Commission. No more help from Herbert.
Nicole: Career well served. In his retirement statement, he said his desire had been, and I quote, "to provide San Francisco with the finest park system in the whole blessed United States." [00:13:00] End quote. He also acknowledged that people were once content to drive and walk-through parks to see lush landscaping, but that modern visitors demanded more recreation opportunities like playgrounds, swimming pools, athletic grounds, and gardening plots.
Arnold: And all this is important for two reasons. One, Herbert put his money where his mouth was. He wanted world class parks, and he funded it, in addition to strategically guiding the process as a commissioner. And two, he acknowledged that public spaces needed to evolve and meet the needs of people living in San Francisco now.
Nicole: Yeah, when I think about that. When I think about how hard it is to get anything done in San Francisco. I'm like, man, what we just need is like a really rich old white guy who wants to come in and pay for the building of all this stuff that we need. Or fund Western Neighborhoods Project. Cause that's how it was done through like the 19th and 20th centuries. [00:14:00] But he's really progressive. Right? Like he's acknowledging that the park he inherited isn't the park that always needs to be. And I think that's part of the conversation where it gets hung up a lot with historic preservationists or what people think historic preservationists always say about new construction projects and new opportunities like Great Highway.
Cause we're just gonna be like, no, that wasn't in the 1879 Park Plan. But it's not true. Like, I think there's a lot of acknowledgement and, and Fleishhacker is really forward thinking when he says this stuff. And Great Highway was about to provide a whole new lineup of recreation opportunities to San Franciscans and visitors. Because in December 1945, George Whitney, owner of Playland at the Beach, purchased the entire frontage between Fulton Street and Cliff House Hill on Great Highway from George Hotalling and Jane Swinerton for one million bucks. He leased [00:15:00] a block on Great Highway and Balboa to Beach Enterprises, Inc., which was founded by Ellis Levy, and began contracting extensive improvements we cover extensively in other podcasts.
Arnold: And we won't list all those podcasts for you this time. Just know they're there. People now had even more reason to travel here. And Great Highway is heavily used beyond what it was actually built to host. The wear and tear is beginning to become noticeable. In August 1947, the Examiner reported that visitors to Ocean Beach were making trips to the hospital, after cutting their feet on glass shards in the sand. Also, the convenience stations were unsanitary because quote, "the two janitors and four janitresses employed to maintain cleanliness in the restrooms," end quote, also supplemented their cleaning duties with cleaning the entire beach and sidewalks.
Nicole: Can you [00:16:00] imagine? You're like, I've been hired to clean these bathrooms. Also, just also do all the rest of the beach. Can you just do all the rest of the beach too? So, the Park Commission admitted it had been aware of the problem for some time, but lacked the funds needed to fix it. Park Commission, Park Commissioner Byron Mobbs said, and I quote, “we have realized that the beach is a disgrace, but how can we do anything when we get no money?” End quote. He suggested that the work be permanently funded from proceeds brought in by sports events held in the park that went straight back into the general fund at the time. So, like the park is bringing in money, right? The park is getting money, but it's just going into the general fund. It's not going to like improve the park. He wanted to, to quit that cycle.
Arnold: Yeah. Could you imagine if like the Outside Lands Music Festival had to pay to clean Ocean Beach? [00:17:00] Anyways, they ordered a machine to clean the beaches, but it was back ordered six months to a, to a post-war material shortage. So, they put three maintenance guys on the problem part-time until it arrived. And this of course, is part of the bigger cultural phenomenon that is, the Park Commission could not control. Great Highway at the edge of the city has always been the place to go, if you wanna be naughty.
Nicole: it's true. Listen to our other three podcasts about Great Highway, but the neighbors were tired of it and they weren't putting up with this hooliganism anymore. That's a tough word to say. Case in point, March 1953, after Rec and Park installed parking spaces along Great Highway so people could enjoy the view, the Parkside and Sunset Improvement Clubs, as well as the Great Highway Club all demanded that the parking spaces be removed. [00:18:00] Mrs. Thomas Best summed it up perfectly when she said, and I quote, “people parking out there, stay all night. And I can assure you they are not baying at the moon or looking at the view.” At this meeting, Rec and Park politely suggested that maybe she should take up her concerns with the Police Commission since that wasn't really like a Rec and Park problem. That was like a public safety problem.
Arnold: And we'll leave it up to you, the listener's imagination, as to what was actually going on there. At that same meeting though, Joseph P. McQuade, of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1205, asked to renew his post’s lease of the Beach Chalet. In episode 475, we chronicled the Chalet's migration to the east side of Great Highway because of storm damage. Well, the military appropriated the building during World War II and afterwards it was leased to this local chapter of the [00:19:00] VFW. A bar was installed downstairs in front of these gorgeous WPA murals and its reputation turned, as Beach Chalet became known for gambling and smutty shows in the 50s.
Nicole: I'm sorry, listeners, I'm a little distracted because my cat is trying to take a poop on a carpet right in front of me while I record this podcast and just have to let it happen.
So, in March 1953, the Park Commission decided to add, and I quote, “some safeguards in the lease about renting the quarters to others” end quote, after the Chalet was the scene of a lewd show in 1952. Also considered at that meeting was, and I quote again, “the controversy over a site for model plane flying in Golden Gate Park.” Which we add here to show that we've officially entered the modern era where [00:20:00] nobody can try to do anything in San Francisco without a lengthy and moderately ridiculous public comment period.
Arnold: So, everyone admits at this time that Great Highway is a little shabby and needs upgrades. In January 1957, the once dangerous and congested intersection at Great Highway and Lincoln Way was tamed with $109,000 in, in improvements. This intersection, scene of numerous serious accidents and highway fatalities over the years, was completely revamped, replacing the all but useless traffic circle that was painted on the pavement. This included a three-way traffic signal being added, intersection islands, and the removal of the old, quote, “simulated rock trestle that once carried the number seven street car line over the South Drive at the park entrance.” End quote.
Nicole: Mission accomplished everyone. Great Highway is super [00:21:00] safe and fine now, except that, you know, the six-lane highway with the speed limit of 40 miles per hour was a tragedy waiting to happen.
Arnold: Yep.
Nicole: And unfortunately, that tragedy came on Labor Day in 1970 when 10-year-old Teka Gowan and friend Christina Main took Christina's Irish setter puppy for a walk on the beach. The trio crossed Great Highway near Noriega, but Teka and the puppy didn't make it. They were struck and killed by a motorist.
Arnold: When the Examiner went to investigate where Teka had been hit, a reporter observed, quote “so far as the eye could see in either direction, there was no overpass, no stoplight, no means at all for avoiding the heavy traffic.” End quote. Except for at Sloat. And children were specifically told not to use the pedestrian tunnels because they were dark and dangerous hangouts for molesters. A petition was circulated by locals calling for a pedestrian bridge and, at [00:22:00] least, traffic lights on Great Highway. Just like today, real change only happens following a tragedy.
Nicole: Yeah. Again, the more things change, the more they stay the same. So, this is a good segue into saying that the 1960s and 1970s saw a period of decline along Point Lobos and Great Highway, even as the road covered new territory and improvements were on the way. Rec and Park again tried to add parking south of Lincoln Way in October of 1960. Neighborhood residents came out en masse to complain that these parking spaces, which were kind of advertised as being for fishermen and tourists, would just attract lusty teenagers and people dumping garbage. Which ironically are two things I see happen at the Ocean Beach parking lots a lot still today. But something definitely needed to be done because the beach was attracting upwards of 40,000 [00:23:00] people to Great Highway on hot days.
Arnold: And meanwhile, Great Highway was officially extended south to connect with Skyline Boulevard in 1964. Consequently, upgrades, particularly near Sloat, were undertaken. The toilet facilities were improved. The tunnel near Sloat was removed. As were all the light standards along Great Highway. But bigger changes were also afoot.
Nicole: Yeah. One of the oldest buildings on Great Highway, the Ocean Beach Pavilion, was in decline. After serving as a popular nightclub and restaurant in the 1930s and 1940s, the Pavilion was used as a rental, known as the Surf Club, and later a slot car raceway in the 1950s. Its last life was lived as a counterculture concert venue named Family Dog, managed by Chet Helms and later Friends and Relations Hall from 1969 to 1972. And yes, we have another podcast episode specifically about that, but [00:24:00] no, I don't have the specific episode numbers, so you're gonna have to hunt for it listeners.
Arnold: And just down the street, the Beach Chalet was also in disrepair. From the 1960s through the early 1980s, it became a hangout for salty veterans of World War II and the Korean War, local bikers of the Hell's Angels variety, as well as a few stray hippies and surfers from Kelly's Cove also hung out there. It was a rough clientele.
Nicole: Yeah, just so folks know, like, at the same time or in the same era, what we lovingly know is Java Beach Cafe was known as Dick's and it was a Hell's Angels hangout as well. So, like, it's not just Great Highway, the whole Sunset District had kind of like a very edgy vibe to it. And three major buildings along Point Lobos were destroyed by fire. Yes, we also have a separate podcast episode about this. But we lost the world's largest gift shop in [00:25:00] 1963, and then the Sutra Baths in 1966, which also took out Danny's Cliff Chalet next door. For more on those Lands End fires, see our Podcast episode number 450. And in April 1972, the Gjoa, explorer Roald Amundson's famed ship, which had been displayed at the west side, or the west end of Golden Gate Park since 1909 was actually returned to Norway. And we have some awesome photos of the ship being dislodged and like moved for transport, on OpenSFHistory. You should go check it out.
Arnold: So, the end of an era was coming. After selling Sutro Baths to developer Robert Frazier, who planned to build a Fontana-style apartment towers on the site, rumors began to circulate that George Whitney would also sell Playland to developer Charles Kay. But guess who was behind those rumors? It was, in fact, Charles Kay, because he wanted Whitney to [00:26:00] move Playland to the mud flats at Hunters Point where it would be closer to the shipyards since Playland was actually visited by a lot of sailors.
Nicole: Really loose like reasoning for moving it. I think there's a whole story behind Charles Kay and how crazy he was. In June, but we haven't figured it out so maybe that's a future podcast. In June 1966, Kay also sought a permit to build a six-story Fat Boy Motel at the corner of Great Highway and Lincoln, which was strongly opposed to by local residents and improvement clubs who were afraid that approval of this project would trigger similar developments and I quote, “herald the advent of a Lombard motel strip by the beach,” according to Mrs. Thomas Bess. Our favorite woman on the west side who complains about things, Mrs. Thomas Bess. And maybe we should explain Fat Boy. [00:27:00] It's, it was a burger chain, like a barbecue joint chain that had places all over the city. He’s actually, we have a Fat Boy sign hanging in our office right now. He's sort of like the unofficial mascot of the Balboa Street office, but I'm not saying that this was a motel for large people. It was a, an actual brand, so I'm not sure if this motel was ever actually built, but it definitely was approved and Whitney did eventually sell Playland to a man named Jeremy Ets-Hokins.
Arnold: And, Ets-Hokins closed Playland in September 1972, and it was demolished in October to make way for construction of high-rise towers with 600 condos. Standing tall by the ocean since 1884, the Ocean Beach Pavilion would fall along with the other roadside amusements and [00:28:00] restaurants.
Nicole: But Jeremy wasn't actually attached to the project for very long. So, after his primary financier in San Diego declared bankruptcy, Ets-Hokins also went bust and lost the land to a Philadelphia real estate investment trust. And at the same time, or around the same time, the land across the street officially became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which acquired Ocean Beach, the Cliff House, Lands End, and Sutro Heights.
Arnold: Enter, at this time, Tef Kutay, a name I'm probably mispronouncing, Sorry, everybody. He was a 60-year-old architect who had come to the United States in 1939. He graduated from UC Berkeley, where he also met his wife, and then studied housing and planning at Columbia. He joined a prestigious Los Angeles architectural firm after graduating in 1949. And then started his own business, KT [00:29:00] Enterprises in 1977. The same year he joined Ocean Beach Associates to build the condominiums that we all know and, maybe, some love that replaced Playland at the Beach.
Nicole: The condos were designed by architects, Sandy and Babcock, with plans approved by the Planning Commission in late 1979. And unanimous approval by the North Coast, the North Central Coast Regional Commission and the Central Coastal Commission, which is not an easy thing to do. It took four years of meetings and permit hurdles, and Kutay spent $300,000, I quote, “to overcome opposition from environmentalists and others who had been fired up by the fears of obnoxious high-density developments that would violate the treasured picturesque seacoast scene.” The land was finally cleared for building to begin in March, 1981.
Arnold: In an article about progress on that project in [00:30:00] 1982 Kutay stresses a point made by all developers these days--how the long drawn-out processing red tape adds to the building costs, which are then passed on to the consumer, the home buyer. Again, the more things change, the more they stayed the same.
Nicole: Yeah.
Arnold: But lest you think him a populist, he was also happy to report that delays from protests, permits, and meetings actually allowed the property to increase in value and he was actually able to charge more for those individual units.
