Transcript for the Piece Audio version of Saving Crystal Cove


Laura Davick: I think the experience that people love most about coming to Crystal Cove now is that it’s very simple. It’s very, very, very simple. There is nothing fancy about it. When you drive down that little road that takes you into Crystal Cove and you leave behind Fashion Island and the Newport Villas and the gated communities, and you come to Crystal Cove you are stepping back in time.

You’re listening to "Stories of the Coast.” I’m your host, Robin Pressman.

Una: And I’m Una Glass, Executive Director of Coastwalk California. Coastwalk offers this series to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Proposition 20, by highlighting stories of how the California Coastal Act has protected our public beaches and trails. Because the coast is never saved, it’s always being saved.

Robin: In this episode, we take a trip to Crystal Cove State Park in Orange County. This historic beachfront community of hand-built cottages was originally built by squatters in the 1930’s on land owned by the Irvine Company. It survived as a private enclave for dozens of families until State Parks bought the land in 1979. Residents were allowed to remain for another 15 years, but in 1995, the state signed a secret deal with a hotel developer to convert the cottages into an exclusive, luxury resort. But thanks to the vision of one former resident who organized statewide support for preserving and restoring the cottages, Crystal Cove survives today as the last example of authentic early California beach culture. More importantly, it is affordable, and fully open to the public. This is a story about one woman who fought to protect her home---even when she knew it would never be her home again.

LD: My name is Laura Davick, I’m the founder of the Crystal Cove Alliance, and I grew up at Crystal Cove, my family’s been there since 1937, and my parents fell in love there, and they acquired Cottage #2 when I was a year old, so I’ve virtually been there for the past 53 years. I don’t think there could be a better place to grow up than Crystal Cove. I often slept on the front patio at night, so getting up in the morning I’d run down to the beach, and go down to the tidepools…I’d get up very, very early before the sun came up, and I’d run up the hill and get my horse, and throw the saddle on and bring her down to the beach and ride up and down that beach, it was really, really an amazing experience.

Robin--Although the Cove was originally part of the historic Irvine Ranch, it was Hollywood that first discovered Crystal Cove. With its broad, sandy beach and tranquil bay, it made the perfect setting for early silent films, and movies like The Sea Wolf, Treasure Island and Beaches.

LD: …there were lots of films that were made there during the teens and twenties, this was before the cottages were there. the reason that Crystal Cove was so desirable was that they could create a south Seas feeling without ever leaving California. And then some of the film sets were left up, one or two evolved into a cottage, and then families started coming down and erecting these 1-room cabins on the beach. you have to remember back then, Pacific Coast Highway didn’t go in until 1927 so that is really what opened up people coming into that area. And this was all unbeknownst to the Irvine Co, so as these squatters continued building these cottages, soon there were 46 of them, dotting the coastline there, and so the Irvine Co sent out this letter saying if you would like to move your cottage you may, but if you do not from this point forward we’re going to be charging you a land lease to remain here. So if you were in you were in at that point, you had a lease. It wasn’t a long-term lease, but those were the families that were the fortunate ones that were able to live at Crystal Cove.

Robin—For the next several decades, the families that made up the Crystal Cove community enjoyed an idyllic, carefree, yet exclusive lifestyle. The geography of the cove as well as the gate across the road ensured total privacy for the residents. Behind the gates, Cove culture included luau parties, fireworks displays, bonfires, grunion hunts and saluting the “martini flag” hoisted at 4:00 on Saturdays to mark the official start of Happy Hour. Coveites built a “Yacht Club” out of hatch covers and driftwood, and even printed up mock “membership” cards. Residents created unique personas for their eclectic cottages, which they christened with names like “Whistle Stop,” “Pearl Harbor” and “The Tiltin’ Hilton.”

LD: There were never any property lines at Crystal Cove, and so people just built where they wanted to. And there was no permission, no permitting, no cities to go thru, no…nothing like that. So these cottages truly, just evolved over a period of years.

