By 1997, West Hollywood officials were more than fed up with California’s Transportation Department (Caltrans). The state owned Santa Monica Boulevard – the city’s “main street” – but had done little to improve it since WeHo was incorporated 13 years earlier.
City leaders found Caltrans difficult to work with almost from the beginning, Joan English, transportation and public works director at the time, told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s our main street. Every time we want to do something such as have the crosswalks painted, we have to go to Caltrans, and they frequently say ‘no’.”
She also said Caltrans had done no major paving work since West Hollywood became a city in 1984, worsening a dilapidated thoroughfare with railroad tracks running along the middle that threatened basic operations and safety.
Local leaders knew they had to be bold and brave if the boulevard was going to accommodate basic amenities like sidewalk cafes, streetscape furniture and street trees. They also realized that they would have to be the ones to build an infrastructure to support a high-profile entertainment industry and tourist destination – and not stodgy state transportation planners.
WeHo forced Caltrans to the negotiating table in 1997 with the goal of wresting control of the street from the state.
“It became clear that relinquishment provided a unique opportunity to redesign Santa Monica Boulevard and reinforce its identity as West Hollywood’s main street. In the fall of 1998, the city reached an agreement with the state to reclaim the boulevard,” it said in a statement. A formal, final pact was inked in February 1999, records show.
The city took possession of the beat-to-hell-and-back roadway and got to work immediately planning a total reconstruction.
Occupying Santa Monica Boulevard
A completely rebuilt Santa Monica Boulevard was really something to cheer about in 2001 when work was finished. Two years of jackhammers and bulldozers produced a spanking new street, more and better sewer lines below, miles and miles of new sidewalks, dozens more parking spaces and 1,200 new trees.
The cost was nearly $1 million for each of the boulevard’s 38 blocks. The two-year, $34 million project upgraded all 38 blocks of the street. West Hollywood’s City Council deemed it party time and spent $153,000 on a street festival to celebrate, the Los Angeles Times reported. The reconstruction was the last nail in the coffin for Caltrans’ plan for the street.
Caltrans Dreamed of a Beverly Hills Freeway
State transportation planners long dreamed of a crosstown superhighway to connect the 405 Freeway on Los Angeles’ Westside with the 101 in Hollywood. All that remains today of their proposed but never built Beverly Hills Freeway are green and white “California 2” street signs that dot Santa Monica Boulevard through West Hollywood and beyond.
Those triangle-shaped signs, first erected in 1933, designated the boulevard as a state highway. The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) took control because the street linked five cities or towns and provided vital access to beaches, UCLA and the retail, business and residential districts of Century City, Beverly Hills and Hollywood.
Traffic planners first envisioned building an elevated freeway along – or on top of – Santa Monica Boulevard in the early 1940s. Existing physical infrastructure at the time favored their plan because, for its entire length, the street followed the tracks of the Pacific Electric Railway. The tracks either ran in traffic lanes or were in a separate right-of-way with two roadways, one on each side of the tracks.
When Pacific Electric abandoned the route in 1941, Caltrans quickly proposed the “Santa Monica Parkway,” as the freeway was called originally, because it roughly followed the path of Santa Monica Boulevard for its entire 9.3-mile length. State officials said it was desperately needed to relieve pressure on the 10 and provide local freeway access to communities like West Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Century City.
Caltrans never struck an agreement with Beverly Hills for the freeway for political reasons – those being that city fathers didn’t want the less wealthy to have easy access to their exclusive enclave, various accounts from the time state. If the proposed Beverly Hills freeway would have become a reality, most likely there wouldn’t be a Route 66 running along Santa Monica Boulevard – or the boulevard itself – in West Hollywood today.
By the time planners plotted the planned highway’s precise course in 1965, it had earned a new name – the Beverly Hills Freeway. Today’s Santa Monica Freeway, which was completed in 1965, initially was named the “Olympic Parkway.”
BH Freeway Would Have Been Disastrous
It was a bold plan that drew a correspondingly strong backlash. The proposed Beverly Hills Freeway would have ripped through some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Los Angeles County and obliterated the central business districts of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills.
Though some constituencies – notably the businesses of Westwood Village, the developers of Century City, and much of Beverly Hills – supported the freeway, many neighborhoods opposed it. West Hollywood homeowners were particularly vocal in their dissent. The grassroots opposition might have seemed futile – Eastside Los Angeles neighborhoods like Boyle Heights, East L.A., and Lincoln Heights failed to stop seven freeways from bulldozing through their communities – but wealthy residents here did not want for political influence.
They also had time on their side. By the mid-1960s, the funding for freeways that once flowed so freely was beginning to dry up. And the Beverly Hills Freeway, which as a state rather than an interstate route couldn’t access federal funds, carried a projected price tag of $300 million. A lack of funds — as well as legislative battles in Sacramento and conflicts with the county and city of Los Angeles — forced the state highways division to delay construction year-by-year, even as it purchased property along the proposed right-of-way.
A turning point came in 1971, when the Beverly Hills city council reversed its longstanding support for the freeway. Still, Gov. Ronald Reagan vetoed several bills that would have canceled the project. Finally, by 1975, ten years of inaction had ossified local opposition, and the state erased the Beverly Hills Freeway from official maps.
The story goes like this: First proposed in the 1930s, formally adopted in 1959, routed in 1965 and killed in 1975.