Lighthouse Field: Why it’s not a Shopping Mall

A view of the western part of Lighthouse Field, part of Lighthouse Field state Beach, 2012.
A view of the western part of Lighthouse Field, Santa Cruz, California, 2012.

There are a lot of parks and open space in our lives that we often take for granted. Many times that gorgeous place where you can enjoy nature, and maybe stare out into the view and contemplate life, is there only by the grace of a lot of work and struggle.

Lighthouse Field in Santa Cruz, California, is one such place. In fact, Lighthouse Field and Lighthouse Point exist as a park today but were almost developed several times. The story behind why they weren’t illustrates how people’s attitudes toward land use have changed dramatically over time.

The cliffs and bluffs just east of Lighthouse Point circa 1900. Parts of the James and Alice Phelan Estate can be seen behind the white picket fence. Photo courtesy of the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History.
The cliffs and bluffs just east of Lighthouse Point circa 1900. Parts of the James and Alice Phelan Estate can be seen behind the white picket fence. Photo courtesy of the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History.

Late 1800s: A Park-Like Estate

Modern-day Lighthouse Field was part of the James and Alice Phelan Estate in the late 1800s. The area was known as Phelan Park and had beautiful gardens and landscaping designed by famed architect Rudolph Ulrich. It included paths lined with marble statuary, a gazebo with views of the bay, and cottages scattered throughout the grounds.

James Phelans’s son, James Duval Phelan, was an astute visionary. He believed that the true wealth of Santa Cruz lay in its beauty and that it could never compete commercially with San Francisco as a port or industrial city. In 1891 at an event commemorating 100 years since the birth of Mission Santa Cruz, he pushed the city establishment to practice preservation of its resources and develop tourism over industry. The message seems to have been heard, as shortly thereafter hotels and beach amusements were built in greater abundance.

Lighthouse Field and Lighthouse Point area in 1928. Note that Lighthouse Point was just a grassy knoll and the lighthouse was on the north side of West Cliff Dive. Picture © Kenneth and Gabrielle Adelman, California Coastal Records Project www.Californiacoastline.org
Lighthouse Field and Lighthouse Point area in 1928. Note that Lighthouse Point was just a grassy knoll and the lighthouse was on the north side of West Cliff Dive. Picture © Kenneth and Gabrielle Adelman, California Coastal Records Project www.Californiacoastline.org

In the 1930’s, thanks to the catholic leanings of James Duval Phelan’s niece and her family, the Phelan property was divided between the Jesuits, the Poor Claires (a cloister of nuns who never lived there) and the Oblates of Saint Joseph.

Development Attempts

In 1948 a developer from Rochester NY (William P. Randall) proposed a giant U-shaped two story hotel for the area. During a re-zoning hearing he had 114 signatures of neighbors in support of the project and only two people not in support. The project died, however, from lack of financing.

The Court of the Seven Seas

In 1958 a developer from Santa Clara (Peter Pesetta) planned to turn the Lighthouse Field area into a hotel and international shopping center complex called “The Court of the Seven Seas.” He purchased the needed land and hired the chief architect of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation (William Wesley Peters).

The scale of the project was enormous and the vision futuristic. There was to be a 500-guest motor hotel, a domed auditorium, a large shopping complex with import stores staffed by natives of their respective countries, and a hotel for 700 guests. The crowning feature of the design was a translucent glass pyramid, 172 feet high that enclosed the hotel and courtyard. When lit at night, the pyramid would be visible from 50 miles at sea.

Artists concept drawing for the "Court of the Seven Seas" at Light House Point in the 1960s. Sketch courtesy of Frank Perry and the Museum of Art and History.
Artists concept drawing for the “Court of the Seven Seas” at Light House Point in the 1960s. Drawing: Courtesy of Frank Perry and the Museum of Art and History

The architect felt the project would show the world the positive aspects of life in the United States. Mrs. Frank Lloyd Wright said in 1962, “I believe that the design of the Court of the Seven Seas is creative, imaginative, eminently practical, and related naturally to the beautiful region of Santa Cruz.” Again, the project died from lack of financing, and not from any significant objection from the citizenry.

A Convention Center

In 1968 the City of Santa Cruz put forward a plan to build a convention center that would be a collaboration between the city, the county, and a developer. All buildings were to be from one to three stories tall.

Funding and traffic were both considered as problems this time around. Opposition was beginning to mount to plans that would bring major traffic arteries close to site of the proposed convention center at Lighthouse Field. On the west side of town, Highway 1 was to be routed, not down Mission Street, but through residential neighborhoods, possibly via an elevated freeway. On the east side, the Highway 1 corridor was to go down Ocean Street, across the San Lorenzo River, across Beach Hill and up Bay Street. This plan languished also, but again, due primarily to lack of funding.

The Epic Battle

In 1970, the plan saw new life. Two investment groups, with the help of a $900,000 Federal Economic Development Administration grant, were intent on building a complex consisting of a hotel, a shopping center, condominiums, and a publicly-funded convention center and theater. In order to create enough space for some park areas and parking, the city also changed the site’s zoning to allow buildings 13 stories high.

Local attitudes toward development, however, were also changing. Prominent citizens began to question if the downtown area might not be a better location for such a huge development. People began to think that the open space offered by Lighthouse Field and its views of the ocean were in themselves special and valuable. The opening of the University of California, Santa Cruz (in 1965) also brought conservation-minded students and professors to the area. They rallied around the movement and became active in local politics.

The Opposition Gets Serious

In April 1972, the federal grant was approved, a hotel contract signed, and the stage appeared set for the project to move forward. The opposition, which had been steadily growing, decided to get organized.

On May 1, the Save Lighthouse Point Association was formed. Their message was that Lighthouse Field was the wrong place for large development and that it should be made into a park instead. They printed bumper stickers, packed city council meetings, circulated petitions, and collected donations for legal fees. They even won three seats on the city council in 1973, though that was still a minority of seats. Despite these efforts the city council approved the project in September 1973.

Enter the Coastal Commission

Luckily for the Save Lighthouse Point Association, and reflective of a larger collective change of thought towards environmental stewardship, Californians had just established the California Coastal Commission (CCC) via a voter proposition (Proposition 20, which passed in 1972). The CCC was tasked with protecting coastal resources and this included public access and recreation; terrestrial and marine habitat protection; and visual resource, landform, and water quality protection.

In April 1974, the CCC rejected the project, and in the interim a local ballot initiative had qualified for the June ballot, allowing Santa Cruz voters to make it illegal for the city to own, lease, maintain or operate a convention center on Lighthouse Point or Lighthouse Field. The initiative won by a 2-1 margin.

A Cypress tree and benches in Lighthouse Field, 2012.
A Cypress tree and benches in Lighthouse Field, 2012.

A New Park Results

With development of Lighthouse Field no longer an option, local activists and legislators began to work to create a park. Various land purchases and agreements between many parties were completed. Lighthouse Field State Beach, consisting of Lighthouse Field, Lighthouse Point and Its Beach, was officially created in 1981. The city maintains it with financial support from the county.

In 1991, efforts began to slowly restore the field to the vegetation that would have been there prior to European settlement, using plants in the coastal prairie and coastal scrub communities. A small cluster of blue gum eucalyptus, Eucalyptus globulus, have been allowed to remain in the northeast corner, even though they are native to Australia, to accommodate the monarch butterflies that overwinter there.

The Future of Lighthouse Field

Of late there has been some criticism that Lighthouse Field, though protected as a State Park, could be more than a largely open field with a few trees. Local writer Stephen Kessler says it resembles a vacant lot that feels abandoned and seedy. He asks “Can the local public summon the nerve and the forward-looking vision to progress beyond the purely reactive forces of environmental protection, or are we so stuck in the 1970s as to reject any notion of improvement on “natural” conditions?”

This is an interesting question. The idea of open space and how to manage it is evolving in the era of shrinking budgets and increased recreation demand. In some cases like the Cemex property around Davenport, California, a new formula is being tried. Conservation will be achieved only by integration of preservation, restoration, and sustainable timber harvesting. Management will include will research, education, and recreation.

Kessler envisions a few choice infrastructure improvements to increase the human allure of the 38-acre Lighthouse Field State Beach: Basketball courts, a softball field, a skate park, and a fenced dog run. What are your thoughts on the best future for Lighthouse Field? Please comment.

Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour

This piece is part of the West Cliff Drive Tour. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.

For Further Information

Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour

This piece is part of the West Cliff Drive Tour. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.

takeTheTourbluetopoFontITC

Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Apple App Store
Go to Mobile Ranger Guides in the Google Play Store
  1. Sources Used

    • California Coastal Commission. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Coastal_Commission.
    • Lighthouse Point: Illuminating Santa Cruz. Frank A. Perry. Santa Cruz, California: Otter B Books; 2002.
    • The Leftmost City: Power and Progressive Politics in Santa Cruz, by R. Gendron and W.G. Domhoff. Westview Press, 2009.
    • "Stephen Kessler: Turn Lighthouse Field into a True Park," by Stephen Kessler. Opinion section, Santa Cruz Sentinel, September 6, 2014.



About The Author

I really enjoy field trips. I love being in a cool place and having someone tell me about it. The problem is, you can’t always find a professor or park ranger-type to tell you all they know about the local rocks, plants, and history. So I decided to combine my love of things natural with mobile technology.

Related posts

8 Comments

  1. randy runyan

    Thank You Ranger Gaudinski, Enlightening and enjoyable at a minimum. Thinking of the earlier developments which did not happen was disturbing as it would have denied me it’s beauty and solace during my younger life. My thoughts for present and future use would to keep it as such…. perhaps walkways exemplifying coastal biodiversity, as learning and living classroom, memorial to the once was here. The openness and wind. Let the young ones come rather than a longer bus ride to “where” no where. It is what is is and should remain with as minimal sophistication and mankindliness as practical. Let the young ones feel it….

    Reply
  2. Karl

    I say leave Lighthouse Field undeveloped. Basketball courts and softball fields aren’t really in the style of the State Parks, they are more things that local parks agencies should provide.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Santa Cruz: The Great Seaport that Wasn’t | Santa Cruz Waves

  4. Fred Geiger

    I was one of the people who worked in the early 70s to prevent a 13 story hotel and Convention Center and many acres of buildings and pavement from covering Lighthouse Field. I’m sure many folks here in SC feel that we have preserved a small but valuable ecosystem . This is not just a piece of land to be ” Improved” to cater to someone’s desire for a space to indulge their personal hobbies at the price of destroying this ecosystem.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.