"Shanty Village at Topanga Creek Awaits Doom – Development"
County to Get Landlord's Plans for Homes, Commercial Areas
by Robert W. Stewart
Times Staff Writer
Only a makeshift fence, fashioned from cracked wooden doors and a discarded window, stands between Murf the Surf's ramshackle cottage and the high edge of Topanga Creek.
But for half a century the two-room dwelling that Murf, otherwise known as John Murphy, rents for $240 a month has somehow eluded the winter floods that sweep mud, houses and sometimes people down Topanga Canyon to the sea.
Despite that run of luck, Murphy knows that his rustic creekside home is doomed – not by nature but by the Los Angeles Athletic Club, the landlord that own the ragtag collection of homes, cabins and shacks that for more years than most people can remember has squatted in the delta at the mouth of Topanga Canyon, at the eastern edge of Malibu.
On Tuesday the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will consider a set of plans that, if approved, will all but guarantee the destruction of what is left of the community at Topanga Creek, a funky, laid-back seaside shanty-town that sprang up after World War I, when flocks of Angelenos first began driving out the coast highway to escape the city for the weekend.
Homes, Shops, Channel
In place of the aging wooden cabins, weathered roadside businesses and the ever-changing creek channel, the plans would substitute sparkling new apartment buildings and condominiums, upscale shops and restaurants and a new multimillion-dollar channel to safely and permanently route Topanga Creek to the ocean.
According to one private estimate, the plans would allow the Athletic Club to construct between 700 and 800 residential dwellings in an area that now holds 80-odd homes, 10 businesses and an aging 24-cabin motor court.
Nearby, on the bluff east of Topanga Canyon Boulevard, north of Sunset Mesa, the Athletic Club has proposed development of a 20-lot housing subdivision, where lot buyers would spend perhaps $1 million to build their homes.
Attorneys for the Athletic Club insist that only the plans for the housing subdivision are definite. Specific development plans for the flood plain, where more than 80 cabins still stand, will come later. But it seems clear that it is only a matter of time before all the old structures are bulldozed and the community at the mouth of Topanga is just a memory.
80 Cottages Torn Down
The last remnants of the other half of the Topanga Creek community, on the beach side of Pacific Coast Highway, were obliterated in January, 1979, when the state of California completed demolition of 80 beach cottages once owned by the Athletic Club. The club sold the cottages and a 1.1-mile strip of Topanga Beach to the state in 1973 for $6 million.
"I think (the area) is going to get wiped out, no question about it," said Murphy, 36, who plays guitar in a band called Blue Juice and spins records for KBU, the Malibu cable radio station, when he's not riding the waves at Topanga Beach.
H. Randall Stoke, an attorney with Latham & Watkins, the law firm that represents the Athletic Club, put it another way: "I'm sure the club isn't looking forward to the perpetuation of that housing."
Understandably so. From its stately headquarters at 431 W. 7th St. in downtown Los Angeles, behind the beige brick, gilt-lettered doors and green and white awning, the Los Angeles Athletic Club manages a nationwide portfolio of top-shelf properties that hold little similarity to the shanties of Topanga.
Those properties include holdings on South Olive and South Figueroa streets in downtown Los Angeles, the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, the California Yacht Club in Marina del Rey, more than 900 acres in Amador County, more than 1,250 acres near Lake Buena Vista in Kern County and shopping centers in Arizona, Arkansas and New Mexico. That's in addition to the 1,657 acres the club owns in lower Topanga Canyon.
Residents of Topanga Creek said the club pays little attention to them or their dwellings, most of which are all but invisible from Pacific Coast Highway.
Community Marked by Mailboxes
The only clues to the community's existence are two collections of weathered mailboxes.
One set stands just off the coast highway, east of a surfboard shop, at the head of a dirt road known as Topanga Canyon Lane. The lane runs down an incline to a low-lying clearing surrounded by towering vegetation, then stops at the creek. Residents call the locale "the Snake Pit."
The other set of mailboxes is around the corner, on the west side of Topanga Canyon Boulevard, a few hundred feet north of the coast highway. A gravel and dirt road snakes down from the west side of the boulevard to the Rodeo Grounds, a larger residential area up the creek.
