By William B. Rick
The purpose of this essay is to study the origins of Mission Bay Park, not to examine the existing marine wonderland used by millions of San Diegans and visitors every year. The material derives, in the main, from recollections of my father, Glenn Rick, in 1979. This shall cover the difficult, formative years from 1926, when the first stirrings were heard, to 1953 when development of the park was underway, and its future assured.
While it would be presumptuous to claim that my father was solely responsible for its creation, we know that it is generally conceded that he was the “Father of Mission Bay Park,” and the Ventura Bridge was renamed “Glenn A. Rick Bridge” in his honor by the Mayor and Council in 1979. This review, further, will support the belief that this magnificent creation was the handiwork of civil engineers whose vision and spirit brought it from confusion to life.
In compiling this history it is not the intent to imply that the creation of such a place should lie with one craft or profession. Glenn Rick understood this when he wrote, “Remember, it is not just the results of San Diego’s efforts alone, but the wholehearted cooperation of the State of California and the United States of America.”
Almost universally praised within California, it has drawn praise and recognition across the country. Further, its creation and construction occurred at a time when regulation and restraint were not as firmly in place as one might find them today.
A great deal has been written on this endeavor. This essay will try to sift through the still existing papers of my father, Glenn A. Rick, who, as Planning Director of the City of San Diego from 1928 to 1955, planned and executed Mission Bay Park.
Creation of major public works in the beginning of the 21st Century is a painfully slow and complex procedure. The proliferation of special public interest groups, particularly when the project affects coastal and other wetlands, can stretch the review process into months, if not years. The original purpose and design can become so distorted that the original intent gets lost.
In the instance of Mission Bay Park, timing and civic needs were combined with individual vision to permit within a few months that which could have stretched into years. In addition to providing another venture onto the history of Mission Bay Park this effort needed not take a staff of hundreds of specialists with their special experience. Rather, the history of Mission Bay Park shows how one man with a clear view of an objective can create a civic asset of dramatic import.
In pursuing this objective of defining a single man’s mark on his time and place, it is well to spend a few words on his background, upbringing and experience. Glenn Rick was born April 17, 1899 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the son of William E. Rick, home builder, and Isabel Metcalf Rick, a daughter of Cyrus Metcalf, an Irish/English horticulturist of Dublin. Glenn spent his school years in Cedar Rapids and his college years at the University of Iowa and graduated in 1923 with a degree in engineering.
With the death of his father that same year he returned to Cedar Rapids to take over the Rick Building Company. In the winter of 1926/27, weary of Iowa’s snow and ice, he and his wife Ruth sold out their building interest and headed for California. He always said that the Southern California floods of that year left the young couple stranded in San Diego, with an unfulfilled promise of a job.
Doing home plans for builders at $25 each, he was forced by circumstances to go to work in 1927 for the City of San Diego as “Assistant City Planning Engineer” to Kenneth Gardner, a graduate of Harvard and landscape architect aid to John Nolen. Gardner’s leaving for Europe in 1928 left Glenn Rick as City Planning Engineer.
In may be of interest in commenting on Glenn Rick to observe, as later with Lt. Derby, that Rick had a sense of humor. In contrast to Derby, Rick had a weakness for puns and quiet levity. He even went so far as to write a book (never published) of puns.
In the early years of City Planning (1920-1930) San Diego had a five-man Planning Commission with three members appointed by the Mayor. The city planner reported to the Commission and the Mayor. More importantly, the engineer (director) held a civil service position, and hence was protected from the political whims of the Mayor. At one point, Mayor Harley Knox ignored the law to the point that the City Attorney threatened him with jail.
City Planning in San Diego had as its primary backer, George W. Marston, who had engaged John Nolen, the country’s most noted city planner. Nolen made two plans in 1908 and 1926. Neither gave much space to Mission Bay other than a scenic perimeter roadway. The plan of 1926 of itself was not so much as a specific as it was an expression of attitude. It was this act which led George Marston to be a strong backer of Glenn Rick until Marston’s death in 1946.
Prior to World War II and until his appointment as assistant city manager Rick was primarily involved in creating a comprehensive zoning plan and fending off the anti-zoning forces. With the beginning of World War II, the management of the City became progressively more difficult. The Council had appointed Walter Cooper, who in turn, made Rick assistant city manager as well as planning director. He held these posts until 1944, when he was given the choice between being assistant manager or heading Mission Bay.
What was there in Rick’s background that fitted him especially to be a planning director for a dramatically growing city? Historically cities had been built according to military needs and primarily by engineers. Early platting of lots/blocks in San Diego gave no regard to topography, view, open space or any other sensible guidelines. The pivotal documents in San Diego’s planning were the Nolen plans of 1908 and 1926.
Knowing that their city was sadly in need of a plan or plans, the Civic Improvement Association, which included seven prominent citizens plus George Marston, engaged John Nolen for the sum of $3,500 to prepare such a plan.
This first Nolan plan dealt almost exclusively with a civic center and a system of parks and was not suitable for follow-up zoning work. So, in 1926, for $10,000, Nolen prepared a second plan with more specific recommendations including zoning of the city. Again George Marston was the driving force.
The first engineering map of Mission Bay was not that of Cabrillo’s expedition in 1542. Rather it was prepared by Captain Geronimo Palacio in 1602. Palacio’s notes were given to Enrico Martinez, a cartographer and engineer. Apparently Martinez deserves the credit; since Palacio was later hanged for forging the viceroy’s signature.
While it wasn’t the most pressing problem facing the early settlers, the tendency of the San Diego River to shift its course was of concern. Silt was threatening the port. In fact a flood in the spring of 1853 diverted the San Diego river from Mission Bay to San Diego Bay. This serious threat to the economy (such as it was) provoked an immediate petition to Congress.
It was clearly time to call in the engineers; hence the arrival of Lieutenant George Derby, Topographic Engineers, US Army, in 1853. Seldom does one find greater concentration of talents in one person. An 1845 graduate of West Point, Derby had served with distinction in the Mexican War, had served with ability on several Corps projects after the war, and was a noted comic writer and satirist.
Arriving in San Diego on the steamer Northerner from San Francisco, Derby made quick work of the official assignment. His plan was for a dike running from Presidio Hill three miles to Point Loma. It is said, that while dynamiting for tying his dike to Presidio Hill, he demolished what remained of the Presidio.
Little, if any, effort went into Mission Bay until 1924, when John D. Spreckles, of the Spreckles sugar fortune, subdivided the spit of land now called Mission Beach in 1922. To serve this venture of combined amusement park and small-lot subdivision, in 1924 he built the La Jolla Street Car Line. There was now a 45-minute connection from Mission Beach to downtown San Diego. The electric street car crossed the marshlands at the north end of Point Loma, ran parallel to today’s West Point Loma Boulevard, and crossed the natural bay entrance by a bridge connecting Ocean Beach and Mission Beach. The bridges of the old track are visible today near Formosa Boulevard and West Point Loma Boulevard.
While in the early days, the small lots of Mission Beach were used for summer homes, the gradual development created difficulties when the time came to build Mission Bay park. Those whose homes or business depended on this Ocean Beach/Mission Beach bridge were in strong opposition to the new plan. This older, wooden bridge was demolished in 1951.
The Spreckles investments had hardly been completed, when the winter storms of 1926/27 left every bridge over the San Diego River broken by runoff of six plus inches of rainfall in three days. Among those stranded in San Diego was Glenn Rick, destined to be the creator of the new Mission Bay.
Getting title to Mission Bay into local hands was not easy. Until 1929 it was under the jurisdiction of the State Harbor Board. That same year the legislators ordered the state-owned tidelands and water to be a state park. From the beginning planning was difficult. In the ‘30s the word “planning” meant “zoning” and “zoning” meant threats and hate mail. A staff of five found it difficult at times. Despite this unpopularity the Planning Staff dutifully issued “A Preliminary Plan for the Mission Bay State Park” in 1930, followed by a landscape plan in 1935 then followed that with further preliminary plans in 1939, 1944, and 1945.
These early efforts to make something out of this asset had been fitful. In 1926 the State Board of Harbor Commissioners for San Diego granted a number of 50-year leases on the bay. Since these contracts required that the lessee make a minimum investment in the lease most failed for lack of action. The City Attorney was able to quite title to all but one known as the Peese lease. Because this lease did not conform to the later adopted plan, the City and lessee settled on an exchange of the 1926 lease for a hotel site in the east side of Mission Bay. The present user is the Hilton Hotel.
In the middle 1930s, two reports crucial to Mission Bay were released. The first one was issued by the State Public Works Department as Bulletin No. 48 on flood control of the San Diego River. The second, the authorization by Congress was a report on the San Diego River. Both actions were key to future development since diversion of the river was needed before Mission Bay could be improved. Despite this progress meaningful work was slowed by the Great Depression and the demands of World War II.
During the war the Council was acutely aware and fearful of a post war return to the Great Depression. In the opinion of Mayor Knox and Councilmen such as Jerry Crary Mission Bay would be key to the transition of the City from war to peace, hence, the establishment of a special unit within the government to deal with the matter. City Manager Walter Cooper made it clear that Rick had to choose between being assistant manager or being director of the Mission Bay project. So, in July 1944, the City Council designated Rick to “supervise the work of converting Mission Bay State Park into a top-notch municipal playground.” Also, the mayor and Council asked that Rick make an inspection trip around the country to see what other communities had done along similar lines. An expense allocation of $1,000 was authorized.
What was San Diego like when the Council pushed the “go” button? It had a population of 362,000 in 1945; comprised 100 square miles; had an architectural design law, soon to be ruled-illegal; had a mayor earning $5,000/year; had a six-man planning department; had just started importing water; and had a wastewater system soon to be hopelessly inadequate.
With clear policy direction from the City Council and the support of the Manager, Rick was in a position to proceed. He started out with a staff of three (Rick, Engineer Tom Allen and a secretary). By 1945 the planning staff had created a plan to present to the voters. The staff artist Wallace Hamilton prepared a diorama display in the Civic Center lobby. By 1948 the planning staff numbered 16, ten of whom were working on Mission Bay.
On 31 May 1947 the Governor approved an act of the legislation authorizing work of improvement in the San Diego River and Mission Bay. The estimated cost to the State was $1,826,000 for flood control in the San Diego River under the State Flood Control Act of 1945. The City assumed the cost of dredging, bridge reconstruction, and right-of-way acquisition among other obligations totaling $16,500,000.
While the Corps of Engineers was dealing with Congress a “Citizen’s Committee” of 20 organizations sold the project to the voters. The first bond issue of $2,000,000 was approved April 17, 1945, with 26,281 in favor and 2,748 against. This was slightly more than the two thirds required.
In May 1946 the definitive report was issued by the Corps of Engineers. This report set forth the obligations of the City needed to match the Federal expenditures. By 1948 the division of costs was Federal, $10,300,000; and non-Federal, $16,500,000. 1945 saw the purchase of wetlands at bargain rates from Roscoe Hazard, Henry Fenton and Harry Schnell.
The design, which was moving ahead in 1945 was based in large measure on the Rick’s tour of waterfronts made in 1944. In spite of war-time restraints, he was able to visit marina parks in Newport Bay, San Francisco, Portland, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit, New York, Boston and Maine. The most suitable example, in the end, was Newport.
By January 1946 dredging was started at Gleason Point, now Bahia Point. Work continued along principally on the West Bay and de Anza areas. Work continued on the bridge over the San Diego River and dredging throughout the Bay until 1954 when the project was assigned to the City Engineer. With Rick’s retirement in 1955, the project was transferred to City Engineer Fogg and, later, E. F. Gabrielson, who employed well-thought-out ways of handling the increasing amounts of silts. The planning and financing programs having been completed, it was time to return to more normal engineering practices.
The planning work began in earnest in 1944 continued through the election of 1945 and beyond. There were the usual conflicts. Yachting enthusiasts pressed for more water area for boating; park voices argued for more land recreation facilities and open spaces; environmental groups pressed for greater “natural” areas. Rick pushed hard for the environmental point of view but lost out to the more active interests. Rick pushed for 19 “natural” wildlife areas, but achieved only 5. In the end, the contribution of the Kay Kendall lands east of Rose Creek provided the principal natural area.
By 1955 the success of Mission Bay Park having been assured, Rick resigned his position and retired from 28 years of government service. For a short while he functioned as a planning consultant. In October of 1955 he founded Glenn A. Rick Engineering & Development Co.
As a consultant, Rick’s planning projects included:
- A subdivision ordinance for the City of Los Angeles
- A set of planning and development acts for the City of Del Mar
- A review of the Parrera Plan for Mission Bay for the City Council
- A general plan for Rancho El Toro in Orange County
- A general plan for the entire Scripps Ranch
- A plan for San Diego’s Midway Area with architect Dick Wheeler.
He engaged in the consulting business until 1965 when he was taken ill with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a seriously debilitating disease. While he eventually recovered, he was unable to return to consulting work. He passed away in 1983 having had a long career as homebuilder, civil engineer, city planning director, city manager, real estate broker and creator of the finest bay park in America.
Could It Be Done Today?
With Mission Bay completed and with up to 100,000 visitors and residents using the bay of a summer’s day, the opinion is often expressed that “You couldn’t do it today.”
In large measure that is true. The plan as conceived and executed could never get by the Coastal Commission. But, before abandoning the thought completely, one should consider it in light of the priorities of the Commission, which are today:
First, would be the preservation of quality wetlands. Second, might be the provision of waterfront-oriented recreation facilities. Third, might be the restoration of degraded wetlands. Fourth, might be provision of facilities for commercial fishing and recreational boating. Fifth, might be mitigation by upgrading elsewhere.
With these priorities in mind, consider where a coastal permit might find favor.
First, cleaning up the outlet into the Bay of years of waste product of the rendering plant. Second, improvement of channels to the Rose Creek and Tecolote Creek discharge permits to improve flushing of the easterly reaches. Third, provision of beach facilities to serve a rapidly growing population. Fourth, the Mission Bay Plan proposes uses also found to have a high position under the Coastal Act.
All this well may be an exercise, but it serves to remind us that this engineer-created Plan is environmentally sensitive in many regards and has found a balance between the humans and nature’s other creatures.
1. San Diego 1927-1955 Recollections of a City Planner 1977 Glenn A. Rick
2. The Story of Mission Bay 1979 Glenn A. Rick
3. Definite Project Report on San Diego River and Mission Bay, California 1949 Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army”
4. A Report on Mission Bay – San Diego 1954 City Planning Department
5. History and Development of Mission Bay 1957 City Planning Department
6. Mission Bay 1939-1965 John K. Patterson, City Engineering Department
7. Planning and Developing Waterfront Property ULI TB. 49 1964
8. Maps of the Pueblo Lands of San Diego 1602-1874 by Neal Harlow published by Dawson’s Book Shop, Los Angeles 1987.