… the way they were constructed, often times using materials that were found other places, sometimes things that washed up on the beach, were used there was a large wooden schooner that washed ashore in 1927, and some of the wood off of that schooner was used on the North Beach cottages, there is one cottage that has things from the Del Coronado Hotel, and windows from an old rail road, and so it’s just an eclectic source of materials.

Robin--But in 1979, the Irvine Company sold the property to the state. In an attempt to preserve their unique community, residents had the foresight to get Crystal Cove included on the National Register of Historic Places a few months before the property changed hands. The designation protected the structures, but when the beach beneath the cottages became public property, the residents’ days there were numbered.

LD: In 1979 State Parks purchased the property. At that point, it started to change. It was originally this small little community where there was a gate, it was very private, and people didn’t dare to come in because they just didn’t feel that they were welcome there. Then the gates came down, and it became open to the public, and then the rules started, and there were no more riding horses on the beach, and no more fire rings or fires on the beach, and then fireworks were against the rules and regs, so slowly it changed. And during that time we continued living there, But nonetheless, our time was clearly up. We as residents were under more and more pressure to move.

Robin—The Yacht Club was torn down, alcohol was banned, and the proud Martini Flag waved no more. Residents worked out a series of agreements with the State that allowed them to stay in their cottages temporarily, while sharing the beach with the public. In return, they gave up any future relocation assistance. In this way, they were able to remain for another 15 years. But in 1995, they started hearing about a new luxury resort that would change the face of Crystal Cove forever. Five years earlier, behind closed doors, State Parks had signed a 60-year contract with a hotel developer to transform the cottages into a luxury resort. Nobody knew about the deal until men in suits started showing up at the Cove. When suspicious residents asked them what was going on, they were shocked at the answer.

LD: The plan consisted of converting the 46 cottages into 73 units, putting in three swimming pools, a 100-seat restaurant, valet parking, and I assure you, it never would have been the same. But the primary concern was that the room rates were going to be $375-$700 per night. So clearly creating a very private, and very commercialized enterprise. It was a dangerous precedent for the State Parks system to give away park land like that.

Robin: Laura Davick started organizing public workshops to educate the community about the resort plan. She spoke at City Council meetings, Coastal Commission hearings, and at the Parks and Recreation Commission: anywhere and everywhere they would let her talk about Crystal Cove, she would go.

LD: People were always interested in knowing what was happening down at Crystal Cove, so I felt like I had an audience. And they were also surprised by the fact that this contract existed, and that they weren’t aware of it… It was unknown to the community what the resort plan was going to entail, and that we were so close to losing it, and in fact it had been lost. The contract was signed, this was a done deal. This was not just some plan that was being discussed. …So there was lots to talk about. And there were other environmental organizations that were involved and were passionate about doing similar work. Everyone had a different vision for Crystal Cove. But we decided that in order to be really united and be strong we just really needed to fight the resort. And so, that’s what we all sort of coalesced around was getting that resort stopped.

Robin—But Davick soon learned that the power of “no” only goes so far. In the process of fighting the resort, she discovered the inherent power of positive message: In this case, a better vision for Crystal Cove’s future.

LD: I had a different vision for what CC could be, and first I felt that if it were going to be open to the public it needed to be affordable, but I also felt that because Crystal Cove was so unique that it really shouldn’t just be converted into a hotel, that it should become a world class facility that included some very exciting and important educational venues. I had amassed this huge collection of historic information as well as photographs, oral histories and so in my mind, those stories needed to be told, and that information needed to be a part of what people would experience when they came to Crystal Cove. Rather than some varnished version of what the cottages were like.

Robin—But some of Davick’s neighbors didn’t share her vision. They formed a homeowner’s association and sued State Parks in an attempt to keep their homes. Davick saw it as a lost cause, and publicly recused herself from the lawsuit. Instead, she founded a nonprofit organization, the Alliance to Rescue Crystal Cove, and continued her crusade.

