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Phantom Fast Lanes: Whitnall Highway and the Footprint of Best Laid Plans

It feels like you've entered a particularly forlorn part of rural Mexico. Or a Californian version of Fitzgerald's valley of ashes. But nope, you are in North Hollywood, the Mecca of struggling actors and working class families, on a wide median of sweltering dirt in between two little-used roads. Giant, double transmission towers loom high overhead, and their buzzing static rings constantly in your ears like grating cicadas. A city dog park has been constructed in the median no man's land, and a few residents sit behind a chain link fence in white plastic chairs, chatting and watching their dogs frolic in the dirt or cooling off in plastic baby pools, half filled with muddy water. Across the street at a commercial nursery, an old man wearing a wide straw hat tends to thriving plants in black plastic pots under more towers, their large metal bases slicing into the shrubbery like the sliver claws of an arcade game.

This is Whitnall Highway.

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Either way you look you see more of the twin transmission towers. One way stretches into the yellowed horizon, directly under the path of low flying planes descending into Bob Hope Airport. The other stretches past the LADWP's deceivingly abandoned-looking, but fully running, art deco Receiving Station E into Burbank, where the layout is the same, but the atmosphere is dramatically different. Burbank's Whitnall Highway Park South and Whitnall Highway Park North (split by a few blocks of residential development) are lovely grassy parks, with walking paths and newly planted young trees and blooming shrubs. Small, well-kept, single family homes and apartment buildings line each side of the road and joggers run down neat paths. The air smells of freshly cut grass, and the silver towers that run before you, and seemingly into the Santa Monica Mountains of Griffith Park, appear more like some kind of monumental sculpture than a modern nuisance.

But all is not as it appears. Though it simply seems like I am standing on an oddly laid out utility corridor that cuts a wide diagonal path through the grid-like valley, I am actually on the only built portion of a grand idea that never came to be. There is a reason that amongst all the boulevards and avenues, this strange street is called a highway. And it's a shame that this failure is our only visible honorarium to the man it is named after, a man that did more to shape Los Angeles County than most could ever dream.

Photo: Hadley Meares

Photo: Hadley Meares

Photo: Hadley Meares


Plans for future greatness

Thus far we have just 'happened.' We must now plan.
-- George Gordon Whitnall, Los Angeles Times, May 30, 1920
With our climate, our soil, our water, oil power, our intelligent layout and our unified government with the resulting intensive development of industries, agriculture and social activities, we can be a power unto ourselves. More than any other spot on the face of the globe, Los Angeles, by being a truly balanced community, can provide its every need from within the borders of its own territory. We have here the germ, not only of a world metropolis, but an empire, speaking in a social and not a political sense.
-- George Gordon Whitnall, Los Angeles Times, May 30, 1920

Young George WhitnallGeorge Gordon Whitnall was born in Milwaukee in 1888. By 1913, he was in boomtown Los Angeles with his first wife Eleanor. A handsome man with a thick mustache, he quickly saw that the city and the county were growing haphazardly to the detriment of progress and future stability. By 1916, he was doggedly lobbying for the establishment of a City Planning Commission to civic groups like the Civil Service Club, where he gave a lecture titled "City Planning: Is It a Luxury or a Necessity." After many years of delay, a City Planning Commission was finally established, with Gordon as secretary (and for a few years effectively the commissions only staff). He also became secretary of The Annexation and Consolidation Commission and quickly went to work to "bring order out of chaos."1

Whitnall's vision for Los Angeles was both practical and idealistic. He believed that Los Angeles' geographical location made it predestined to be the most important city in the West. He also saw that Los Angeles was not just L.A. proper, but the numerous other satellite cities that surrounded it. These contiguous cities suffered from poor transportation and scattered administrative centers. Quickly promoted to Director of City and County Planning, he envisioned a sprawling metropolis made up of numerous organic civic districts, linked together by a series of arterial highways, and unified by a centrally located administrative and government center downtown near the historic Plaza, where it would be "accessible to all."2 He also laid out the city of Inglewood, encouraged bonds for public parks, and the reclaiming of beach frontage for public use.

It seems Whitnall's wife, Eleanor, believed in his vision of a utopian community as well, and tried to improve the city in her own way. In 1921 Eleanor was almost kidnapped on a Friday night by a well-dressed, heavy man near her home at 227 New Hampshire Avenue. Apparently the neighborhood had a problem with strangers parking to neck, and Eleanor was patrolling the area trying to drive several "spooners" away.3 When she peered into an unfamiliar parked car on North Virgil, the man threw her to the floor of the automobile. She escaped and rushed home to tell Gordon, who went out to search for the car. The perp was never found, but parked cars were forbidden in the neighborhood, unless they had ties to the area.

Whitnall often found himself having to explain to a confused public just what city planning was. When his zoning plan was put into action by the city council, he dryly stated: "It was Mark Twain who said that the report of his death was somewhat exaggerated. Could zoning ordinances talk, they would have equal justification to make the same remark."4 He went on to explain in different op-eds, "Modern zoning is the public regulation of the use of property ... Usually, when a new tract is opened they are sold with certain restrictions incorporated in the deeds. Usually, these restrictions limit the permissible uses to single family residences, sometimes stating minimum value permitted. Frequently, the distance that the buildings are set back from the front property line is also mentioned, and race restrictions are not infrequently included."5

Map of Sepulvada Canyon Road with insert photo of Gordon Whitnall, Los Angeles Times, November 11, 1923

Gordon turned his attention to the nascent highway system with the development of a long range master plan. He advocated and oversaw the building of Beverly Boulevard, Whittier Boulevard, and the Second Street tunnel. He was a crucial booster behind the conception of Sepulveda Canyon Boulevard, which evolved into the hellacious 405 freeway (finally begun in 1957), and the Arroyo Seco Parkway (opened in 1940), which expanded to become the 110 freeway. He and the planning committee also envisioned four "highways" that would radiate from the valley into arteries leading to the city. These parkway/highways were more modest in design from the modern freeway, and often featured a landscaped center strip separating opposing lanes of traffic.

They were Balboa Boulevard, San Fernando Boulevard, Remsen Boulevard (never built?), and most ambitious of all -- Whitnall Highway. Whitnall Highway would stretch diagonally southeast by northwest from Newhall (now part of Santa Clarita) through the San Fernando Valley, and meet up with the entrance of a two-mile tunnel originating off Riverside Drive (which was being expanded into a major artery linking the valley to downtown) that would run under Griffith Park into Hollywood, via Bronson Avenue.


Right of Way

Recently, there has been much agitation in the eastern part of the valley for the construction of traffic tunnels through the mountains in Griffith Park to give a direct and easier route into the metropolitan Los Angeles area.
-- The Los Angeles Times, October 12, 1930

On June 5, 1927, the first section of Whitnall Highway opened to a crowd of 300 at the intersection of Whitnall and Cahuenga Boulevard. Gordon, the guest of honor, christened the highway at the ceremony, which also celebrated the opening of 400 residential tracts owned by the Hugh Evans Corporation. Automobile enthusiasts were encouraged to participate in the pageantry. It is important to note that this route was already strung with power lines and these lines were incorporated into the highways plans. In an articled titled "Dedicating Highway Today" from June 5, 1927, The Los Angeles Times explained:

The Whitnall Major Highway will be divided into five sections. In the center will be an 80-foot core on which unlimited speed will be permitted for motor cars if the programs of the city planning commission carry though to fruition. On either side of this 80-foot core, there will be a landscaped parkway thirty-five feet wide. The parkways carry the power lines of the Bureau of Power and Light of the City of Los Angeles. On the outside of each of these parkways, there will be a forty-five foot paved highway for cars travelling locally at slower speeds.

Homeowners in the projected path of the highway began to protest the city's attempt to enforce its right of way through their property. The easement meant that property owners were not allowed to build structures on the strip next to the high power lines. However, if the state wanted to actually build the highway, the property would have to be condemned and bought from the owners. The diagonal plan also meant that owners allowed homes would have their lots cut into strange shapes, decreasing their value. But the city purportedly continued to secure deeds for the highway, as part of a large 15 million roads project, to build the four highways radiating from the city.

Proposed Griffith Park hill tunnel plan and Whitnall Highway plan, Los Angeles Times, April 19, 1931

Whitnall Highway in 1951 | Herald Examiner Collection, USC Digital Library

However, the plan stalled until the fall of 1930 when sightings of surveyors sparked rumors that the project had been revived. The road was extended, despite further protests, to Oxnard Boulevard in 1931. Yet, after 1934, both plans for the highway and the tunnel abruptly disappeared from the news, though variations continued to appear on maps of proposed transit routes.

