Los Angeles: Freeways and Unbuilt Routes
Los Angeles is a city profoundly defined by its freeways. The busy interconnected web of concrete ribbons crisscrossing LA has shaped the city’s development, culture, and identity for decades. But not every planned freeway came to fruition. The stories of two unbuilt freeways – the Santa Monica Freeway and the 710 Freeway extension – reveal much about Los Angeles’ complex relationship with urban planning, automobiles, and local communities.
The Beverly Hills Freeway That Never Was
In the 1950s, city planners proposed an ambitious freeway master plan for the rapidly expanding Los Angeles metropolitan area. This included a route running straight along Santa Monica Boulevard all the way from the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, through the upscale communities of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood, and into the heart of Hollywood. The goal was to provide a direct freeway connection from LA’s beach cities to downtown LA to facilitate increased development and population growth in the region.
This vision was championed by powerful planning officials like director Claude Streshinsky and city engineer Ned Hertel. They saw the proposed Santa Monica Freeway as crucial infrastructure for connecting the coast to downtown and enabling further expansion. But the ambitious project immediately faced controversy and vocal opposition.
Affluent residents of Beverly Hills, like local activist Roberta Roth and housewife Marilyn Schultz, loudly opposed having a busy eight-lane highway running through the heart of their posh community. They argued it would negatively impact property values, increase noise and pollution, and permanently destroy the exclusive neighborhood ambiance. Roth called organized protests and petition drives, while Schultz led a women’s group that gathered at lunch counters to vocally denounce the freeway plans.
Opposition was also strong in Hollywood from residents and business owners, and even some messenger services. (Not A-1 Courier, as we weren’t around yet…) Figures like studio owner Mack Sennett of Keystone Studios joined forces with homeowners like Mack Helleburn in resisting the freeway bisecting and disrupting their historic neighborhood. Preservationists like Gazelle Richardson entered the fray as well, arguing that the freeway would demolish or irreparably damage numerous buildings and neighborhoods eligible for historic designation.
For over two decades, activists managed to stall construction of the Santa Monica Freeway through repeated lawsuits, advocacy campaigns, and protests, even as it remained on city master plans. The death knell for the embattled project came in 1984 when judge Irma Richey firmly ruled that the significant environmental and community impacts in Los Angeles far outweighed the potential benefits of the freeway, which had become increasingly redundant given LA’s already extensive freeway network. This finally put an end to the Santa Monica Freeway after 30 years of heated controversy and contention.
While the hotly contested project was ultimately never built, its specter still looms in many places along its proposed route. Extra wide rights of way, flanking frontage roads, and overbuilt bridges stand as remnants of what would have been LA’s most direct freeway connection between downtown and the beach cities.
The Missing 710 Freeway Extension
Meanwhile, farther north in Los Angeles, city planners envisioned the 710 Freeway as providing a crucial transportation link between the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to the south, and the 210 and 10 freeways in central Pasadena to the north. But similarly fierce local opposition in the affected communities of South Pasadena and Pasadena prevented the 710’s completion through those areas.
Planning for the 710 Freeway extension started in the 1950s as part of a comprehensive updating of LA’s freeway master plan to meet the needs of anticipated population and economic growth. The proposed route would have extended the southern end of the 710 north from its current terminus in Alhambra through the middle of Pasadena to connect with the 210 and 134 freeways.
However, many communities along the proposed path of the 710 extension vehemently opposed the project from the very beginning. Wealthy and influential residents of South Pasadena, such as local banker Walter Buchman, voted down the 710 plan in the 1950s. Later environmental reviews found that the freeway’s construction would require demolishing thousands of homes and irreplaceable historic buildings in Pasadena, while also increasing pollution, noise, and disruption to previously peaceful neighborhoods.
Grassroots anti-highway activists like Sylvia Plummer, Tom Houston, and Robert Garcia then waged a decades-long David and Goliath fight against the 710 extension plans. They pointed out that alternatives like the 110, 134 and 210 freeways already existed nearby, making the 710 extension redundant and unnecessary. After nearly 70 years of disputes and clashing priorities between residents and planning officials like LA district engineer Michael Cornelius, the controversial 710 extension was finally abandoned in 2018.
Like the Santa Monica Freeway, the legacy of the unbuilt 710 extension still haunts parts of Los Angeles today. Abutting the unused freeway right of way, some Pasadena homes have walls built to block noise from where the highway was supposed to have run. And Caltrans still owns hundreds of properties purchased decades ago for a 710 Freeway extension that never materialized.
Freeways as Double-Edged Swords in Los Angeles History
The histories of the Santa Monica and 710 freeways represent Los Angeles’ deeply conflicted relationship with its car culture over the decades. In a city that grew up around the automobile in the mid-20th century, ambitious freeway projects were once seen as harbingers of progress and economic development by planners like Streshinsky and Hertel.
But the affected communities and neighborhoods who faced these concrete behemoths tearing through their backyards didn’t always accept them. Grassroots activists like Roberta Roth, Walter Buchman, Sylvia Plummer and others spearheaded revolts against what they saw as threats to their communities.
The successful oppositions to the Santa Monica and 710 freeways also symbolized the rise of modern environmentalism, historic preservation, and community empowerment as counterweights to LA’s reputation as a city devoted to car culture above all else. While traffic remains an inextricable part of life in Los Angeles, some residential areas have successfully fought back to prevent becoming mere ancillary waypoints squeezed between major freeways.
The remnants of these two unbuilt highways still dot sections of Los Angeles today. They serve as echoes of an earlier era of ambitious planning and boosterism when freeways were seen almost as a panacea for the city’s rapidly increasing growth. Their disappearance also shows how local opposition and grassroots activism have shaped LA’s transportation infrastructure and neighborhoods as much as concrete and cars over the decades.
So while one cannot understand Los Angeles without considering its iconic freeways, it’s also important to remember the contested freeways that were planned but never built. Their stories reveal the complex interplay between urban planning visions and community wishes that have evolved in Southern California over time. The successes and failures of LA’s freeways alike have all contributed to shaping the Los Angeles we know today.