Nicole: Great for him. And simultaneous to this work, work finally proceeds on the sewage treatment project first referenced in the master plan during World War II. In 1974, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission issued its Sewer Systems Master Plan, which called for upgrading sewer infrastructure citywide to reduce pollution caused by combined sea sewer, storm water overflows, and bring the city [00:31:00] into compliance with the 1972 Clean Water Act. So, from the late 1970s until 1993, the Clean Water Program constructed a major complex of sewer infrastructure at Ocean Beach, including the Oceanside treatment plant, adjacent pump station, and the associated underground transport and storage structures that are actually under Great Highway.
Arnold: This was actually a multi-agency effort, including the California Coastal Commission and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, since the beach west of the highway had been transferred to the GGNRA. Since they were digging massive trenches along under Great Highway for the sewer lines and removing 750,000 cubic yards of sand in the process, a projected $8 million restoration of Great Highway was also planned. And some people thought this would be a great opportunity to rethink and redesign the shoreline. This was the opportunity we needed to make Great Highway [00:32:00] safer and to address its vulnerability to coastal erosion and dune migration. So, did we do it then? No. That would be too easy.
Nicole: God forbid. A redesign plan for Great Highway was published in September 1977 by the landscape firm of Michael Painter and Associates. Their concept for the highway was supposed to be a natural and meandering roadway along the beach to hide a giant sewer. It would reduce the lanes of traffic and create a curved roadway that would also prevent drag racing, which was often cited as a major problem out at the beach. And flanked on both sides by recreation spaces, a linear park on the east, and a trail to the west where folks could, you know, ride their bikes or ride their horses or, or jog or whatever. Unsafe pedestrian tunnels would also be supplemented by above ground crossings.
Arnold: Yeah. I had a former boss who used to brag about how when he was a kid, [00:33:00] he went drag racing along the Great Highway.
Nicole: Do you know how many of our members come up to me and they're like, we gotta keep Great Highway open, cause that's where I grew up, drag racing. I'm like, oh, okay.
Arnold: Anyways, when his proposal went before the public, it was righteously criticized. Merchants in the area were for Michael's plan because it kept the highway open to commuter traffic. But the GGNRA favored closing Great Highway to private vehicles, wanting only public transport transit vehicles on Upper Great Highway. This plan was supported by the Sierra Club and the Sunset Ocean Beach Association, called “SOB,” which felt that 2, 280 would take the overflow. That's Interstate 280. Local residents also opposed that plan because Lower Great Highway was already getting more traffic than it was designed to accommodate on days when sand closed the upper portion. And neighbors hated this curved footprint because that brought the highway too close to their homes.
Nicole: [00:34:00] What stands out here for me is how everyone is invested in the outcome on Great Highway based on their own personal needs. Like no one considers, oh, well there's erosion and like global warming, climate change, and like, maybe this would be better for everyone. They're like, no, for this very personal reason, I want this outcome on Great Highway. That we're seeing that today too.
But, okay, so they keep trying to find alternatives. They're like, all right, no one likes this plan. In June 1979, an article about the GGNRA and its new expansive footprint, points out the difficulties faced by the National Park Service on Ocean Beach. And so, I quote, this article said, “Ocean Beach is one of those parts of the green belt, that is the GGNRA, that should be more beautiful and more hospitable than they really are.”
So, all these like articles that kept coming up out about Ocean Beach kept talking about how [00:35:00] awful it was. How it should be really beautiful, but that all the attempts to sort of mitigate sand migration actually resulted in really ugly infrastructure projects like concrete and infill and all this stuff. And so, it was this constant cycle that was to blame for Ocean Beach's sort of inhospitable environment. And this reporter goes on to say, I quote,
“There seemed to be two possible answers. One is to invest many millions of dollars in an elaborate system of sea walls or artificial headlands defending the coast, not against enemy ships, but against the ocean itself. The second possibility is to decide, against all cultural habit, that the coastal processes must be given room to work to allow the restoration of the mist, missing nearshore dunes to remove our structures from the zone in which the seasonal sand exchange takes place.”
Arnold: Now we really couldn't say it better ourselves.
Nicole: Yeah.
