Saturday, November 4, 2017

Shipwrecked in Malibu: The St. Croix Disaster

"Thrilling experience" seems a bit of an understatement after the headline proclaimed "Panic Reigns During Ship's Race for Shore Against Death in Flames for All!"

The steamship St. Croix sank off the coast of Point Dume 108 years ago this November. The incident is almost entirely forgotten now, but the dramatic disaster was headline news in 1909. Readers all over the country were left breathless with colorful accounts of the trials and travails of the 44 crew members and 82 passengers of the ill-fated ship. Everyone, from the captain to a six-month-old baby, was extensively profiled. 

"I lost the ship, but thank God I did not lose a life," Captain Fred Warner is reported as saying. 

The baby, described as the “six months old heroine” of the wreck by the Los Angeles Tribune, offered no comment, but she, and a small white terrier named Sweet, who also survived the wreck, each had their own 15 minutes of front page fame, and the story remained a sensation for weeks.

In the days following the first reports of the shipwreck, many newspapers surmised that the 240-foot wooden single-funnel steamer went down with “all hands.”

A detail of the artist's depiction of the St. Croix in flames from the San Francisco Call.

“Liner afire at sea, none alive aboard...[steamer] City of Topeka reports steaming around burning vessel in fog and finding no signs of life,” a New York Times headline, dated November 20, 1909, states.

“The new Shelback-Hamilton Line steamer St. Croix was burned to the water's edge to-night off Point Duma [sic], fourteen miles north of Santa Monica,” The Times article continued. “The steamer City of Topeka, which arrived at Redondo last night, reported passing the St. Croix aflame from stem to stern.”

The Delaware Pilot described it as “a holocaust at sea,” and reported that “One hundred people were burned to death, drowned or killed by the explosion of the boilers on the steamship St. Croix.”

The passenger list for the last voyage of the St. Croix.

The November 20, 1909 San Francisco Call  providing the first report of the survival of the crew and passengers, but reports of the incident varied significantly, with some accounts describing the captain beaching the burning ship and others describing a harrowing trip by lifeboat—nine boats with 15 people in each—through heavy surf to reach “Zuni” Cove. There's a theory that this was Paradise Cove, based on a description of tall cliffs, but the late Malibu historian Ronald Rindge believed that Zuni was Zuma, and that the specific location was near the outflow of Zuma Creek.

The Los Angeles Herald's reporter and photographer arrived by automobile with sandwiches and coffee and were rewarded with the scoop on the story. The castaways reportedly burned fence posts and driftwood to stay warm on the first night. However, this photo was probably taken on the second day at the Las Flores entrance to the Malibu Rancho. It's hard to see, but that may be the gatekeeper's shack on the right. 

Surviving the wreck was only the first part of the ordeal. A number of passengers and crew members were injured during the landing. One woman was caught between the hull of the ship and the lifeboat, crushing her legs. Moments later, she and her six-month-old child were reportedly nearly drowned when the lifeboat was swamped by heavy surf. 

The Call reported that she and the baby, “with the 14 other occupants of the boat, were thrown into the water, but were rescued by her husband and two other men, who dived from the upper works of the burning vessel. Herbert, the six-year-old son of Charles Vellbaum, was saved at the same time by Edward Norris, a ship's quartermaster, aided by Mrs. Grace Thomas, who proved herself a heroine.”

15 member of the crew remained behind, and were rescued by the Coast Guard Cutter Perry the following day.

The survivors gathered on the beach and tended to injuries that included burns, contusions and broken bones. The Call reported that the first mate climbed the cliffs and walked all the way to the Malibu Ranch house at what is now the Serra Retreat in search of help. The rest of the crew and the passengers spent a wet and uncomfortable night on the beach. In some of the more colorful accounts a rancher with a race car, or alternately a “secret service agent,” was the first on the scene and sent for help.

The glow of the burning vessel did attract attention and eventually ranch hands arrived with wagons and mule teams. All of the passengers and most of the crew opted to travel out on foot or by mule wagon, but 15 crew members stayed behind at the landing site and they seem to have fared better than their shipmates. The Coast Guard cutter Perry arrived the next day and transported them, including one crew member who was “severely injured” and had to be carried on a stretcher, to San Pedro.

A photo of the St. Croix's exhausted and battered Chief Officer Frank Mills and Captain Fred Warner from the Los Angeles Herald. 

In contrast, the journey by mule team seems to have been more traumatic for some of the castaways than the shipwreck.  

The only coastal route through Malibu in 1909 was along the beach. Passage depended entirely on the tides and weather—big surf or high tide could swamp travelers or leave them stranded. One of the St. Croix passengers recounted that the van drawn by the mule team overturned three times. "I guess I'll be all right," she reportedly said. "But I do wish that I could get home. I'm bruised all over."

The intrepid Miss Josephine Taylor of Denver, Colorado, with her dog Sweets, who was rescued from the water by another passenger after being thrown from the deck of the burning ship.

Another account states: “The driver of this contrivance was picking his way along the beach in the darkness when his mules became frightened and swerved out toward the sea. The left forward wheel of the wagon struck a boulder; and the vehicle was violently shunted into the surf. The mules started to run and in an instant a big comber dashed over the wagon, drenching the occupants and rending terror to the hearts.”

The castaways appear to have transported all the way to the Las Flores ranch gatehouse, where a bonfire—described in one account as having been made of railroad ties from the Malibu railroad—provided warmth while they waited for transportation back to Santa Monica and civilization. 

A group photo of some of the St. Croix's rescued passengers, from the Los Angeles Herald.

The newspaper accounts state that the steamship company did little to assist the victims, but that the police and fire departments, sympathetic residents of Santa Monica, and the reporters who were among the first to arrive at the scene provided food, clothing, and, finally, transportation for the victims. For the passengers of the St. Croix, the 36-hour ordeal was was finally over. 

The St. Croix is thought to have sunk in deep water in the vicinity of Dume Submarine Canyon, not far from Pinnacle Rocks. The wreck has never been found.

I often think about the St. Croix when November rolls around. I imagine struggling through the surf in petticoats and button boots with a small child in my arms, like the intrepid Grace Thomas. Enduring a cold, damp night on the beach, bruised and burnt and wet, and the long trek out on foot or bumping about on a mule wagon, damp and sandy wool clothes chafing battered and half drowned, along a stretch of coast rarely seen by anyone. 

I heard about the St. Croix growing up. It caught the imagination, and the local divers used to look for the wreckage off Point Dume. I didn't learn the details until I read Ronald Rindge's account in the book of maritime stories he coauthored with Judge John Merrick and published in 2000. 

I was saddened to learn that Ron Rindge passed away in October. I am so grateful that he generously shared his knowledge of Malibu and its history and stories with all of us throughout his long life. 

Suzanne Guldimann
4 November 2017

A sailboat skims over the deep tranquil water off Point Dume where the St. Croix is thought to have gone down more than a hundred years ago. Photo © 2017 S. Guldimann

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Wish You Were Here: A Transient History of Malibu's Motels

AAA-approved and spectacularly pink—First Lady Mamie Eisenhower's favorite color—inside and out. For a weary motorist, arriving at the Malibu Riviera Motel in 1948, after a drive along the mostly uninhabited Malibu coast, it must have felt like being transported to the Technicolor land of Oz. After decades of neglect, this relic of the road trip-era is now the artfully hipster Native Motel. The owners have embraced the original 1940s ambiance and restored everything to a period feel. Rooms reportedly cost around $200-$400 a night, soon with coffee and waffles served out of an Airstream every morning. But the old Riviera Motel is an exception, because most of Malibu's motel history is lost or changed beyond recognition. This postcard is from the wonderful Eric Weinberg Collection of Matchbooks, Postcards and Ephemera at the Pepperdine University Library's Digital Archive.

Nostalgia for old motels, like most forms of nostalgia, is selective and dishonest. We like to imagine a pure world before the soulless hotel chains took over, a landscape of lovely neon, local charm, and individuality. No doubt this was the case, occasionally, in the 50s and early 60s, but it was only part of the story. —James Lileks

No one cared much about the Great Malibu Motel Extinction of the 1980s and '90s. It was a gradual phenomenon, more like the end of the last ice age than the sudden change precipitated by an asteroid, but rising real estate prices were just as fatal to local guest services in their own small way as the arrival of the asteroid Chicxulub to the dinosaurs. 

Now, when almost all this particular endangered species, famous for its boomerang-patterned formica, heated pools, and signs proclaiming "AAA Approved!" is almost entirely gone, our elected officials in Sacramento suddenly care very much.

The lavish two-story Casa Malibu Motel, built by the Harris family in 1947—the golden year for motels in Malibu, was popular with the Hollywood crowd in the 1950s, when it was at the peak of motel perfection, as well as being a family vacation destination. Today, it's the $1000-$2000-a-night Nobu Ryokan, and still presumably big with the Hollywood set, but no longer accessible to ordinary mortals (those of us without a spare $2K can enjoy a virtual visit 

Just in time for the opening of the preposterously pricy $2000-a-night Malibu Nobu Ryokan hotel, a new California assembly bill seeks to turn the clock back to the era of the road trip, encouraging motel redevelopment projects and opening up the possibility of using public lands for new hotels, campgrounds, and hostels in the Coastal Zone that would be available to all, not just the boutique set.

