The Stories of What Might Have Been

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Alcatraz: Space Museum and More

The island of Alcatraz is comprised of just 22 acres of rock in the San Francisco Bay. It’s significance in catalyzing the creation of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, however, is immense.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons shuttered Alcatraz in 1963, and from there it was orphaned. No federal agency wanted to assume management of the inhospitable island dependent on imported water, generators for electricity, and dumping its refuse and sewage directly into the Bay.

In 1969 Texas oil industrialist Lamar Hunt proposed buying Alcatraz in order to install a monument to the Apollo missions, housing, and a Victorian San Francisco theme park. The City's government approved the sale.

Locals Jerry Mander and Alvin Duskin stepped in. A “Save Alcatraz” campaign was launched, with Jerry and Alvin taking out full-page newspaper ads on both coasts.

On Nov 20, 1969, a group of 89 Native Americans landed on Alcatraz. Their goal was to occupy the island in order to bring attention to the unfair treatment of Native Peoples by the Federal Government, and need for self-determination. For both the city of San Francisco and then-President Nixon, this highly visible protest created a tremendous political problem.

Prodded by local advocates, San Francisco suggested that the US Department of Interior turn Alcatraz into part of the burgeoning urban park, soon to be known as the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA). They further suggested that the unused military forts along the coast be included in the plan. This idea had precedent: it was similar to the idea justifying Point Reyes National Seashore in 1962 that new national parks should serve urban populations. 

The Secretary of Interior Secretary endorsed the idea. Nixon solved his political embarrassment on Alcatraz by ceding the land to public use, and the push-and-pull to create the boundaries of the GGNRA battle began.

Where to learn more:

Amy Meyer fought firsthand for the GGNRA. Her book, New Guardians for the Golden Gate, is a detailed and important piece on the park’s creation.

Interview with Jerry Mander on FoundSF, “The Un-selling of Alcatraz”

San Francisco Bay: Reduced to a Canal

San Francisco Bay, the Pacific Coast’s largest estuary, measures slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island. Its waters and wetlands support populations of Dungeness crab, halibut, salmon, porpoises, sea lions, brine shrimp, and dozens of species of resident and migratory birds.

In the 1950s and 60s, however, the Bay was known as the “largest open sewer in America.” Sewage, trash, and industrial waste were readily dumped into the bay’s waters. Only six miles of its shoreline were accessible to the public. In 1962 when the city of Berkeley announced plans to double its size by filling in 4,000 acres of the bay (a strategy also proposed by San Mateo, among others), three Berkeley women-- Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Esther Gulick-- decided to try and stop the destruction. They formed the "Save San Francisco Bay Association" to write letters and editorials and mobilize residents on behalf of better bay protection. They successfully lobbied at the state capitol for a moratorium on bay fill. Their efforts changed the course of this most iconic and essential waterway’s history.

Today, nearly 300 of the bay’s shoreline miles are open to the public, and the Bay is cleaner and healthier than it’s been in 50 years. With the Bay Area’s population expected to grow by 15% by 2020, there remains remains much work to be done to ensure that the bay’s plants, animals, shorelines, and systems are considered and protected and restored, while providing for the recreational and economic needs of an expanding population.

Where to learn more:

Bodega Head: A Future Fukishima?

On May 23, 1958, California utility company Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) announced its plans to build one of the nation’s first nuclear power plants near Bodega Bay, Sonoma County. Public outcry began shortly thereafter.

Thousands of signatures and hundreds of letters of opposition were submitted to the Public Utilities Commission. Famed San Francisco Chronicle writer Harold Gilliam, Dr. Joel Hedgpeth of the University of the Pacific, Jean and Karl Kortum, other residents formed the Northern California Association to Preserve Bodega Head (NCAPBH). The group issued press statements, submitted appeals to various state and federal bodies.

In 1962 the debate shifted from lifestyle and aesthetic concerns to ones of safety. The association mobilized around strategies of citizen protest, legal intervention, and negative publicity for the local politicians. In 1963 activists released 1,500 helium balloons into the air-- to drift into the area of a would-be nuclear fallout-- each with an affixed note that read: "This balloon could represent a radioactive molecule of strontium 90 or iodine 131".

The final push came when seismologists Doris Sloan and Pierre St. Amand, at the behest of Sierra Club member David Pesonen, spent two days examining the proposed plant’s site. They confirmed that the location sat directly atop the San Andreas Fault. In 1963, Secretary of Interior Stuart Udall, upon learning of this fact from Harold Gilliam, wrote to the Atomic Energy Commission about his “grave concern” about the project.

In 1964, PG&E abandoned the plan and sold the land to the California State Parks for one dollar. The area where PG&E began construction, called Bodega Head, now appears as a round, water-filled pond as one makes their way alongside the coast on Highway 1.  

Where to learn more:

This website has a rather complete history:

An excellent article by Press Democrat journalist Gaye LeBaron

Interview in “Forces of Nature: Environmental Elders Speak” by Resource Renewal Institute with opposition activist Dave Pesonen

Bolinas Harbor: Yachts and Hotels

Bolinas Lagoon is a peaceful estuary located approximately twenty miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Covering nearly 1100 acres, its watery mud flats and marshes provide refuge for snowy egrets, warblers, pelicans, scores of invertebrates, and seasonal pupping grounds for nearly 150 harbor seals. Each spring, over 100 pairs of great egrets and great blue herons nest nearby and rely on the lagoon for water and food.

In 1957 the State Lands Commission leased 1200 acres of the lagoon to the Bolinas Harbor District, who had their sights on development. In 1964, Bahia Baulines Inc. proposed transforming the lagoon into a 1,500-boat marina and yacht facility, a resort hotel complete with heli-pad, and other facilities. The scheme would have required dredging mud and using it to increase the size and height of the 110-acre Kent Island, the only land mass situated in the water.

What followed was a political race against time. As the developers sought approvals, individuals from the Marin Conservation League, Audubon Canyon Ranch, and The Nature Conservancy sought a way to stave off the lagoon’s destruction. In a deft, eleventh-hour maneuver, local environmental stalwart Huey D. Johnson secured the purchase of Kent Island-- they key to the development scheme. Huey promptly gave the island as public land to the county.

Left with no options, the plan dissolved and the Harbor District disbanded. In 1981 Bolinas Lagoon becomes part of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

Where to learn more:

Audubon Canyon Ranch, adjacent to Bolinas Lagoon, is a 100-acre wildlife preserve and education center founded in 1961.

Cliff House: Ocean Beach Riviera

“ see a scene like this one, and know that what you see is permanent, that it will remain, that (in …an expanding urban area) that it has been saved-- this is nearly unheard of.” -- John Hart, Wilderness Next Door

Ocean Beach at the western edge of San Francisco has experienced an array of flavors: from the Victorian elegance of the original Cliff House, to the three-story glass-walled bathhouses built by former mayor Adolph Sutro and rimmed with art he collected from around the world, to the jostling mid-century boisterousness of Playland at the Beach. Today, the area of Land’s End and Ocean Beach are protected under the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and serve mainly as running and strolling paths for those seeking the sounds of the ocean and the cool of the fog.

There was a time when the peaceful western edge of San Francisco was in doubt. In the 1950s, the Sutros sold the crumbling ocean-water baths to the Whitney family. George K. Whitney Jr. sought to develop high-rise hotels, an “Ocean Beach Riviera”. Such proposals continued throughout the 1960s and 70s.

In 1977 the Park Service acquired the historic Cliff House above Sutro Baths and its 3.66 acres for $3.7 million. According to Amy Meyer in her book New Guardians for the Golden Gate: “Getting the Sutro Baths into the park was much more complicated.”

Cliffside Properties, Inc., a holding company of a New York investment company, owned the coastal land on which the baths once towered. It claimed the nearly four acres were worth $9.4 million and that it intended to build a 698-room skyscraper hotel on the site. A Park Service appraisal valued the site at $1.6 million.

National Park Service Director Bill Whalen visited San Francisco, and announced that the Feds had no intention of paying the exorbitant price posed by the developers. During a visit to San Francisco, he announced at a luncheon that he would volley the problem back to the city. Activists Amy Meyer and Ed Wayburn settled in for a drawn out fight, wondering if the land was now outside of the park.

Meyer writes in New Guardians: “…we asked the San Francisco Planning Commission to rezone the site. In May 1979 commission president Toby Rosenblatt proposed that the area be given special consideration… By April 1980 nothing had happened, so the commission voted to control and guide any development…by reclassifying the site as a ‘special use district’.”