To get to the Rodeo Grounds, residents must drive across the creek bed. In bad weather, they leave their cars on the boulevard and walk home on a footbridge over the creek.
The village that nestles along the edges of Topanga Creek is as close to a fantasy as the real world usually gets. It has the feeling of a place where gnomes and trolls and dark-water creatures from another world might find a happy home.
"I call it Ghetto Malibu," said Diane Miller, a 33-year-old massage therapist who rents a modest size house on the Athletic Club property about a hundred yards south of Murphy's cottage on Old Malibu Road.
Road Shored Up After Flood
The road that leads into the Rodeo Grounds was shored up with gravel after the last big flood, in February, 1980, buried a dozen buildings in mud and debris. The water line to the area is now suspended above the road on poles, along with the telephone wires and electrical cables.
Despite those precautions, several cabins still crouch below the level of the roadbed, barely visible, surrounded by thick ferns and overgrown weeds, apparently oblivious to the threat of another flood.
Many of the homes are neatly maintained, but the paint on many others is peelings. Plywood additions and jury-rigged repairs appear to be the rule rather than the exception.
There is a reason for that. According to a half-dozen creek dwellers interviewed by The Times, their leases make it clear that the Athletic Club takes no responsibility for maintaining the houses that it owns.
"In our leases, it says, 'We (the club) are not responsible for items A through Z. You will pay for everything. Don't come to us for any problems, because you are on your own.'" Murphy said. "They're just in it for the money right now, and who can blame them?"
Murphy was one of a handful of residents who would allow a reporter to quote them by name. Since all the leases on the club property are renewed on a month-to-month basis, several residents said they feared that their leases would be canceled if their comments angered club officials.
The fear of being thrown out of what is perhaps the cheapest housing in all of the area is also a reason that residents usually don't complain about health problems on their property, several said.
"When we moved into this house, it was a disaster," said one resident, who asked not to be named. "I got staph (infection) from removing the carpets off the floor."
In addition to removing the carpets, that creek dweller recalled repairing holes in the ceilings and the walls and flushing out a family of rodents. The problems didn't end there.
The pipes in the old house were so corroded that the water pumped through them was undrinkable, even though the county waterworks pump station is less than half a mile away.
"All this green junk and stuff comes out," one resident said. So the people who live in that house buy bottled water.
Aging septic systems are another health problem.
Drain Fields Back Up in Winter
"Everyone has a drain field," another resident said. "We're in a delta, and the end result is that in wintertime, when the ground gets saturated, the drain fields start to back up. The pumping guy can come out here and pump out your cesspool and it will fill up again in a week. Basically you just have to learn not to take 16 showers a day, not to flush the toilet 80 times. I mean you're just faced with that."
One woman recalled that following a particularly bad season, she and the man she lived with were forced to build a cesspool. Actually, she said, it was more like a ditch. It was never inspected by county health officials. "Nothing is," she said.
"I would suspect that none of the houses would pass health codes," Murphy said. "This is not a modern community."
The county Department of Health Services inspects single-family dwellings for health code violations only when someone makes a complaint, according to Calvin Z. Miller, a senior public health specialist with the department's rural sanitation section.
Annual inspections are made only of buildings that contain five or more dwelling units. None of the county inspection records are available to the public, Miller said.
Residents said they generally do not complain because they are happy to be left alone, both by the county and by the Athletic Club.
Even the creek dwellers acknowledge that their neighborhood does not have the best of reputations.
"I think that the Malibu people would like to see this place go," said the woman who will not drink her tap water. "They think it's (full of) degenerates and druggies, that it's an eyesore, that what this area represents is really a negative part of Malibu."
The community does have its darker side. Local legend, undocumented but officially undisputed, holds that Charles Manson and his band of followers briefly made the canyon bottom home during the spring of 1968, before the group moved the Spahn Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, at the northern end of Topanga Canyon Boulevard.