Not everyone is enthused about the plan, at least not here in Malibu. That's because the bill as written seems to have several large loopholes that activists fear could generate an unintended building boom in parklands that were saved for conservation, not development. They are also concerned that recreational development in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, including Malibu, no matter how desirable it may appear, would put large numbers of potentially clueless visitors right in the middle of an area with some of the highest fire danger on the continent. Others question the feasibility of bringing back cheap motels. The era of Kerouac has come and gone, they say. The world has changed.

Motels and campgrounds were an outgrowth of early car culture. In a weird way, so were many of our Western National Parks, where the routes through the parks were built to showcase the best vistas to visitors with cars, not to protect resources or offer easy access to hikers. Here's an ad for Red Crown gasoline from 1923, encouraging car owners to embrace "the privileges of the great outdoors," with a scene from a dream camping vacation—frolicking on the sand, a tent on the beach, cooking over a camp stove, the faithful automobile, whitewalls gleaming, waiting to carry the vacationers to their next exciting destination.

The original motel and campground boom all across the county is tied to the history of the automobile. When Mr Ford, aided and abetted by the Automobile Club of America, opened up that new horizon for travel, campgrounds and the new motels—a portmanteau word made out of motor + hotels—sprang up all over, including throughout the Santa Monica Mountains. 

An Automobile Club map from 1915 encourages drivers to explore the Santa Monica Mountains. Topanga Canyon was a popular destination, and campgrounds and cabins cropped up throughout the canyon, recreation replacing agriculture as a cottage industry.

Early 20th century beachgoers had a luxury that has almost vanished today. Entrepreneurial landowners cobbled together tent cabins in Santa Monica Canyon and at Topanga Beach for visitors. Beach shacks, bath houses, and tents popped up all along the coast.

Here's a 1920s postcard from the Eric Weinburg Collection advertising the joys of auto camping at what looks like the beach by Temescal Canyon.

Even as early as the 1880s, when horsepower had a much more literal meaning, beach and canyon camping was a popular activity. A stagecoach catering to summer beachgoers transported intrepid travelers to the Las Flores Inn for the day, and private campgrounds offered a taste of California rancho life to vacationing Angelenos.

The Marquez family's campground in Santa Monica Canyon offered the best of beach and canyon recreation opportunities. This photo, dated 1885, is from the Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives.

The Topanga Ranch Motel, build in the 1930s, was one of the first local hostelries to cater to the motorcar crowd. It grew out of the tents at Cooper's Camp, shown in the postcard, below.

That row of cabins along the road eventually grew into the Topanga Ranch Motel. 

However, ramshackle huts and canvas tents lined the beach from Santa Monica to the Palisades long before there was a Pacific Coast Highway. In fact, there were hotels, cabins, cottages and bath houses all over the coast, followed in the late 1930s by motels, but one long stretch of the coast was of out of reach for vacationers: the old Malibu Rancho. It wasn't until the 1940s that the motel craze reached the coastal enclave.

The Topanga Ranch Motel, shown here in the 1930s, when it was owned by William Randolph Hearst, is a classic example of the early bungalow-style motel. When State Parks acquired the site in 2001, many preservationists cherished the hope that the motel would be restored using the Coastal Commission's program to assess "in lieu" funding to mitigate for the loss of public benefit at other development projects, but the old motel is still shuttered, quietly decaying. 

Here is a Google Street View look at the long-shuttered Topanga Ranch Motel.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Carl's Sea Air Motel—later known as the Sunspot—was one of the first modern motels not just in the Malibu area but in California. This image, from the Santa Monica Public Library Archives.

Carl's Motel—better known as the Sunspot, just east of West Channel Road, was one of the first motels in the area. This 12-room motel exemplified the motor hotel ideal. Completed in 1938, it was designed by well-known Los Angeles architects Alexander Schutt and A. Quincy Jones. 

Despite its decline and ignoble end as a dismal disco dive and house of ill repute in the 1970s, this motel, designed to offer food, accommodation, and gas, was a landmark. In his application to the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission to get the building listed as a historic landmark, preservationist Bradley Weidmaier described the motel as "a brilliantly orchestrated complex." Unfortunately, this motel's architectural significance wasn't enough to save it.

There's nothing left of the old Carl's Motel/Sunspot nightclub complex today. It was torn down to facilitate a park that was never built. All that's on the site now is a massive landslide mitigation project. Image: Google Street View

After Pacific Coast Highway—Roosevelt Highway in those days—was built, and the Rindge family were forced to sell off large chunks of the Malibu Rancho to pay the expenses that piled up during the battle to keep the highway out, more hotels began to pop up, but only after WW II. Gas and tire rationing, curfews and blackout regulations, the military closure at Point Dume, and the general lack of manpower put all kinds of development plans in Mlaibu on hold for the war years.

The Malibu Beach Motel still looks much the same but is currently an office building. Built in 1941, this was the first motel actually in Malibu. It served as something of a general store and gathering place during the difficult war years. This image is from a 1949 ad, once again in the collection of Mr Weinberg. 

