50 Years Ago, Suburbanization Changed Alameda’s Waterfront Forever
When we are looking out on … a flat-top village where the water once was, when we are dreaming of the San Mateo hills we used to see before … apartment houses along the outer perimeter, it will be small comfort to think of the dollars we saved by not even trying to prevent the destruction.
—Elizabeth T. Lassen, 1955.
Fifty years ago, Alameda was split by the most bitter land-use fight in its history when developers proposed using millions of tons of sand to fill in the south shore along San Francisco Bay.
A collection of letters written during that tumultuous time, including those by Elizabeth Lassen to her neighbors, shows that Gold Coast residents never expected the Bay tidelands to actually be filled in, despite talk about it since the late 1800s.
“Everyone here opposed it,” says Cindy Seibert, who grew up at 700 Grand St., which at the time looked out on San Francisco Bay. Seibert sold the house in September 2007 and, while preparing to move, unearthed the letters, as well as photos, which tell the story of how the Bay was filled in, changing the south shore forever.
In the 1950s, the city of Alameda was struggling with a post-World War II population decline. Even though there was little open space left for development on the Island, city officials were determined—in the name of progress—to take part in the suburbanization that was sweeping the country.
In the end, homeowners, who once looked out on bay views along the Island’s Gold Coast, by 1957 were looking out their kitchen windows onto puddly lagoons. Opposite the muddy waters grew a new town with hundreds of tract houses, dozens of apartment buildings and a big shopping center.
With the creation of the lagoons, the shape of the Island changed forever. Not only did Alameda nearly double its population and add 350 acres to its south shore, but it came kicking and screaming into the 1950s and 1960s, a time of mass suburbanization. The result was a modern add-on to a Victorian island that once prided itself on its stately bayfront homes.
The lagoons, it seems clear today, were a compromise to allow longtime residents on the Bay, faced with declining property values, to maintain “waterfront” views. This represented a change from the original plan to fill the entire area, with a roadway likely where the lagoons are today. Surprisingly, few homeowners, if any, received any type of reimbursement for giving up their Bay views. In fact, they were asked to pay to have portions of the Bay filled near their homes.
On the Bay
Before the 1950s, Alameda’s south shore looked very different than it does today. Homes at the end of Grand, Paru, Union, Bay, St. Charles and other streets in the Gold Coast were on the waterfront, with views to San Francisco and the San Mateo hills. At Park Street where Otis Drive is today, there was a wharf, shaded by a grove of oak trees.
The tidelands revealed themselves at low tide as miles of mudflats. Kids growing up in the 1930s and 1940s would hit golf balls out on the mudflats.
At the time, the tidelands were privately owned and could be sold and developed like any other land, because they had been auctioned off in 1871 by the California Board of Tideland Commissioners. As early as 1878, a map, reproduced in a book by local historian Woodruff C. Minor, shows a plan to fill the tidelands along the south shore of Alameda.
And Alameda had a history of reshaping itself. Once a peninsula, it became an island after swamps at its southeastern tip were dredged and the Estuary was created in 1902.
Other areas, too, were built on landfill: Neptune Beach, Palmera Court and the College of Alameda. In 1945, the biggest fill project of all occurred when the Naval Air Station was built on tidelands at the western end of Alameda.
Time for Progress
During the World War II years, Alameda boomed as the Naval Air Station swelled from the war effort. By 1945, the population of Alameda was 90,000.
But postwar Alameda looked very different. The population shrank to 65,000 by 1950, as shipyards cutback and shut down.
Throughout the Bay Area, however, towns were growing, with new developments for the generation that would produce the baby boomers. Freeways were being constructed, linking the cities to a new kind of place, the suburbs.
Because Alameda was an island, however, there was nowhere left to build. It was seen as a place with old houses, few jobs and no future.
In 1954, Piedmont investors Stanley Hiller and Joseph J. Coney, who since the 1920s had been buying up the tidelands along the south shore and Bay Farm Island, proposed the development of the south shore.
Their plan was drawn up by a consultant for the Alameda city government, which created the city’s Master Plan for Shore Line Development in 1948. The plan called for building a six-lane freeway about 2,000 feet offshore that would connect with a new Bay bridge dubbed the Southern Crossing. The investors also wanted to build more than 1,500 houses.
Faced with strong opposition from Alameda residents, the developers withdrew their plan. But a year later, Hiller and Coney sold their tidelands to Utah Construction Co. UCC had built railroads for Western Pacific and Southern Pacific and also constructed dams, including the O’Shaughnessy Dam at Hetch Hetchy. In post-World War II California, UCC was developing the suburbs.
To Alameda city officials, UCC represented progress. They quickly gave UCC permission to dredge 3.6 million cubic yards of fill—for free—from a portion of the sandy Bay bottom that the city owned. In return, UCC gave Alameda land for schools and parks.