There is no doubt, however, that on the morning of August 10, 1969, just a few hours after participating in the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles, Manson followers Linda Kasabian, Susan Atkins and Steve Grogan made their way to a shack on the Athletic Club property. They stopped to visit a friend of Susan Atkins, stayed perhaps an hour, smoked pot, then hitchhiked back to the Spahn Ranch. The incident was recounted in detail at the Manson murder trial.
"Because of its openness, it (the area) still seems to attract all the lost souls," Murphy said. "I don't known why it is, but they just seem to get off the bus at Topanga…. You see just about everything out here. It's a real slice of life."
Spirit of Community and Camaraderie
At the same time, Murphy said, there is a spirit of community and camaraderie in the neighborhood that is unequalled in more well-heeled districts.
"Not that many people come and go," he said. "A lot of people have been here for a long time. I have rich parents and I was born and raised in a rich community and I found it very cold. Here I get up and I walk to the store in the morning and the store's 200 yards away. And in the 200-yard walk there and back I must say hello to 20 people. It's a beautiful thing."
Blanche Gaskins and her husband Charles have lived in the Topanga Beach Motel since 1965 and managed it since 1974. Now they own the business. Like everyone else, they lease the buildings and the property they stand on from the Athletic Club.
"A lot of people think this is a bad neighborhood. But it isn't," the 67-year-old Gaskins said in a Midwestern accent acquired years ago in Dodge City, Kansas.
"The guys that run around, they have long hair, long wild hair. Most of the people around here, a lot of them are surfers. A lot of them don't work a lot. But most of them, they’re not bad people. They're just casual. They just don't like to work too hard."
Topanga Creek for more than 50 years has been a jumping-off place for people tired of working too hard. Originally part of a vast land grant, Rancho Boca de Santa Monica, that bordered the eastern edge of Frederick H. Rindge's Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit, Topanga Creek by 1925 had become a weekend resort on the still-uncompleted coast highway to Oxnard.
A promotional booklet published that year by the company operating the Topanga and Las Flores Canyon stage coaches proclaimed, "Swimming is the leading diversion of Topanga Beach, though dancing claims its share of the popularity."
Topanga Beach Tent City and Bungalows, near the site of the present-day motel, advertised a dance floor for guests less than 100 feet from the ocean.
Nearby were a service station that sold Red Crown and Union gasoline "at city prices" and Marmont Studio, where tourists could buy original paintings as souvenirs of their visit to the canyon.
By that time the Los Angeles Athletic Club was already 45 years old. The club was founded in 1880 and reorganized in 1905 by Frank A. Garbutt, one of the founders of both Paramount Pictures and Union Oil Co..
A Guarantee of Financial Health
Garbutt, according to articles he later published in The Times, believed that real estate investments were one of the surest ways to guarantee the Athletic Club's continuing financial health.
In 1924 and 1925, as part of its acquisition program, the club bought a four-ninths interest in nearly 1,7000 acres in lower Topanga Canyon. The remaining interest reportedly was held by corporations under the control of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate. According to Athletic Club records, the acquisition was negotiated by Harry Chandler, publisher of The Times and a member of the club's board of directors.
The club acquired Hearst's remaining interest in the property in 1943.
During the late 1920s and 1930s the managers of the Topanga property, who answered to Hearst, began leasing out for periods of 90 days tents and cabin sites along the beach an in the delta.
Soon visitors began to build more permanent structures on the land they had leased. Cottages and cabins began to sprout. The cabins were used on weekends by harried city dwellers who longed for a day or two near the coast and the mountains.
In the years after World War II, as the housing shortage in Los Angeles County became critical, more and more leaseholders began using their cabins and cottages as permanent residences, according to the old-timers in the community. Other leaseholders in turn rented out their cabins to others, sometimes making a hefty profit.
In 1956 the Athletic Club sold a large section of land at the southeast corner of its Topanga property to a private developer, who built what became the Sunset Mesa housing development. About the same time, the club began converting its 90-day site leases into long-term leases, some for periods of up to 17 years.
By 1963 the Athletic Club was making plans to develop the rest of its Topanga holdings, according to its attorneys. A year later the state Senate passed a resolution asking the state Department of Parks and Recreation to study the possible acquisition of Topanga Beach as a state park. Club officials abandoned their development plans while they waited to see what would happen. The wait lasted 16 years.
After years of negotiation the state finally acquired about 30 acres of the club's beach property in 1973. That same year the last of the long-term leases expired, and the club took over ownership of all the cabins and cottages on the land that had not been turned over to the state.
The state began condemnation proceedings on almost all of the rest of the Topanga property in 1979, but gave up the effort a year later, apparently after running out of money for park acquisitions.
That's when the Athletic Club dusted off its development plans.
State's On-Again, Off-Again Efforts
A senior Athletic Club official, who agreed to speak with The Times only on condition that he not be quoted by name, said that the present condition of the property along the creek is the direct result of the state's on-again, off-again attempts to acquire the Athletic Club holdings.
"They did nothing but back us further and further in the corner," the official said. "If they hadn't started all this threat of condemnation back in the mid-'60s, we would have gone down there and developed the area into a modern commercial property."
The low rents charged by the club were based on the clear understanding that residents would perform their own maintenance, the official said. In recent years, county rent control regulations have prevent the club from raising the rents to levels that would allow major renovations, he added.
The club does spend thousands of dollars a year on brush clearance to protect the area from fire. "That's quite a burden," the official said.
Although the houses on the club property may not be to everyone's taste, they do provide housing near the Malibu beach for people of modest means, he added.
After several years of study, the Athletic Club in 1981 proposed construction of four residential developments on mesas in the four corners of its remaining property. None of those developments showed up on the interim plan for Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains that was approved by the Board of Supervisors a year ago.
Proposed amendments to that plan, which are to be considered by the supervisors Tuesday, would allow the club to develop 30 one-house lots on about 60 acres, 40 of which are located directly north of the Sunset Mesa project.
According to county planners, that housing development would require moving perhaps 1 million cubic yards of earth and construction of a road up from Topanga Canyon Boulevard at a grade of about 20 degrees.
Development of the property north of Sunset Mesa is strongly opposed by residents of that development, who contend that it would create a stream of traffic from Topanga Canyon Boulevard through their neighborhood to Pacific Coast Highway.
Stoke, the Athletic Club attorney, dismissed that argument. Streets in the new development would be private, he said, and access through Sunset Mesa would be for emergencies only.
Plan Calls for 'Urban Center'
Less certain are development plans for the creek bed. A separate planning document that the supervisors will also consider Tuesday, the Malibu Local Coastal Program, calls for creation of an "urban center" at the mouth of Topanga Canyon.
About 10 acres at the mouth of the canyon, the plan says, are designated for commercial uses. "Hotels, motels, restaurants and other convenience commercial (facilities) could be located here to serve the visitors to the recently expanded Topanga State Beach."
Land adjacent to the commercial area is set aside for residential construction, with densities of up to 30 dwellings per acre.
Despite that, Stoke said Athletic Club officials have yet to decide exactly how to develop the creek mouth. Whatever they do will require construction of a flood control channel, at a cost of several million dollars, and filling in the low-lying areas that are now homes to some 150 creek dwellers.
That fill could come from the top of the 20-acre parcel on the west side of the property that the supervisors will be asked to designate for residential development, Stoke said.
Once the club has completed all its development plans, Stoke said, it may be willing to donate some of its property to the state for public use.
Aneta Dixon moved to the Topanga Beach Motel in 1951, when she was 34 years old. She has lived there ever since. Near the hulk of her 1946 Hudson, parked next to her cabin, she has cultivated a garden of bromeliads, begonias, palms, ferns and roses. She won't say how many animals share her tiny living space.
"I don't know how long the Athletic Club has owned this property," she said with a smile. "But I think they've had it damn near forever. Of course, I'd be in a terrible position if I have to move. I can't afford to buy a house. I'm 65 years old. In a way, it really makes you wonder."
Diane Miller is less troubled by the prospect of development.
"I feel that that kind of thing is inevitable with all the building that is going on," she said. "Hopefully, when they decide to do it I'll be on my way to another place, another life. I don't have any control over it. If it happens, it happens. You have to let go of things in life."