The Malibu Beach Motel, once famous for its Hollywood clientele, is now a sedate office building that houses a development company. Image: Google Street View.

Malibu was a modest mecca for motel builders in the 1940s and '50s. Architect Richard Neutra designed the fabled Holiday House for retired director Dudley Murphy in 1947. The Wilcox family built the Malibu Riviera Motel with their own hands, the same year. The other Malibu motels over the next decade ranged from the modernist Malibu Sands to the spectacularly kitchy Tonga-Lei.

The Holiday House, a mid-century modern beach paradise, was designed by architect Richard Neutra shortly after WW II for film director Dudley Murphy.  The Surf Room is still a restaurant—Geoffrey's, but the motel rooms were converted into apartments in the 1980s. The image is an ad from around 1968.

Malibu motel ads from 1949. My mom, who grew up back east, tells me that a patio was a big deal in the 1950s, especially for transplanted or relocated East Coasters and Midwesterners, to whom a sliding glass door to a patio that could be used year round was an almost unimaginable luxury. 

The former "Sea Esta" Motel, now the Malibu M Motel. Image: Google Street View

The Malibu Beach Hotel in its original incarnation in the 1940s, as the Ocean View Motel. It's AAA Approved! Image: Boston Public Library

This motel is still there, too, 
wonderful 1940s curved corners and all, but it's all apartments now. Image: Google Street View photo.

The Malibu Shores Motel was built in the early 1950s by Betty and Nathaniel Roberts. The October 2, 1953 Malibu Times describes it as "an exceptionally beautiful structure that is a decided architectural credit to the community." It certainly meets all of the criteria for a 1950s motel: turquoise paint, check. Peanut-brittle stone facade, check. Eye-catching motel sign, check. And is it AAA approved? Yes it is. A generation later, it was given a sedate, gray and white make-over and became the Surfrider. This building is currently being remodeled and is expected to open soon in its latest incarnation as the new Malibu Surfrider Motel.

The Tonga-Lei was originally a restaurant and motel. The motel, which had nine tiki-themed rooms that matched the restaurant's over-the-top decor, kept the name when the restaurant became Don the Beachcomber. It's all gone now. 

The Tonga Lei, which opened in 1961 on the site of another somewhat eccentric restaurant—the  Drift Inn, was famous for its Polynesian-themed restaurant and bar, which featured tropical cocktails, flaming torches and genuine carved Tiki gods, but the small motel—it only had nine rooms—attached to the restaurant was also a temple of Tiki decor, resplendent with bamboo furniture. It was replaced in 1987 with a generic three-story, 47-room hotel, touted in an L.A. Times article as "the first new hotel in Malibu in 37 years." 

Alas, there's not a trace of Tiki kitch left at the Malibu Beach Inn, not even a bizarre tropical drink or two on the dinner menu for old time's sake, just three stories of luxurious but bland respectability. Image: Google Street View

The Malibu Sands Motel is a strip mall today. It was one of the last motels to be built in Malibu, and one of the largest. The original building was designed by noted mid-century modern architect Alfred T. Gilman in 1957. The Malibu Sands included "bachelor apartments," in addition to motel rooms. This postcard is also from the wonderful collection of Eric Weinberg at the Pepperdine University Library's Digital Archive.

"Nothing as fine within 400 miles," boasts this ad from 1958.

The Albatross Motel began life in the late 1940s as the Malibu Movie Colony Motel and burned down in 1963. It was never rebuilt. It has a colorful reputation that's difficult now to substantiate, and the site is reputed to be haunted—another claim that is difficult to prove. This location beautifully summarizes the trajectory of the American motel—from modern convenience to decay and from there to oblivion. Only five of the 12 motels in and around Malibu we discussed today are still in business as hotels. This is another postcard from the Eric Weinberg Collection.

There were others. The Las Tunas Isle Motor Hotel, which advertised in the Malibu Times for a couple of years in the late 1940s before turning into an apartment house. The Malibu-adjacent Santa Inez Inn on Sunset Blvd., which served delightful Sunday brunches on the patio by the pool, The Malibu Country Inn, which is said to have build in that great year for Malibu roadside motels, 1947, and has certainly been at Zuma for as long as anyone in my family can remember under one name or another, but which appears never to have produced a collectable postcard or matchbook to help refresh the memory. And the quaint shops at the original Malibu Country Mart that were once motel rooms. Next time you're there for a sandwich at John's Garden take a second look: the popular playground was the pool in the center of the motel.

Not many people remember it now, but this quirky, Tiki-themed apartment near Topanga Beach was build as the Las Tunas Isle Motor Inn by the Zimmerman family in 1946. Image: Google Street View

During the peak motel boom there was a ridiculously high ratio of hotel rooms to residents and more than enough to accommodate visitors. Many motels also offered inexpensive accommodations for summer employees and struggling writers, but there were plans to build more and more and more. Eventually the people of the community, tired of the county's vision for an L.A. version of Miami Beach, began to push back. 

Efforts to build an enormous motel complex across from Zuma Beach—110 rooms, a theater, a restaurant and shops—were firmly and resolutely defeated by residents in 1971. 

"Malibu has plenty of motels," local architect Ed Niles told the Los Angeles Times in February 1971.  

Fear that Malibu was going to be transformed into the county's vision of a resort community full of marinas and wall-to-wall hotels wasn't just hyperbole, it was one of the rallying cries of the second big push for incorporation, as this 1980 L.A. Times headline reveals. 

Today, with millions of visitors annually, there are concerns that there are not enough accommodations. However, what the proponents of AB 250, the assembly bill that inspired this road trip to the past, are seeking is affordable accommodations, and that era seems unlikely to return.

For decades the piece of land opposite what is now Pepperdine University was zoned for a hotel. It's now supposed to become a cemetery on the argument that a graveyard is somehow visitor serving. The Coastal Commission let the City of Malibu rezone the property next to Malibu Bluffs Park from a hotel to an exclusive, gated subdivision, in exchange for a $4 million in lieu fee. The problem with that is, $4 million doesn't go very far, and that property is now permanently off limits to the public the commission is supposed to be advocating for.

Low-cost, visitor serving amenities like hotels are supposed to be a priority for the commission, but they haven't always been successful protecting and retaining existing resources of this type, let alone encouraging new ones. In fairness, no matter how much we may want and need affordable overnight accommodations at the beach, no matter how many hotels and hostels and campgrounds the assembly bill might facilitate within the constraints of environmentally sensitive habitat, there is probably no way to ever meet the need in Malibu without destroying what makes the community special.

Tents on the beach at Santa Monica Canyon in the late 19th century. Image: Santa Monica Library

According to the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s Lifeguard Division, beach attendance throughout Los Angeles County has climbed from 27 million in 1967, to nearly 73 million in 2014, with an all-time high of 76 million in 2012. A huge number of those beachgoers are headed to Malibu. In 2013, we had an estimated 7.4 million summer visitors. To put that into perspective, the total number of visitors to the state of Hawaii in 2016 was 8.9 million. When one small coastal town with a population of 13,000 and less than 6000 full time residents attracts that many visitors a year it's no wonder hotels can charge $400, $1000, $2000 a night. What incentive is there to offer rooms for $100?

Fortunately for those of us who like to camp and can't afford a boutique experience, there are still plenty of campgrounds. You can still camp on the beach at Thornhill Broome State Beach, or in a rustic canyon steps from the beach at Leo Carrillo State Park and Sycamore Canyon, just like the earliest visitors to the area. 

A brochure for the long-vanished  Moel y Gan Resort in Topanga, the "Ideal Mountain Resort of Southern California." Image: CSUN Digital Library.

The privately-owned Malibu RV Park and Campground offers sites from $70-$200 a night an easy walk from Corral Beach and Solstice and Corral Canyon Parks, while area residents, channeling the entrepreneurial instincts of an earlier generation, offer backyard "glamping," a portmanteau word even more awkward than "motel." They also offer holidays in yurts, cabins, and Air Streams, at locations all over the Santa Monica Mountains and coast. Like camping facilities in and around national parks all over the country, these facilities fill up fast during peak season and are often mostly empty in the winter.

None of those things, even the state park campgrounds, is as affordable as it would have been in the 1950s, neither is the car and the gas required to get one there. Time passes, and is passing, and is past, the poet says. The era of the cheap, clean, convenient motor hotel is over and probably isn't coming back. And like James Lileks noted, nostalgia for old motels, like most forms of nostalgia, is selective. Expecting that era to return in a time of $2000-a-night boutique hotels and $45 million beach houses is wonderfully optimistic, whether it is also realistic remains to be seen.

You can read the text of AB 250 here, and also follow its progress through the committee and appropriations process. It's important to note that it apples to the entire Coastal Zone, not just to Malibu.

This is what has always drawn visitors to Malibu, the roadside motels and overpriced boutique hotels are just a means to this end. This view, whether we stay for an hour, a week, or a lifetime, belongs to all of us, Let's hope it will always be protected, cherished, and open to everyone. Wish you were here. 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Malibu Bluffs Ark

 Image: Jan Brueghel, Paradise Landscape with Noah's Ark, from the collection of the Getty Museum.

No, the title of this post is not a typo. Ever since the City of Malibu swapped Charmlee Wilderness Park to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy in exchange for Bluffs Park Open Space in 2014, controversy has raged around the park's future. The five-year swap between the city and the SMMC was intended to allow both parties to examine how the swapped properties could be used. At Bluffs, the city's goal was to use the time to explore building sports facilities in the open space park. The key word is explore. The swap didn't come with any guarantees that development would be feasible.

A wish list for Bluffs Park at a workshop at Malibu City Hall, © 2017 S. Guldimann

The City of Malibu hired a consultant to develop a plan that included a wish list of recreation facilities. However, as Malibu city staff began meeting with California Coastal Commission staff to discuss the plan, they were made aware of the extent of the constraints on the site. The city's plans for the park went from this:

To this:

Critics of the athletic facility expansion argue that even the revised project has too great an impact on environmental resources and does not adequately meet the city's environmentally sensitive habitat area setback requirements.

Proponents of the plan are upset by the prospect of downscaling or relocate some of the desired facilities elsewhere. In a recent editorial, the publisher of the Malibu Times argued that every potential site in Malibu has issues:
"Every site they choose has its problems: construction problems, size problems, noise problems, neighbor problems, access problems, parking problems and so on, and there will always be a reason not to do it."
That's certainly true, but not every site is also mapped Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area, home to as many as eight California special concern species, and a foraging area for a species of raptor with special protections. 

Not every site was originally purchased with taxpayer-funded bond money to be open space as part of the Coastal Commission's first priority acquisitions list under the Coastal Act. 

And while we're at it, not many sites have as many geological issues, including active landslides and the section of the Malibu Coast Earthquake Fault that prevented this parcel from being developed in the first place. 

Geology isn't our focus with this post, but it's worth spending a moment reflecting on it. The bluffs that give this park its name are still eroding due to active landslide zones. Here's the view from the top:

Bluffs Park erosion, © 2107 S. Guldimann
Here's the view from Malibu Road, where a landslide has been reactivated by the past winter's rains. There are six landslide faults along Malibu Road in Bluffs Park.

Malibu Road landslide, winter 2017. © S. Guldimann

The yellow dotted lines on the geology map, below, indicate the landslide zones in Bluffs Park, the arrows show the direction of the slide. That big black dotted line running through the middle of the park is the Malibu Coast Fault, an offshoot of the San Andreas Fault, and one of the reasons the Santa Monica Mountains—and Malibu—run east-west, instead of north-south.

The geology that prevented this site from being developed first as a General Motors facility that would have been similar in scope to the Hughes lab up the hill, and then as a housing tract like the one next to Pepperdine, is part of what makes this small pocket of open space unusual. The deep ravines and sloping coastal terraces, volcanic intrusions and alluvial soils are critical habitat for species that can't survive elsewhere, and that is the main point of this post. 

At a recent Malibu Parks and Recreation Commission meeting, the majority of the commissioners weren't aware of one of the main issues with the park plan: not the geology, but the presence of special concern species in the area proposed for development. If they weren't aware of this, then most Malibu residents probably aren't, either. 

Four California Special Concern Species were identified at Bluffs Park in 2010 during a biology survey for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy's camping plan environmental impact report:

1. Catalina Mariposa Lily. This etherial flower landed on the California Species of Special Concern list because of habitat loss. It grows from a bulb deep in the earth and can remain dormant for long periods when conditions aren't right. In a good year, hundreds bloom in Bluffs Park.
Bluffs Park Mariposa Lilies © 2017 S. Guldimann

2. Blainville Coast Horned Lizard. In more than a decade as as environmental journalist and photographer I've built a fairly substantial library of plant and animal photos. The horned lizard isn't in that collection, because I haven't seen one in years, despite the fact that this small lizard was still fairly common when I was a child. It is plummeting towards extinction throughout its range at a frightening rate due to loss of habitat and the introduction of a highly aggressive and invasive ant species that drives out the native ants that are this lizard's only source of food.

Image: USGS

3. Yellow-breasted Chat. You are more likely to hear the chat than see it, despite its bright yellow breast. This is a shy scrub dweller that likes the safety of the willows and laurel sumacs in Bluff Park's riparian area. It is on the special concern list primarily due to habitat loss.

Image: wikipedia

4. California Yellow Warbler. The tiny yellow warbler depends on the same kind of riparian woodland the chat requires, and like the chat its numbers have plummeted in California due to (surprise!) habitat loss.

Image: Wikipedia

There are the two additional California special concern plant species documented on site by the California Native Plant Society in the past year, according to a report they submitted to the city:

5. Dudleya Cymosa, spp ovatifolia. There are several dudleya species at Bluffs. This one may be the smallest, but it is also the rarest. Also known as Santa Monica Mountains dudleya, it grows only in the coast ranges from Ventura to Orange County, with the highest concentrations right here in and around the Malibu area. This dudleya is on the rare plant list because of its limited distribution and, yes, loss of habitat.

Image: NPS

6. Plummer's Baccharis. This rare plant is also limited to the south coast ranges, although it occurs on some of the Channel Islands. Like the dudleya, it is on the special concern list due to its limited distribution and habitat loss. Plants like this can only grow in highly specific conditions, putting them at increased risk not only from habitat loss but also climate change.

Image: Anthony Valois,  NPS

The presence of these six specially listed species at Malibu Bluffs Park Open Space is fully documented by qualified experts. Their presence in the park is scientific fact. 

Reliable witnesses have added the Coastal whiptail lizard and the loggerhead shrike to the park's menagerie of protected species, giving us a total of eight California Special Concern Species in Bluffs Park.

The shy and retiring coastal whiptail lizard is rarely seen except in spring during mating season. This beautiful  and amazing lizard was missed by the SMMC's EIR, but has reportedly been spotted at the park by a recent observer. Habitat loss has pushed this once-common species almost entirely out of the Malibu coastal zone. When the last remaining viable habitat is developed or fragmented it will have nowhere to go. The only voice it has is our voice. Photo @ 2017 S. Guldimann

I photographed this loggerhead shrike not at Bluffs, but at the city's recently acquired Trancas Fields Park—the other potential site for ballfields. The birds were spotted this winter at both parks. Like the other special concern species, this fierce little bird, which preys on snakes and lizards nearly its own size, is increasingly at risk from habitat loss. It's not adaptable. When it is pushed out of the only kind of habitat it can survive in, it can't move on. It simply dies out. Photo © 2017 S. Guldimann

The survey conducted by biologist Kathleen Dayton on April 26–28, 2010, for the Conservancy's EIR, also noted that another listed species of plant, Coulter’s saltbrush, had previously been observed at the site, and that another rare bird, the coastal California gnatcatcher, “cannot be ruled out,” although neither species was observed during her survey. 

There's another species  with special protections who is regularly seen foraging in the fields at Bluffs Park Open Space: the white-tailed kite. 

Every year, white-tailed kites winter at Bluffs Park, using the now-dead eucalyptus trees as a lookout and foraging in the open space park's fields for their prey. Photo © 2017 S. Guldimann

At its August 10 meeting at King Gillette Ranch, right here in the Santa Monica Mountains, the California Coastal Commission unanimously supported special protections for white-tailed kite foraging areas in an amendment to Santa Barbara County's Local Costal Program. South Coast Director Steve Hudson described the birds as rare and special, and made a point of stating that their foraging areas require protection from development.

Bluffs Park is home to an amazing number of threatened, protected, and rare species in a small area and there may still be more that have not been identified—species that have returned or recovered following the 2007 fire, but there's another major environmental obstacle for development in the park. Here's a photo of city officials standing in the middle of it right after the swap took place:

First Official City of Malibu Bluffs Park Tour, 2014, Image © S. Guldimann

The group shown above, which included former City Manager Jim Thorsen and two Malibu City Council members, was standing in the center of fields of native needle grass, talking  about plans for ballfields, oblivious to the rare habitat under their feet. 

In a 2003 memorandum to Coastal Commission Staff on ESHA in the Santa Monica Mountains, ecologist John Dixon stated: “Native perennial grasslands are now exceedingly rare. In California, native grasslands once covered nearly 20 percent of the land area, but today are reduced to less than 0.1 percent. The California Natural Diversity Database lists purple needle grass habitat as a community needing priority monitoring and restoration.”

Native needle grass may not look impressive, but its presence at Bluffs is important.

Purple Needlegrass, Image © 2017 S. Guldimann

According to the California Coastal Commission document, “grasslands with 10 percent or more cover by needle grass [are] significant. The memo recommends that this habitat be protected as "remnants of original California prairie," and concludes that "patches of this sensitive habitat occur throughout the Santa Monica Mountains.”

Purple Needlegrass at Bluffs Park © 2017 S. Guldimann

Needlegrass was lush and abundant at Bluffs Park this spring. This whole meadow of it is right where a parking lot is proposed, and there appears to be a much higher concentration of it than just 10 percent. Recent surveys conducted by the California Native Plant Society indicate that the Malibu Bluffs Park wildfire burn area, which was damaged in 2007 and contained extensive areas of native grassland as well as coastal sage scrub, is making a strong recovery. Species that weren't observed during the 2010 SMMC EIR study due to the fire, are reportedly making a comeback. 

We spend a lot of time talking about ESHA in Malibu, but there are some strange misconceptions about it. A former local politician who really ought to have known better recently argued that disturbed ESHA is no longer ESHA, and that the part of the park damaged during the 2007 fire ought to be fair game for development. That's not how it works. 

  1. Areas in which plant or animal life or their habitats are either rare or especially valuable because of their special nature or role in an ecosystem and which could be easily disturbed or degraded by human activities and developments are Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Areas (ESHAs) and are generally shown on the LUP ESHA Map. 

