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Thursday, March 03, 2005 | It has been 60 years now since Jacob Dekema began to introduce us San Diegans to our future. He was (and remains, at almost 90) the calm and civilized bureaucrat whom the State of California Division of Highways assigned to design, build, and oversee San Diego freeways.

Today, it is a wistful event to swing by Dekema’s home in Bird Rock and discuss San Diego freeways. They weren’t always there, you know. Jake put them there. Jake and your gasoline taxes.

“We wouldn’t be in this traffic mess if we had built both halves of the San Diego freeways we were supposed to at that time,” he says. “But we only built half of the system. The money ran out.”

The first freeway loop was completed around downtown Los Angeles in 1962, rejuvenating the center of that city as a headquarters area. In San Francisco, residents revolted and halted completion of the Embarcadero Freeway that would have formed an elevated noose around the bay front. Tourists still gape at the scar where the freeway stopped in midair, a concrete tribute to the activist communities of an aroused San Francisco.

In San Diego, we were, as usual, divided. Many were aghast at the visual damage that the freeway system might bring, and the islands of communities that would be isolated. A larger number cited growing traffic congestion and hailed the prospect as the all-time cure for traffic jams.

As many San Diegans chose to view it, Los Angeles was being ripped apart with freeways. But Dekema cared as much for San Diego as any of the rest of us. (He lives on in the same home he loved so much even then on Bird Rock Avenue.) So it was quite in character that he asked the team of freeway engineers who preceded Caltrans to spend some quiet time sightseeing San Diego through his eyes. He was district director from 1955 to 1980.

His statement of freeway philosophy then has always seemed to me the most forthright:

“We find out where people are coming from and where they’re going. Then we draw a straight line from A to B, and that’s where we try to build a freeway. Of course, it’s surprising how many people don’t know where they’re going.”

The solution that came in large part from Dekema’s own loyal brain was that we would do our best to hide San Diego’s freeways in our canyons and valleys and minimize the damage to views of sky and sea, canyons and bluffs. Unlike some of his peers, he did not view concrete freeways as civic monuments to heroism. He won detailed cooperation from Harry Haelsig, who was then San Diego’s city planner. Together, they first laid out the routes that I-5 and I-8 would follow.

Environmentalism was not yet venerated. We knew Mission Valley then as farmland, not as an endangered riverbed. Mission Bay had long been seen as non-navigable marshland, spewing red blood and carcass seepage down the San Diego River bed from a slaughterhouse.

Rose Canyon was known only for its brick kiln, and the cleavage of hills through which trains of the Santa Fe wound their way in to San Diego’s cul-de-sac and out again.

Dekema did his best, and he has had a foolproof alibi against criticism ever since that rampage of freeway building ended too soon almost half a century ago.

“We’ve had this incredible increase in population and traffic,” he said the other day. “But the freeways in San Diego would still be adequate if we’d built both halves. But we never put in the east-west connectors that were all in the original master plan.”

The list of unbuilt freeways is enough to make every commuter wince:

Dekema’s maps showed Highway 52 was to have been completed east then to link at Santee.

Highway 76 was to be a freeway link with Highway 15.

Highway 125 was to be a freeway as far as Poway.

Highway 78 was to be a freeway through Escondido and to the Wild Animal Park.

And Highway 157’s freeway link to National City was deleted.

With those parts of his plan absent, Dekema does not seem surprised now even by the traffic that squeezes through the merge of 805 and 5 south of Del Mar. He prefers not to think of that as a 20-lane freeway. He thinks of it as two 10-lane freeways running side by side, an option that seems more acceptable to his ordered mind.

For him, the most difficult phase of the original freeway building boom came with the stretch of 805 through North Park at Boundary Street.

“Boundary Street went along the city limits at that time, and that’s why it was called Boundary,” he says. “We had to incorporate a street that was much wider at one end than it was at the other. We went through all kinds of ridiculous confusions on that mess.”

Dekema received “absolutely essential” help from planners across the region.

“All that regional help from all the smaller cities was essential to getting it shaped up as well as we did,” he recalls. “But in today’s world, that kind of help is politically impossible. It’s each one for himself out there now.”

That’s sort of the way he feels about that apron of concrete south of Del Mar that he calls two ten-lane freeways side by side:

“My only advice is read the signs very carefully going in or you’ll come out somewhere you don’t mean to go.”

Read this month’s San Diego Magazine “Preserving Paradise”

In March, veteran newspaper columnist Neil Morgan helps launch San Diego Magazine’s “Preserving Paradise” – a three-part series on the region’s epic infrastructure challenges – with a thought-filled and thought-provoking essay on the pension scandal and other crises that have rocked San Diego’s City Hall. He also offers his keen perspective on how we can move beyond the dark ages with tough choices and visionary zeal. Morgan is part of a team of more than a dozen editors and writers contributing some 30 stories to the series that runs through May.

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