LD: When I formed the organization I realized that Crystal Cove was about to be lost. I was still living there, but I really knew our time was up. It was a new era, there was no way that the state was going to allow us to continue on. And so my vision shifted. Although I was still a resident, I let it be known to everyone that this was not about saving my cottage, it was about saving all the cottages, and it was about creating the next Crystal Cove. So for me it was much different. But for all the families that were there it was a very difficult time. Because cottages they had had in their families for generation after generation and it was a very difficult time personally for me at that time, because some of the people who lived there felt that I was you know. I should have been on the other side. But nonetheless, our time was clearly up, and I wanted to make sure that Crystal Cove was going to remain authentic

Robin—But vision and a nickel will get you a gumball. The State of California had signed a legally binding contract with the developer to build a resort. Unwinding that deal seemed far-fetched, at best. Park staffers had their marching orders from Sacramento. So the State decided to host a public meeting to sell the plan to the community. But they underestimated their audience.

LD: The real turning point for Crystal Cove was on January 8, of 2001, at Lincoln Elementary School, and I’ll never will forget that evening. It was great. It was probably one of the best meetings I’ve ever attended. There were about 800 people there, in the room, and State Parks had come down with the resort developer to present this resort plan to the community. And there were tables out in front that said “No Resort” and people were holding signs, and it was just a wonderful demonstration of a community pulling together to really say, “not on our watch, not at Crystal Cove. This plan is not wanted.” And so I remember State Parks getting up and trying to do an overview power point presentation about the plan, and then when the resort developer tried, and I underscore “tried” to get up and talk about his plan, no one would listen. And then we had a series of people giving public comments, probably about 30-40 people stood up and talked about why this was such a bad idea. And so from that point forward, I knew as I pulled out of the parking lot, that that plan was dead. It was not going forward. I could just tell it was just like the wind had shifted.

Robin--Ironically, the cottages at Crystal Cove that people fought so hard to save could never be built on the coast of California today. Some are directly on the sand. Others are perched on the edge of the bluff. It’s precisely the type of development that the Coastal Act was created to prevent. And yet, Davick found an avid supporter in Coastal Commission Executive Director, Peter Douglas. Unbeknownst to Davick, he did more than just share her public vision for Crystal Cove. He played a key role behind the scenes in convincing the would-be developers to drop their plans for a high-end resort.

Pete Douglas: It would have been a colossal give away of public resource. So we told them they couldn’t do it. They’d have to change the Coastal Act and get the plans changed and we were going to vigorously fight that. I made it very clear to them that if they wanted to go that way they’d have to go through me. And I was going to fight this thing to the end because it needed to be open to the public. It’s a crown jewel on the coast. They knew how serious we were and they didn’t want a public fight because they would lose that public fight. The public was clearly on our side. So they cut their losses and said OK if we can’t have it our way give us some money, buy us out and we’ll get out of your hair.

LD: About a week after the Infamous January 8 meeting, I received a call from the Coastal Conservancy, and they explained that they might have $2 million dollars to provide to State Parks to buy out the developer’s contract. The meeting was down at Laguna and everyone, all the folks that were involved in trying to stop this were there, and their Board unanimously approved providing $2 million dollars to terminate the developer’s rights. So at that point we were kind of back to square one. The developer was gone, the resort contract was gone, and it was time to try to figure out what to do with the cottages at Crystal Cove. The cottages were still being lived in at that point, the residents were still there. We ended up leaving that year. This would have been around February of ‘01, and the residents moved out in July.

Robin—with cottages finally vacant, the process of planning for Crystal Cove’s future began. Suggestions ran the gamut from tearing all the cottages down, to converting them all to overnight rentals. Davick’s vision included some overnight rentals, but also a marine research facility, classrooms and an artist-in-residence program. She envisioned a museum where visitors could immerse themselves in the cove’s culture and history, and listen to her recordings of former residents, telling stories about the old days. Ultimately, her vision prevailed.

LD: I really felt that if people were coming to Crystal Cove whether it be for an hour, overnight, or a week, that they should be able to become really submerged in all of the many things that make Crystal Cove so unique. So, thru that planning process, the plan that evolved was approved by the Park and Rec Commission and also the Coastal Commission in 2003. And so then we had this great plan and there was no money. And so the Alliance to Rescue Crystal Cove which I had formed in 1999, now transitioned into the Crystal Cove Alliance, and their focus shifted from “rescue” to “restoration”

Robin— Proposition 40 came to the rescue, with $9.2 million in state bond funds which paid for the restoration of the first 22 cottages. The Alliance raised another $6.7 million in private donations for Phase 2, the research and education facilities, as well as significant infrastructure. Now the restored cottages are almost always fully booked, and there is a popular restaurant where the old Soda Fountain used to be. All of it is managed by The Crystal Cove Alliance in cooperation with State Parks, a unique operating agreement that is becoming a model for management elsewhere in the State Park system.

LD: So now having Phase 2 behind us, we have simply one remaining phase, and that’s the North Beach area—17 cottages on the North Beach, estimated at approximately $20 million. And we are currently focused on that.
That will more than double the amount of rentals that we have now. They’re in pretty bad shape, but they have recently been evaluated and I’m told they are in better condition than some of the Phase 2 area that we just finished. But needless to say, it’s a huge project.

PD - There is no question that if I look at the California coast and all the places where activists made a difference, Crystal Cove stands right at the top of the list. People like Laura Davick, Susan Jordan and others who just got in the way of the bulldozers and said, “We’re not going to let you come thru here, This is the people’s asset.” And now when you see what they’ve done to restore that historic treasure it’s just amazing. I’ve been down there now so many times and there are people walking around from Ohio, Middle America with their jaws hanging down. And that just warms my heart. So hats off to the activists.

LD: As far as being an activist, I didn’t even really know what an activist was. But I will tell you that when you are passionate about something and protecting something, there is no ends that you will go to to make sure that something is protected. And I think back on how I felt about those 46 cottages and how I still feel, and I kind of feel like a mother with her kittens, you know it’s like I’m very, very protective about what happens down there.

Robin---It was an education Davick wasn’t looking for, but one she doesn’t regret.

LD: This is what I learned. I learned that you never ever take NO for an answer. Because I can’ tell you how many times people said no to me. But you just have to keep pushing forward. And there’s the old saying you can’t eat the whole elephant all at once, so you just have to eat it one bite at a time. And so every little step was a victory. And now, looking back over the past 14 years or whatever it’s been, I think if I had seen the magnitude of how much work this was going to be, I may have maybe chose another path. But I now have this huge sense of purpose in my life, and I have this huge challenge to complete this project, and to see it to the end. And all these great activists that have gotten involved, and people in our organization, and our Board of Directors, and so now we have this huge group of passion that has come from this.

Robin—Now, instead of living at Crystal Cove, Davick goes to work there every day, in a bluff-top cottage that has been converted into an office. She has furnished all of the cottages with a mixture of original items donated by former owners, and period pieces from garage sales and thrift stores. But her memories of growing up on the beach are never far from her mind.

LD: That experience as a child I am quite sure is what motivates a lot of us to choose the paths we choose as adults. And I can only tell you that being at Crystal Cove and that experience I had as a child inspired me to try <> to preserve Crystal Cove. (26:18) (26:57) Because the coast is never saved, it’s always being saved. And the same thing for state parks—parks are never saved, they’re always being saved. Just because it’s in a state park, doesn’t mean it’s safe.

Robin: This program was produced by KRCB Public Radio Station in Santa Rosa, Coastwalk California, and California State University Chico Masters Student Sarah Christie. Our theme music, “Glacia” was written and performed by Micky Hart. For more information, please visit I’m Robin Pressman for Coastwalk, saving the coast, one step at a time.