Arnold: [00:36:00] Even after they settled on plans to move forward with reconstructing Great Highway, the Board of Supervisors declined a $376,000 grant from the Coastal Conservancy in 1982 for an 18-foot-wide Ocean Beach recreation trail along the west side of Great Highway, from Lincoln to Sloat. Because they did not want to spend at least $25,000 a year to look after that trail. Sand already cost the city about $60,000 a year. In August 1983, supervisors considered scrapping the entire redesign to mollify protesting nearby residents.
Nicole: It is so wild to me that the Board of Supervisors were moving forward with the plan and then another agency was like, we're gonna give you money for part of this plan that you approved. And they were like, oh god no, cause then we're gonna have to maintain it. Like it's, it was infuriating researching this podcast, you guys. So, the [00:37:00] plan does move forward. In 1984, the city applied for a permit with the Coastal Commission to move Great Highway between Lincoln and Sloat further west to satisfy the demands of the people who live along the east side of the highway between the road and a green park-like strip called the Green Belt. Instead, the commission voted 9 to 2 to allow the new Great Highway to just be narrowed by 5-to-10 feet. So, the plan for which the city sought permits had been approved by all departments, the mayor and the Board of Supervisors, not to mention they like figured out how to make everybody happy. All of this was denied by the Coastal Commission. That was like, eh, just narrow it a little bit. So, this is a huge disappointment and a giant waste of city time.
Arnold: However, the GGNRA was happy. Because the Coastal Commission required the city to [00:38:00] continue its $750,000 annual program of sand replenishment at Ocean Beach, as well as the construction of a rock sea wall. The GGNRA would be required to fund, absolutely none of it. In March 1985, a $20 million+ program to continue the old O’Shaughnessy sea wall came up. Ultimately, what they chose to do instead was create a straight roadway, not much different than what was created originally back in 1929.
Nicole: Let's be extra clear here. Every single person who weighed in on Great Highway was like, what we've been doing to date is not working. We can't just keep building sea walls. We can't just keep like mitigating the sand. And the Coastal Commission was like, nah, I don't like the plan you put forward though, so just keep doing what you've been doing. That was so frustrating. So, most of the original [00:39:00] highway and infrastructure was removed for the project. The only thing that remained were the toilets at Judah, Taraval and Wawona, which have all gotten lovely makeovers in the last five years. The modified plan began construction between large existing sand dunes from Noriega to Santiago streets. This included a pedestrian promenade with six stairways ascending to the beach. Construction began in 1988 and an, and an extension, along with sand dune restoration from Santiago and Taraval Streets, followed in 1992.
Arnold: Then in June 1993, the $13 million sea wall and promenade along Ocean Beach was completed. Again. Quote, “marking a historic development in the city's ancient struggle against sand and waves,” end quote, according to the Examiner. It took six years to construct between Noriega and Santiago, is 21-feet high and 32-feet wide, and it's still no [00:40:00] match for the migrating sand dunes.
Nicole: I am always gonna refer to this as the city's ancient struggle against sand and waves. Thank you, San Francisco Examiner writer. And, huzzah! We also have the award-winning Oceanside water pollution control plant, adjacent to the San Francisco Zoo, that is actually engineered for a future zoo expansion over its roof, able to withstand 300 pounds per square foot, if we ever wanna put a mammal center on top of it. And it's also designed to be mostly invisible with 70% of its 12 acres underground. And, I will say there's a lot more information about like how this thing works and why it works and all that kind of stuff. But, you know, there's, it, it's, it's also really vulnerable where we decided to build this thing on the west side of Great Highway [00:41:00] along crumbling bluffs. So, Arnold, where does this story take us next?
Arnold: Well, this isn't the end. Starting in the mid-1990s, the city began working with the US Army Corps of Engineers to address issues affecting Great Highway, like erosion, the condition of public facilities, wildlife preservation, et cetera. But because of a lack of funding that petered out, and the entire planning process started again in 2003 with a three-year feasibility study. Another efficient use of time and money. But storms in the El Nino winter of 2009 and 10, caused dramatic erosion and prompted the Ocean Beach management plan, which is an interagency effort to develop sustainable long-term vision for Ocean Beach.
Nicole: Yeah, the Ocean Beach Management plan recommends key moves the outline, a pathway forward for Great Highway. So, one scenario closes Great Highway [00:42:00] south of Sloat and replaces it with a coastal trail. So that's what advocates to close Great Highway and turn it into a park ideally want. Right? Another incrementally dismantles Great Highway and parking lots, allowing erosion to proceed inland. Another pathway forward narrows Great Highway from four lanes to two, south of Lincoln, and introduces a multi-use promenade west of the road. So, this would be like a compromise, right? Where we could keep Great Highway open, but we also close the portion closest to the ocean and keep it as a public recreation space.