Battle Over Development
Immediately, Gold Coast residents formed the Civic League of Alameda to fight the plan, mounting a petition drive for a public vote. The group collected 3,000 signatures. On the other side was a group called Citizens Progress Committee, a collection of people who thought the development would be good for Alameda, and the committee collected 6,000 signatures.
The May 24, 1955, special election upheld the deal between the city and UCC. The vote, 7,002 to 5,406, was also seen as a backlash against the well-to-do families whose homes were on the Bay.
The Rankins were one of those families. They lived at Grand Street and Palmera Court, where the doctors in town lived. In fact, Dr. A. Bradley Rankin was one of the town’s well-known doctors. He bought the house in 1949.
The house, built in 1912 by fruit-processing magnate Arthur Oppenheimer, included tennis courts, dog kennels for hunting dogs, a separate kitchen where the dogs’ food was cooked and a tea house with a stone fireplace. There was also a separate guesthouse on the Bay.
After the special election, there was confusion about boundaries among many of the bayfront property owners, like the Rankins, says Cindy Seibert, their daughter. UCC negotiated boundary agreements with property owners, few of whom knew where their waterfront properties ended.
“Originally, everyone thought they owned 30 feet out into the water,” says Seibert. But her parents found that the Oppenheimers still owned a portion of the tidelands near their property, and so they were unsure whether they had the right to fight the fill plan.
Meanwhile, UCC sent letters to the Rankins and other property owners, making it clear they had few rights in the development of the tidelands. The company even attempted to charge them for filling the tidelands adjacent to their homes.
Many of the bayshore property owners, like the Rankins, figured they couldn’t fight the development plan.
“Well, they own it, and what can we do,” is how Seibert says her parents characterized the situation.
There was also a strong contingent of residents, supported by city council members and the Alameda Times Star, that wanted Alameda to change. This was before the love affair with Victorian homes that began in the 1970s, and there was a feeling among some that to see progress, Alameda would have to “get rid of all these dumpy old homes on the Bay,” says Seibert.
By October 1955, bayfront property owners like Elizabeth Lassen of Palmera Court, who had formed the Tidelands Protective Association and wrote frequently to her neighbors, were looking for a compromise. There had been setbacks in the courts to their legal challenges, and they no longer considered it possible to stop the development of the tidelands.
“Our main object is to stage a delaying action so costly to Utah that they will eventually be willing to compromise and give us the type of development on our tidelands which will be agreeable to us—that is, waterways, inland beaches and a higher type of housing than is presently planned,” Lassen wrote Oct. 12, 1955.
At the same time, the city was involved in another compromise, of sorts. In order to keep development of suburban homes on track, it gave up the idea of a Southern Crossing Bay bridge and six-lane freeway along the south shore.
Meanwhile, the UCC’s dredge, the 207-foot Fransciscan, was launched on the Bay. Lassen continued to fight hard.
“We do not want you to feel that the presence of the dredge and even the start of work means the end of everything for us,” Lassen wrote to her neighbors. “But we can prevent them from going ahead arbitrarily with a plan which would be to our disadvantage, and which would destroy all the beauty of our shore and ruin our property values.”
Today’s lagoons, completed a year after the fill was done in 1956, were never what Lassen imagined.
“They were supposed to make these lagoons a lot bigger and they didn’t,” says Dennis Evanosky, a local historian and author. “They weren’t supposed to be that shallow, and there weren’t supposed to be that many houses.”
For Lassen, it must have been a bitter disappointment. In her final letter to her neighbors, which was undated, she was still fighting but seemed sadly resigned.
“If we don’t put up a fight now, we can be quiet and forever hold our peace—we are done for, and within 14 months, we will be landlocked with our shoreline gone,” she wrote.
The massive fill of the south shore of Alameda island could not happen today. Within a few years of the completion of the lagoons, by the 1960s, the Bay Conservation Development Commission was created. It placed restrictions on filling the Bay.
Some say the south shore development did bring progress to Alameda. There’s a 2-mile sand beach with a bicycle path and swimming, all available to the public. There are also schools and parks, as well as shopping, restaurants and professional offices.
People like Barbara Lewis and her husband moved to Alameda in 1960, drawn by the promise of a new house near a shopping center with a Lucky grocery store and JC Penney department store. “It was considered up and coming,” she says.
Once a year, the lagoons are drained so that homeowners can clean up the banks and check the conditions of the old seawalls, some of which are more than a hundred years old on the Gold Coast side of the lagoons. On the newer side of the lagoon, homeowners pay an annual assessment that goes toward maintenance.
Still, the lagoons remain controversial. They sometimes smell, and few people swim or boat in them. But a house with a lagoon view is a good investment, and it will see an instant 5 percent to 10 percent increase in the asking price simply because of its location, says local real estate agent David Gunderman.
In her final letter to her neighbors, Lassen expressed her hopes for the lagoons—and her desire for Alameda to just stay the same.
“We would still have a handsome shore line which would tend to maintain our property values. We would retain our facilities for swimming and boating, and we would keep many of the characteristics of the Alameda we love.”