Cliffside Properties took the Park Service to court but lost the case, and in 1980 the Federal Government bought Sutro Baths for $5.5 million.

Where to learn more:  

There’s a great “what might have been” article about the history of Land’s End, Ocean Beach, and the Cliff House here:

Devil’s Slide: Think, Vote, Build

Devil’s Slide, the notorious stretch of high, rocky coastline along the two-lane Highway 1 between Pacifica and Montara (south of San Francisco), is “a graveyard of transportation infrastructure.” There have been at least four attempts since the 19th century to build a stable north-south route that successfully navigates the steep, landslide-prone cliffs.

Massive highway development as a way to encourage sprawl development was a popular tactic in the 1950s-60s. The California Department of Transportation issued a proposal for the times: the creation of a seven mile long, six-lane inland bypass cutting through Montara Mountain and McNee Ranch State Park lands, routing east of Devil’s Slide. Farmland, homes, and access to the coast were to be sacrificed for the road and to encourage development along the coast. A city of 110,000 expected to result, as well as track housing and a golf course.

Despite more than 1,100 signatures on a petition in opposition, in 1972 the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors voted to move forward with a $16.2 million bypass freeway. Groups including the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit, and the court ordered a pause on construction in order to allow for an environmental impact report.

Thus began a 40-year “David and Goliath struggle.” Citizens Alliance for Tunnel Solution, a grassroots advocacy group, formed and worked tirelessly to promote a long-term solution that wasn’t the freeway bypass. Their alternative was to construct a tunnel through the mountain that would blend in with the environment while still serving transportation needs. They put forth Measure T, which finally passed in November 1996 with 74% of the favorable vote.

After nearly five decades, the new Highway 1 bypass at Devil's Slide opened in March 2013. As noted by Zoe Kersteen-Tucker, spokesperson for Citizen's Alliance for the Tunnel: "The inland bypass proposed as much environmental damage than traffic relief. It took the people to come up with a better alternative.”

Where to learn more:

San Jose Mercury News article:

KQED: “The Twists and Turns of the Devil’s Slide Tunnel”:

KQED: “Devil’s Slide Tunnel Set to Open”, includes an audio interview with Zoe Kersteen-Tucker, spokesperson for Citizens Alliance for the Tunnel Solution:

Interview: Pacific Currents:

Point Reyes: Private Playground

Jutting out into the Pacific, Point Reyes’ vast stretches of wild beaches are populated by elephant seals and regularly provide views of passing whales. Tule elk roam vast grassy plains, and over 200 species of land and seabirds use the peninsula’s coastlands and forests as refuge throughout the year. Because the peninsula sits on different rock and soil types from the rest of California, it is also home to 900 species of vascular plants-- 61 of which are found only there. One can hike to the top of Mount Wittenberg (1,407 feet), or descend to almost below sea level to an estuary whose dampened sand is perennially spotted with footprints from parades of animals crossing near the water’s edge.

Yet Point Reyes has long been eyed for housing and sprawl development. In 1905 a proposal to build 10,000 homes on Inverness Ridge was only abandoned because of the 1906 earthquake (Point Reyes’ eastern boundary is a fault line). In the early 1960s, House Congressman and Marin resident Clem Miller sought to protect Point Reyes as a National Park. After much political maneuvering, in August 1962, Congress passed Pt Reyes National Seashore Bill, designating a 53,000-acre preserve. It was signed into law by President Kennedy in September. Then, tragedy upon tragedy struck: 13 months later, most all of those directly involved in the park’s creation, its torchbearers, were no longer alive.

By 1965 the money allocated for land purchase by congress had run out, with less than half the land proposed for the park purchased. Land prices were on the rise, as was development pressure. In Drake’s Bay and around the peninsula, nearly 5,000 homesteads, a dredged freshwater reservoir for swimming and motorboats, docks, and a boardwalk were proposed. Developers planned for a new four-lane highway, a clifftop “parkway”, dune buggy areas, and parking lots.

California State Senator Peter Behr stepped in. He enlisted the help of Katy Miller Johnson, Clem Miller’s widow, and together they created “Save our Seashore” (SOS). They soon presented President Richard Nixon with 500,000 signatures of people who supported additional funding from congress to fulfill the park’s creation. After visiting, in April 1970 President Nixon signed the funding agreement. Point Reyes now contains the only formally designated wilderness in the Bay Area, and is enjoyed for hiking, backpacking, beach-combing, and cycling by 2.5 million visitors annually.