And then another narrows Great Highway and Point Lobos Avenue from four lanes to two, and introduces a physically separated bikeway with connections to Land's End and beyond. These moves also include plans to restore dunes and create a better connection between Golden Gate Park and Ocean Beach, because, because it is [00:43:00] a holistic long range look at how to improve the entire area.
Arnold: So, this may all be moot since Prop I has passed, and we'll reiterate that the WNP has no official opinion about whether or not Great Highway should be open to traffic or closed for recreation. It's the will of people, and they have spoken, and that's how it should be. As Great Highway has always been used according to the will of the people here. But what's infuriating to watch, as historians from the sideline, is how much time and money has been wasted to study the same problems, make the same recommendations, and repeatedly start all over again. It's kinda like in, we're living in Groundhog Day.
Nicole: Yes. But it's not as entertaining cause we can't watch Bill Murray do things. Even in all the discussions around the current ballot initiative, I barely heard mention of the Ocean Beach management plan and it's thoughtful [00:44:00] recommendations that could have impacted how we proceeded with Great Highway after it was closed quickly, without environmental review, to respond to a public health crisis. Instead, rhetoric often replaced reason on both sides of this debate, and it seems to us at least, as non-interested public historians from the sideline, like winning became more important than a compromise or how to effectively and pragmatically use this land.
Arnold: Be that as it may, it looks like we will be getting a new park on our hands soon along the Great Highway area. And we do have an opinion on what it should be named. After Teka Gowan's death prompted a safety improvement on Great Highway in 1970, her mother Geraldine said, quote “maybe Teka's death will keep some other little children from being killed there. Maybe she can help others that way if they build a bridge. Maybe they could do it, name it for Teka. I'd [00:45:00] like that all the little children would know her name long after.” End quote. So, Nicole, what is your proposal for what they should name this park?
Nicole: I hereby propose that Great Highway, south of Lincoln, that is closed because of Proposition I should be renamed Teka Gowan Memorial Park. So, you heard it here first. If anybody takes this idea and we don't get credit for it, that's okay, because the right thing will have happened.
Arnold: Which leads us into saying, Say What Now? And Nicole, I think this is, this is your baby, so I'll let you say it.
Nicole: We usually don't recommend that anything get renamed after somebody because things are problems, but I need you to know, that one of the things that verified this for us, is that in 2014, [00:46:00] San Francisco Proposition R on the ballot tried to have the Oceanside water pollution control plant named the George W. Bush Sewage Plant.
Arnold: And I don't think it was meant to honor him.
Nicole: No, but, if you look it up on the internet, you will see like the, the like argument for, argument against. And it's pretty funny cause the argument for starts like similar to when France gave us the Statue of Liberty. And the argument against lists how many people died in the Iraq war and how terrible the president George Bush was. Well, hindsight, maybe George Bush wasn't that bad.
Arnold: I would note that the comedian John Oliver, who's got the HBO show, there was a sewage treatment plant. He, he actually advocated to have a sewage treatment plant named after him, and they did it. [00:47:00]
Nicole: Oh, I love that man so much. That's like the one late night show I consistently watch, which is not relevant to this podcast, but, but his whole thing about looted artifacts and museums…if you haven't watched that, again has nothing to do with the west side, but it is a, it is a brilliant take down of, like, traditional museum practice. Anyways, Arnold, I think it might be time for, Listener Mail.
Arnold: Indeed, and Nicole, how does one send us listener mail?
Nicole: It's so easy you just email us podcast@outsidelands.org or you can take advantage of our social media presence on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to post a podcast comment there.
Arnold: Now our really good friend [00:48:00] Tim sent us an email in response to our podcast interview last week with Woody LaBounty on the new west side landmarks. And Tim said, quote, “Good podcast, interesting guest, informative and totally devoid a pop culture references.” End quote. So sorry, Tim, that you apparently don't like our pop culture references, but you are in fact wrong. Pop culture references are one of our specialties here, and that podcast did, in fact, make a pop culture reference, albeit a dated one. But it was to a certain Clash song.
Nicole: Also, please know that the millennial put that into the podcast notes, so, I wouldn't say it's dated. It's just, you gotta be in the know.
Arnold: I'm not sure we've made any pop culture references yet in this broadcast.
Nicole: I don't [00:49:00] know. Does naming a sewage plant after a former president count as pop culture?
Arnold: Yeah, I'm not sure.
Nicole: All right. Well, write us an email. Let us know if you think it is.
Arnold: And meanwhile we will try to think of one to fit in here in the end of our podcast.
Nicole: Yeah. Yeah, I will. But in the meantime, Arnold, can you please explain to our dear podcast listeners the benefits of membership and donating.
Arnold: Absolutely, Nicole. And if you become a member, you would get our quarterly membership magazine. You would get discounts on events. In fact, you might even get in free to some events.
Nicole: Ooh.
Arnold: There's also some other perks that you can get along the way and, heads up.
Nicole: Yeah.
Arnold: If you're going to become a member, you best do so soon. Particularly if you want our print magazine. Due to our [00:50:00] rising printing costs, our membership levels will be changing, but only for new members in 2023. That means next year, we're raising the price for new members who want to receive a paper membership magazine in the mail. Now, rate changes will not apply for anyone who became a member this year or earlier. So, if you've been thinking about joining or purchasing a gift membership for friends and family this holiday season, now is the time to get in on that $50 a year rate.
Nicole: Yeah, so don't, please nobody freak out that we're like raising membership rates on all the legacy members. Don't send me an email, cause you're gonna be fine. And also, you know, remember that your membership supports all the good work that we do and we make available for free, right? Like this podcast. OpenSFHistory, you can just download whatever photos you want and use 'em however you want. We don't get in your business about it. The Cliff House collection, its care and exhibition is incredibly expensive, but here we [00:51:00] are. We did it and we're doing it. And so many other things. We're, we’re, your clickity clickity clack on that membership button, which you can find on any page on the outsidelands.org website, that money supports all the fun things we do, and we appreciate you for taking the time to donate.
Arnold: Indeed. And that leads us to our Announcements. So, 2022 events are over, but we're gearing up to send out a survey to make sure you're getting what you want, how you want it, from the WNP, so that we can get that to you in 2023.
Nicole: Yep.
Arnold: And with all this inward facing work going on, we are looking for some volunteers. Specific help that we need is in content creation, especially for video production, collection folks to help us ramp up cataloging and digitizing the WNP [00:52:00] Collection, so we can make this all available online.
Nicole: Yeah. We're also looking for volunteer web developers to help us maintain and update the outsidelands.org website, because I use typewriters as a preference. And we dearly need your help. Applicants must understand a whole bunch of things. I have even no idea what I'm saying. php, MySQL, html, JavaScript, and WordPress. Which I do know cause I do have a terrible defunct music blog that I WordPress on. And if you should be a junior level to experience developer like this is some, this is some very unique code. So very exciting for you that you'll get to look at this very unique code that we're trying to update. And volunteer positions are ideal for someone looking to expand your, their resume, learn something new, and of course invest in the work of a small local history nonprofit. And hopefully you'll also like [00:53:00] hanging out with us, cause we're fun people. And I will feed you snacks, although I will not pay you. We don't have money for that. So, if you're interested in any of these volunteer positions, please email chelsea@outsidelands.org. She is the woman who makes the ship sail at Western Neighborhoods Project, and she's far more likely to read your email before I do. So, I, I hope we'll welcome you to the team.
Arnold: So, Nicole, do we have a, an actual preview for next week this week?
Nicole: Yes, Arnold, I do. Next week we get into a subject that you've been dying to hear about.
Arnold: Dun, dun DUN!
Nicole: Well, this has been delightful. Another episode of us really barely getting through it. But, thanks for being here friends. [00:54:00] Lovely to spend the evening with you, Arnold, as always.
Arnold: And with you, Nicole. Ciao everybody.
Nicole: See you next week.
Ian: Outside Lands San Francisco is recorded by Ian Hadley. Content creation and media production at ihadley.com.
Nicole: To learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more on San Francisco history, go to Outsidelands.org. You can also find us on social media at Facebook, which is outsidelands with an S, at Twitter, which is outsidelandz with a Z, and on Instagram, which is outsidelandz, also with a Z. And check out our historic San Francisco images website at OpenSFHistory.org.

More Podcasts
All Podcasts...

The Outside Lands San Francisco podcast is also available as a subscription via iTunes and by RSS feed.

Save SF History