Reflections on a (Thankfully) Never-Built Los Angeles

Never-built projects like this 1965 proposal for a man-made causeway along Santa Monica bay would have created an environmental disaster had it been built.
Never-built projects like this 1965 proposal for a man-made causeway along Santa Monica bay would have created an environmental disaster had it been built. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

I was one of the thousands who visited the Architecture and Design Museum's "Never Built: Los Angeles" exhibition, which offered an alternate-universe look through illustrations, models, and dioramas of failed projects that could have shaped our city. The exhibit just ended its wildly popular three-month run this past weekend, and according to A+D Museum staff, as many as 300 guests per day had perused examples of the great "could've beens" of our urban landscape (for those that missed out, there's always the book version).

Speaking of "could've beens," a part of myself had been interested in possibly taking up urban planning or architecture in school, spurred by experiences of a younger me in my first two years of college, transferring buses from Hollywood to Cal State L.A. via Downtown, and reading issues of the Downtown News to bide my time. The paper covered many projects that were intended to be part of the urban core's early-1990s commercial real estate boom, but had never made it.

Though I never formally studied urban planning or architecture, I always kept my ear to the ground on such issues, and am glad to have witnessed with my own eyes things like the building of our modern rail transit system, the revitalization of Hollywood, and the emergence of downtown L.A. as the residential, culinary, and entertainment hotspot it has become today.

All of those things piqued my interest in Never Built: Los Angeles, which initially had myself expecting to see a bevy of well-designed projects which would make me want to sigh in lamenting their non-existence. But most of them caused me to breathe a sigh of relief instead.

Story continues below

In this very year where we observe the centennial of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the landmark example of our city's empire building era, in which the unspoken ethos of "long-term ecological impacts be damned" was the norm, Never Built: Los Angeles couldn't be more relevant, for in retrospect, many of these projects were planned in an era that predates things like environmental impact reports, the California Environmental Quality Act, issues regarding traffic mitigation and adequate supporting infrastructure, and even modern earthquake codes.

The most shining example of a dodged bullet in the exhibit was the 1965 plan by businessman John Drescher to create the Sunset Seaway, a $600 million project to extend the Santa Monica Freeway onto 5.7 miles of artificial offshore islands on the Santa Monica Bay between Santa Monica and Malibu. Of course, the surfline would have to be moved from the natural shore to the shore of the man-made isles, causing irreparable damage to the former in the form of wildlife habitat damage, coastal erosion, sediment transport, and wave patterns. And what about the islands' vulnerability to El Niño storms and potential tsunamis? On top of all that, the islands were designed to support a built community of some 29,000 residents, all of whom would require infrastructure needs such as water, sewer, and electricity lines. Makes you wonder if the organization Heal The Bay would had to have been created decades earlier in response.

Fortunately, budget shortages, citizen opposition and a governor's veto put the causeway and its faux archipelago to an end. Considering the environmental damage to Dubai's similarly manmade Palm Jumeirah islands, all for the better that this plan, as well as a non-specific 1967 concept to build an off-shore replacement to LAX in the ocean, never came to fruition.

In the post-war '50s and '60s, while suburban growth and sprawl grew to monumental rates, a few proposals for dense residential developments came up, as shown in the Never Built exhibit, though unlike today's highrise projects along transit corridors, concepts such as Sunset International Petroleum Corporation's 1966 "Sunset Mountains" plan to build a 4,771-unit residential development on 2100 acres of hillsides in Pacific Palisades were envisioned. The developers even commissioned the firm of Daniel, Mann, Johnson and Mendenhall to design an Incan-like terraced structure that followed the contour of the hillside and embraced open space rather than leveling off the profile of the mountains. But the issue of the ingress and egress of thousands of cars along winding hillside roads didn't seem to be addressed in the plan, nor was the vulnerability of the development to the seasonal Santa Monica Mountain brush fires and landslides. Fierce opposition be nearby hillside homeowners killed the project.

As many as 300 Angelenos a day took a glimpse of what might have been at the Architecture and Design Museum's recent 'Never Built: Los Angeles' exhibit.
As many as 300 Angelenos a day took a glimpse of what might have been at the Architecture and Design Museum's recent 'Never Built: Los Angeles' exhibit. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Speaking of transportation, the "Never Built" exhibit featured abundant illustrations of monorails and peoplemovers galore, intended for a region long-derided for lacking an adequate public rapid transit system. While monorails circle Disneyland to this very day, it's actually a good thing they never got built in L.A. Though aesthetically futuristic-looking, they lack the operational flexibility of standard steel-on-steel two-rail trains, which can be easily switched to different tracks for regular service routing or for emergencies. Monorails, which travel on a central beam structure, cannot be re-routed as feasibly. Monorails also travel on rubber tires, which are susceptible to flats and even blow-outs. The embarrassingly-dated monorail in Seattle, a vestige of their World's Fair from over half a century ago, offers a painfully slow, bumpy ride over that city's downtown. And the visual impact of monorails -- which must run above-grade due to design -- would have caused shadows and blocked sunshine, especially in a city known for its abundance of it. There's a reason why you only see monorails in amusement parks, fairgrounds, and airports and not serving entire cities.

Likewise, the proposed peoplemover for downtown L.A., as forward-thinking as it seemed, would have sucked out the vibrant pedestrian and bicycling activity that we see in the central city today. Would we have a Downtown Art Walk if DTLA denizens got around on a peoplemover? And would they even ride on a peoplemover in the first place? Detroit's three-mile peoplemover system, built over a quarter of a century ago, only carries less than three percent of its operational capacity.

The map of a 1968 vision for a 1,557-mile freeway system at the Never Built exhibit also gave visitors a glimpse of what could have been. Though all of us who drive always wish for more freeways, history has shown that freeway building has destroyed homes, divided communities, and severely limits the arrangement and availability of precious recreational, residential, and commercial space. Today, around 60 percent of the freeway system was actually built, and L.A. County alone has 527 miles of constructed freeway infrastructure. While some freeway gap closures are proposed, most people have accepted the fact that the great freeway building era has already ended.

Along with freeways, earthquakes are part of the Southern California landscape, and some of the Never Built exhibit proposals would have been literal disasters had they been built.

Harlan Georgescu's mid-1960s "Skylots" concept of 385 high-rise, high-density villages lining the 405 freeway from Brentwood to Laguna Beach would have had up to 5 million people total living in buildings comprised of concrete slabs suspended in a bridge-like fashion by steel cables. Of course, the 405 freeway corridor just happens to be built right along the notorious Newport-Inglewood fault line, which is capable of generating a 7.4 magnitude earthquake.

Architect Lloyd Wright's 1930 design for a 50-story Roman Catholic cathedral built out of concrete blocks would have been an impressive sight, but the massive (pun intended) structure, designed before the landmark 6.4 Long Beach Earthquake in 1933 which established earthquake codes, would have been a catastrophe had it been constructed, especially before 1933. While L.A.'s archbishop at the time was impressed by the design, he ultimately decided that such a large cathedral was not necessary -- possibly a sign of divine intervention, in retrospect. Today's Rafael Moneo-designed Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, built in 2002, is constructed on state-of-the-art base isolators intended to counteract seismic motion and minimize damage in the event of a large temblor.

While Pereira and Luckman's dome-like superterminal intended for LAX, and possibly the monumental archway concept intended for the Wilshire Boulevard corridor were some of the visions I would have liked to see become reality, the realities of economics, political will (or lack thereof), public outcry, or pure serendipity limited these projects to the drawing board. And while the rest of the "Never Built" projects, such as office towers, and other buildings were relatively benign in terms of environmental impact and seismic safety, looking back through our 21st-century eyes proved that in the long run, we are better off with many of these monumental designs existing in a museum exhibition as opposed to the real city we live in today. And as our metropolis evolves, there will no doubt be entries to a potential future iteration of a Never Built exhibit, for as the saying goes -- the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading