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Newport Beach in the Rearview Mirror – “The Freeway That Almost Destroyed Newport” 


Bill Lobdell looks at people and events – famous and forgotten – that shaped Newport Beach in his podcast, “Newport Beach in the Rearview Mirror.”

In his most recent podcast, Lobdell shares, “The Freeway That Almost Destroyed Newport” Here’s a preview of his latest episode.

Newport Beach in the Rearview freeway

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Courtesy of Bob Curci

Freeway Special – a supplement to the “Newport Harbor Ensign.” The number 3 marker is Hoag Hospital.

In 1970, the Newport Beach City Council and California Department of Highways signed an agreement to build a coastal freeway – 12 lanes wide in places – that would have run through the heart of Newport and include five-level interchanges at Newport Boulevard and West Coast Highway and MacArthur Boulevard and East Coast Highway. 

To this day, the Coastal Freeway is the biggest “what-if” moment in Newport Beach history. If built, the freeway would have bifurcated the town, separating the harbor and beaches from the rest of the town. It would have brought an estimated 187,000 cars through the city each day. In short, the freeway would have destroyed Newport Beach, as we know it, today. 

The freeway route was just nuts. A massive bridge would be built over the Santa Ana River, and the freeway would run through West Newport atop a 35-foot-high embankment. The strip of West Newport businesses along the Coast Highway would be wiped out along with hundreds of Newport Shores homes to make room for the freeway. 

Along Mariners’ Mile, the freeway planners considered two options. One, to mow down all the businesses along the inland side of West Coast Highway and build a double-deck portion of the freeway wedged between PCH and the bluff. Or two – and this was the route they chose – run the freeway up the bluff into the Cliff Haven neighborhood near Ensign Intermediate School and bulldoze hundreds of homes, including the blufftop mansions along Kings Road. 

The massive interchange at the entrance to Corona del Mar village was described by opponents as “an upside down bowl of spaghetti with five levels and its highest point 90 feet up. It will be one-half mile long and one-quarter of a mile wide and wipe out more than 80 acres. This kind of monster the people must have a voice in.” 

Here’s more craziness: The Coastal Freeway would have run behind 5th Street in Corona del Mar, in the path of what’s now Harbor View Elementary School and the OASIS Senior Center, 90 feet below grade and cross Buck Gully via a large bridge.

How close was the freeway to being built? From Sacramento to Newport Beach, almost everyone thought it was a fait accompli. Six of the seven Newport Beach City Councilmembers favored it (even lobbied for it), plans had been completed, houses and businesses were taken through eminent domain and the state would foot the bill. 

But then, the Freeway Fighters of the Harbor Area came to the rescue. The group of resident activists charged into the battle, lobbying state and federal officials, publishing an eight page mini-newspaper, collecting more than 20,000 signatures on a petition protesting the freeway (pretty incredible since the town only had 50,000 residents at the time). 

Still, the City Council wouldn’t budge, contending that a freeway was needed and besides, a deal had already been struck. So, the Freeway Fighters went back out and gathered double the amount of signatures needed to put a referendum on the ballot. On the ballot, five of the seven city councilmembers put forth arguments against the referendum. 

The election on March 9, 1971 drew the then-largest turnout in Newport Beach history, and, not surprisingly, the referendum passed in a landslide with 85% voting to stop the freeway. The freeway plans unraveled quickly from there.

Just two months later, a new City Council, with some anti-freeway councilmembers joining the ranks, voted to rescind the freeway agreement two months later. And then, on July 14, 1971, the state did a 180. Gov. Ronald Reagan announced a new state policy: There would be no “unwarranted intrusion by the state highway system on the California coastline.”

Newport Beach was saved!

Listen to the whole story of “The Freeway That Almost Destroyed Newport” on the Newport Beach in the Rearview Mirror podcast at

Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for connecting to Bill Lobdell’s future podcasts in Stu News.


William Lobdell, former Daily Pilot editor and Los Angeles Times journalist, has a podcast called “Newport Beach in the Rearview Mirror,” which looks at people and events – famous and forgotten – that shaped Newport Beach. You can listen and subscribe to the podcast at You can also follow “Newport Beach in the Rearview Mirror” on Instagram (@newport_in_the_rearview_mirror).

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