Mayor Howard Rogers and the Freeway Fight

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This map shows the proposed interchange at the 55 Freeway and Coast Highway.

By Bob Rogers

Several generations of the Rogers family have made significant contributions to the development of Newport Beach. This month marks the 35th anniversary of the death of Newport Beach Mayor, Howard Rogers, one of the original Freeway Fighters without whom Newport Beach would be avery, very different place today.

Howard and his family played a major part and several generations of Newport Beach history.  Howard’s uncle, George Rogers, was key in the financing of the harbor entrance improvement of 1936, converting the Lower Bay from a dangerous inlet into a safe yachting harbor.  A monument thanking George Rogers stands at the end of the Peninsula near The Wedge, a few blocks from the home where Howard lived while a city councilman and mayor.

On Thursday, Oct. 6, the Newport Beach Historical Society will tell the story of George Rogers and the Newport Jetty.

Mayor Howard Rogers.

Howard Rogers grew up in a bay front home in Newport, sailing his snowbird past the many sandpits throughout the bay.  When he wasn’t sailing, he was either playing football on the mud flats or using them as a slide.

Rogers was first elected to the city council in 1966 and became a key leader in the vicious freeway fight of 1971.  For those too young to remember, at that time the 55 Freeway – then called the Newport Freeway – had advanced as far as the northern edge of Costa Mesa.

The freeway was supposed to be completed all the way through to the intersection of Coast Highway and Newport Blvd.  There, a monstrous interchange was to be built covering much of what is today Hoag Hospital and the surrounding area.  This was to connect to a greatly expanded Coast Highway with eight to 10 lanes, hanging along the edge of the Newport bluffs, eventually leaping the Back Bay and carving a swath through Corona del Mar.

Residents were arguing, neighbor against neighbor, about whose streets should be blighted with freeway off ramps.  In one meeting of concerned citizens, then-Councilmember Howard Rogers brought the warring factions together by suggesting, “Why not just cancel the entire freeway?”  This was met with applause, but deemed impossible as the City Council had, by a 5 to 2 vote (Howard in the minority), already approved the agreement with the state to enable the building of the freeway.

Rogers and the Freeway Fighters proposed a controversial amendment to the city’s charter that would make it extremely difficult for the city to follow through on this previous promise.  The five city councilmembers who had endorsed the freeway campaigned heavily against this amendment.  The politics, name-calling and dirty tricks were vicious.  In a special election, the measure passed by a heavy margin and every one of the five councilmen who had been on the wrong side of the issue were defeated at their very next council election.  Rogers ascended to mayor in 1976, but was struck down by a heart attack about six months later.

Ironically, Howard’s uncle, George Rogers, is known today for what he helped to build – the safe harbor entrance.  Howard Rogers is less well known because his great achievement was causing something not to be built, thus preserving the tranquility and character of the City of Newport Beach.

On Thursday Oct. 6, the Newport Beach Historical Society will present “The Jetty,” a dinner presentation that will debut early film footage of our harbor. Reservations and information can be found at www.NewportBeachHistorical.com.

 

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