Nineteen-thirty was the last year of Gordon's tenure as City Planner. He moved on to become the coordinator of the Committee on Government Simplification for Los Angeles County from 1932-35. Interestingly, in 1941, Gordon and his new wife, Grace Brysis Noah, known as Brysis, opened a highly successful planning and government consulting firm in L.A. Gordon also taught city planning at USC. He remained a special advisor to the city planning office and was commissioned for many assignments, including the re- zoning of Fullerton in 1943. As late as 1967, he was an active member of the Citizens Committee on Zoning Practices and Procedure. One year before his death in 1977, he was elected an honorary life director of the Lambada Alpha, the international, honorary land economics fraternity. He left behind three children, seven grandchildren, and a county forever stamped by his civic vision.


Whitnall fail: Part Deux

Proposed plan for Whitnall Freeway, Los Angeles Times, October 18, 1965In 1959, a master plan for the California Freeway and Expressway system was adopted by the state legislature. A part of this proposed system was the eight-lane Whitnall FREEWAY (often confused in scholarship with our Whitnall Highway), a 28-30 mile route that, at its grandest, was to run east-west from the intersection of the 5 and the 170 in Burbank all the way to Malibu, where it would intersect with the PCH. Throughout the '60s and early '70s different routes were proposed (one was finally adopted in 1966), the state bought land, and many of the potential 2,363 displaced homeowners vehemently protested its construction, as did residents in Malibu Canyon.

In 1970 Malibu residents, citing ecological and economic concerns, were able to have 7.5 miles of the proposed freeway deleted from the master plan. Due to budget cuts and new environmental restrictions, Whitnall Freeway fell years behind schedule. In parts of the valley homeowners protested that their frozen property in the right-of-way area had stuck them in a permanent limbo as they waited for the government to proceed. Four different attempts were made by valley assemblymen to eliminate the freeway from the master plan. In 1975 plans for the Whitnall Freeway were finally abandoned by Caltrans, and the state held a huge sale, selling the roughly 10 million dollars worth of land it had accumulated in preparation for the freeway's construction.

Once again another plan for a speedway named after Whitnall fell apart.

Over the years, Burbank and North Hollywood tried to figure out what to do with the quirky wide road, and all the free public space below the giant transmission towers which loomed overhead. Portions of the land were used as makeshift playgrounds, parks, and bike trails, but by 1973 the city of Burbank was at a loss. The community seemed to have little interest in pushing for landscaping, or the creation of public parks, and the city had a hard time commercially leasing the land, since nothing permanent could be built under the structures. In 1989 a group of mentally challenged people created a garden on 21 miles under the power lines. In the '90s Burbank finally commissioned the Whitnall Highway Parks North and South. As recently as 2012, a planned recreational area on the barren North Hollywood stretch of Whitnall Highway was shelved due to lack of funding. On June 14 of this year, a half-naked man climbed to the top of a tower at Califa Street and Whitnall Highway, performing for a crowd of spectators for several hours before SWAT officers removed him from the tower.

And what of the highway that never was? As a resident of Los Feliz who has spent a lot of her adult life in the valley, I have many times cursed having to take the 101 or the 5 or the 134 to get anywhere in the valley. Why, I have asked, do I have to sit in traffic for so long to get to a place which is literally right over the hill? But then I think about the congested mess that would take the place of my beloved Franklin Village if the highway and tunnel had been built, and suddenly I feel much better.

Photo: Hadley Meares

Photo: Hadley Meares

Photo: Hadley Meares

The proposed path of the Whitnall Highway is still visible from satellite views

________

1"World Metropolis Here Logical, Inevitable," Los Angeles Times, May 30, 1920
2"State Building Needs Outlined," Los Angeles Times, March 2, 1927
3"Tries to Kidnap Official's Wife," Los Angeles Times, March 27, 1921
4"Zoning Rules Explained," Los Angeles Times, July 22, 1923
5"Restrictions Will Hold," Los Angeles Times, November 6, 1924

About the Author

Hadley Meares is a writer, actress and singer who traded one Southland (her home state of North Carolina) for another. Her debut novel "Absolutely" is now available on Amazon.
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Thanks for the picture of George Whitnall, the city planner. I'll put it up on my wall and throw darts at it.