Where to learn more:

The nonprofit Point Reyes National Seashore Association ( was founded in 1964 and offers classes and educational trips.

The story is told beautifully in “Rebels with a Cause” (, a documentary based on the memoir of Dr. Mary Griffin, “Saving Marin-Sonoma Coast”.

Marincello: Invisible City

Marincello may be the iconic example of “what might have been”. Instead of miles of hiking trails, epic vista points, and the occasional bobcat or hawk sighting, there could have been cul-de-sacs, multiple-car garages and private backyards.

Marincello was the name given to a proposed planned community for 25,000 residents covering 2,100 Headland acres. It was proposed in 1964 by Pittsburgh developer Thomas Frouge. Gulf Oil financed the purchase of the land.

On November 12, 1965, the Marin County Board of Supervisors approved the Marincello plan. According to John Hart: “Three attorneys labored on this seemingly lost cause: Robert Praetzel of San Rafael, and Martin Rosen and Douglas Ferguson of Sausalito… ‘I got involved not so much for an environmental purpose as a civic purpose,’ says Rosen, later a founder of the Trust for Public Land. ‘I just felt it was terrible that these few people could turn around an entire landscape, and not even consult the local citizens. I was more Jeffersonian than Thoreauvian.’ ”

Construction in Tennessee Valley. Praetzel, Rosen, and Ferguson skillfully maneuvered and brought suits against the development company on grounds of process, and progress to build Marincello ceased in 1967. Public opinion began shifting in opposition of the plan. Thousands of petition signatures were gathered.

Then, on November 2, 1970, a state appellate court ruled that Frouge and the developers had violated process, and their plan would have to be submitted all over again.

According to Doug Ferguson in the “Rebels With a Cause” documentary, Gulf Oil’s attitude was that they could keep the litigation running for years, causing the “conservationists” to run out of money. But, Doug notes, there was something Gulf Oil didn’t understand. “[Those fighting Marincello] are unpaid—and they’re crazy.” Praetzel alone estimates he volunteered over 1,000 hours of his time.

Meanwhile, Huey D. Johnson, then Western Regional Director of The Nature Conservancy, had started pressing Gulf Oil. He visited their headquarters time and time again, pressing for them to give up the battle. He would get laughed out of the boardroom.

At the end of 1972, Gulf Oil capitulated and sold the Marincello site for $6.5 million dollars to the Conservancy. The area was re-named Gerbode Valley and later transferred to the National Park Service for the newly-forming Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

All that remains of the battle is the fire road constructed for development. It is now used as a train, and from its highest point, one can see public, open space for miles in all directions.

Where to learn more:

Marincello UnSoundwalk is a project by local artist Aaron Ximm:

“Saved by Grit and Grace”, Bay Nature article written by John Hart

Resource Renewal Institute is a nonprofit founded by Huey D. Johnson. His project, “Forces of Nature: Environmental Elders Speak” is a collection of interviews with Bob Praetzel and others.

“Rebels With a Cause” is an excellent documentary about Marincello and other defeated projects.


Tiburon Bridge: Linking Telegraph Hill to Angel Island

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge opened in 1936. Golden Gate Bridge began connecting San Francisco to lands north in 1937. By the mid-1940s, planners were at work imagining other possible Bay crossings to respond to increasing automobile traffic.

Proposals included a twin Golden gate Bridge, an underwater tube between Aquatic Park in San Francisco and Sausalito in Marin, and several bridge designs linking lands south and north via Angel Island, an uninhabited landmass in between. Nearly a dozen additional crossings were also proposed linking San Francisco to Oakland and Alameda to the east.

In the 1960s the federal government proposed transferring Angel Island to the state, making the option for a Tiburon Bridge and new freeway up the Tiburon Peninsula seem possible. The bridge would have exited San Francisco from either Telegraph or Russian Hill, two of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. California’s Highway Department (CalTrans) acquired State Route 131 in Tiburon as the planning advanced.

According to an interview with Harold Gilliam, who was working with the US Department of Interior at that time, then-Interior Stewart Udall devised a condition in the Angel Island transfer that stipulated that if the island be used for any infrastructure purpose that it would revert back to the feds. This meant: no bridge.