    The LUP also states: 

    1. 3.4  Any area not designated on the LUP ESHA Map that meets the ESHA criteria is ESHA and shall be accorded all the protection provided for ESHA in the LCP. The following areas shall be considered ESHA, unless there is compelling site-specific evidence to the contrary:
      • Any habitat area that is rare or especially valuable from a local, regional, or statewide basis.
      • Areas that contribute to the viability of plant or animal species designated as rare, threatened, or endangered under State or Federal law.
      • Areas that contribute to the viability of species designated as Fully Protected or Species of Special Concern under State law or regulations.
      • Areas that contribute to the viability of plant species for which there is compelling evidence of rarity, for example, those designated 1b (Rare or endangered in California and elsewhere) or 2 (rare, threatened or endangered in California but more common elsewhere) by the California Native Plant Society.

    2. And also:

    3. 3.6  Any area mapped as ESHA shall not be deprived of protection as ESHA, as required by the policies and provisions of the LCP, on the basis that habitat has been illegally removed, degraded, or species that are rare or especially valuable because of their nature or role in an ecosystem have been eliminated. 

Almost the entire Bluffs Park, including the area where new ballfields and parking lots are proposed, is designated ESHA on the city's official map. It's the green area under the word "coast" in the map, above. 

The presence of all of this ESHA at Bluffs Park and the threatened species that depend on it for existence raise some interesting ethical questions. It's a kind of microcosm of the political perspective that takes the position that human desires deserve to take precedence over environmental concerns, that the reward now will be greater than the price we may pay later. 

Here in California we are constantly reminded of what is at stake. It's right there on our state flag:

The last documented native California grizzly bear was killed in August of 1922, less than a hundred years ago.  Today, this species lives on only as a symbol of what was lost, but hopefully also as a reminder of what we still stand to lose. 

My dad worked hard to save the Point Dume headlands from becoming first a hotel, and then a California State Parks beach parking lot. He was part of the effort to put both Point Dume and the Bluffs on the Coastal Commission's first priority acquisitions list. No one today would think a parking lot was a good use for what is now the Point Dume Nature Preserve. 

In the 1970s, the county thought it would be a good idea to bulldoze what is now the Point Dume Preserve and turn it into a large paved parking lot. It didn't happen because activists with clearer vision prevailed. @ 2017 S. Guldimann

The Adamson House was also scheduled to become a beach parking lot. The fight to save it was led by Judge John Merrick. It's a landmark, a museum, a priceless cultural resource today, but it also almost ended up being a parking lot, not because State Parks is evil—it's not—but because a decision was made somewhere on paper, without actually looking at and understanding what was at stake. That forgotten and ignominious planner was right, we do need more beach parking, but not at the expense of something that can't be replaced once lost.

The Adamson House, once destined to be torn down for a parking lot. © 2017 S. Guldimann

We've created a world where nature is increasing forced into islands of parkland, arks as much as parks that contain the remnants of a vanishing world. However, as natural resources continue to diminish, we seem to be increasingly looking towards the places we set aside with different goals in mind. The new fight to save the national monuments and parks from oil exploration and mining is the big example, but even a tiny park like Malibu Bluffs Park can highlight this dichotomy. 

Malibu's mission statement, General Plan, and Local Coastal Plan all place an emphasis on protecting environmentally sensitive habitat area. It's a key element of the Coastal Act. Either something is ESHA or it isn't. If it is, it needs to be protected from all development, not just from development we don't want. Otherwise, what's the point? 

This isn't just an argument over maps with red and purple lines, it's about the environmental impacts of replacing this:

Bluffs Park Meadow © 2017 S. Guldimann

With this:

Bluffs Park Ballfields © 2017 S. Guldimann

Whether or not that change is compatible in any realistic way with the continued survival of the special concern species that have been documented on the site remains to be seen, but it's unrealistic to claim that there will be no impact. Coastal Commission staff have already made it clear that there are substantial issues. Ultimately, ESHA will be the deciding factor in the debate over Bluffs. 

Bluffs Park Path © 2017 S. Guldimann

Malibu Bluffs Park Open Space is an island in a rapidly changing landscape, an ark that carries a fragile living cargo. Maybe the fate of a small lizard or a rare flower doesn't matter equally to everyone, but these animals and plants have special protections at the state level and that's because they are balanced on the edge of extinction. And this time it isn't some soulless corporation or profit-obsessed developer who is conspiring to help shove them over, it's us—the people of Malibu who have always worked together to combat pollution, protect resources and open space, and fight for environmental justice, except, I guess, when there's something we want badly enough to look the other way. 

What happens to Bluffs Park Open Space has serious consequences that go far beyond local wants or desires. We all need to rise above politics-as-usual and work together to find a viable solution that provides athletic facilities without sacrificing environmental resources. To do that fairly and thoroughly those resources—lizard, bird, flower and leaf of grass—have to be a major part of the discussion, otherwise all that talk about stewardship and environmental responsibility is just talk.

Bluffs Park Open Space Park © 2017 S. Guldimann