According to “Bridging the Bay”, a project out of UC Berkeley: “That none of these various schemes came to pass can perhaps best be attributed to a general lack of public consensus over choosing a route that made sense financially and environmentally. Today, over a half century later, consensus remains elusive, and, in the near term, a renewal of ferryboat fleets on the Bay seems more likely than any grand scheme to cross its waters with additional bridges.”

Where to learn more:

Interview clip with Harold Gilliam, via FoundSF:

UC Berkeley Library, “Bridging the Bay” Primary Source page with newspaper clippings:

Information on San Francisco’s “Freeway Revolt” of the mid-1950s:

Marin Highway System: The “Los Angelization” of the Bay Area?

Before the Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937, accessing the lands north of San Francisco required ferries, trains, and a bit of gumption. With the bridge complete, what had been ranch lands soon were considered for networks of mid-century suburban sprawl.

In 1958 Governor Pat Brown launched an ambitious statewide highway development project, on the promise of building 1,000 new miles of road. This plan included 200 miles of new coastal and cross-cutting highways in Marin and Sonoma. All of this was laid out in the 1964 West Marin General Plan,  a “nightmare vision for Marin conservationists.”

The plan prescribed turning the two-lane Highway One along the coast into a four-lane parkway, and to cut across ridges from Point San Quentin to Point Reyes Station with east-west thoroughfares. A 1959 Army Corps of Engineers report estimated that as facilitated by the highways, Marin would grow from 151,000 in 1960 to 780,000 by 2020. Stinson Beach and Bolinas Ridge would balloon to 50,000 residents. Point Reyes, Limantour, and Tomales would host a staggering 150,000 people. A water pipeline from Sonoma would feed the suburban sprawl.

As Dr. Marty Griffin writes in “Saving the Marin-Sonoma Coast”: “By coincidence perhaps, [Governor Brown’s] chief of advance freeway planning for the state was Harold Summers, whose wife, Mary, headed the Marin County Planning Department.”  By 1961 the Board of Supervisors in Marin had adopted the plan, with Mary Summers calling it a “done deal”. There seemed little in way of hope.

Dr. Marty Griffin and Stan Picher of Marin Audubon Society decided to try the impossible: save Bolinas Ridge, and by doing so, block the path of the highway. Achieving this could save Bolinas Lagoon, Stinson Beach, and the rest of the West Marin corridor.

Marty was tipped off he could purchase a division of Canyon Ranch on Bolinas Ridge. Meeting at a polo match, the owner, William Tevis, informed Marty that the land cost $800/acre— making the price of a singular parcel $400,000.

Marty took the chance. He put down a $1,000 deposit and brought the news to his co-conspirator, Stan Picher, who told him: “Marty, as treasurer, the largest check I have ever written for [Marin Audubon] Society was $125.” Still, they decided to move forward to try and convince Marin Audubon to serve as the nonprofit agency to acquire the land.

Tevis gave Marty and Stan 90 days to raise $9,000, and nine moths to raise $90,000. The remainder of the balance would be due in nine years. Marty and Stan hit the phones and doorstops of well-heeled Marin conservationists. Caroline Livermore chipped in, and Elizabeth Terwilliger made introductions. Marty and Stan gave tours of the land and expanded the donor base (by doing so they also organized an environmental voting constituency in Marin). After five years, Marty personally delivered the payment check to close on the property. The path of the highway was blocked.

The newly organized environmental constituency played a key role in halting the sprawl development in the rest of Marin. More environmentally minded challengers ran for—and won— seats on the Marin Board of Supervisors. Led by Peter Arrigoni and Michael Wornum, the new Board retracted the sprawl-focused West Marin General Plan and later withdrew its support of the Marincello Plan. The Board adopted a “precedent-setting” ecological study called Can the Last Place Last? in 1971, the basis for the new Marin Countywide Plan of 1973. The implications were far-reaching and lasting for Marin, as well as Sonoma and Mendocino to the north.

Under the new plan, agricultural zoning allowed only one house per 60 acres in an area covering one fifth of the county, thereby preventing ranchettes and subdivisions. The compromise was for development to happen along the existing Highway 101 corridor, soon to be home to the SmartTrain.

Where to learn more:

Today, Audubon Canyon Ranch is a 100-acre wildlife preserve of Douglas fir, coast redwood and California bay forest. In 2010 it was renamed the Martin Griffin Preserve. Information at

An article about the San Francisco “Freeway Revolt” in FoundSF: