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Utah Construction’s Impact on Alameda – Part 2

Alameda voters of the 1950s approved filling land to expand tax base

In last week’s story (Utah Construction’s Impact on Alameda—Part 1), the Alameda Post traced the history of Alameda’s marshlands and tidelands up to their acquisition by Utah Construction in 1954. Utah had grand plans, and the City sorely needed property tax revenue to recover the tax base it had lost. The end of World War II brought an end to most of the shipbuilding here and scaled back the Navy’s presence at Naval Air Station Alameda.

Alameda Post - a photo of a few buildings looking over into the ocean, prior to their demolition by Utah Construction
This undated photo shows the view from the foot of Bay Street looking towards the former Encinal Yacht club, which once jutted out into the Bay from Grand Street. It was demolished in 1956 by Utah Construction. Photo Alameda Museum.

Utah Construction proposed undertaking two projects. One would add 400 acres of made land by filling in Alameda’s tidelands to create South Shore. This included 55 acres appended to Washington Park. The second would add 940 acres to Bay Farm Island, converting marshland and tidelands and allowing approximately 600 acres for Harbor Bay Isle and the remainder for Harbor Bay Business Park.

Alameda voters allowed Utah to fulfill these plans, as the tax revenues would replace those lost when World War II ended. The idea of adding this land divided the City into two camps. The Alameda Citizens Progress Committee organized in favor of the projects, while those who were opposed formed the Civic League for Alameda. The opposition collected the required 3,000 signatures to put the matter before voters. Big mistake.

On May 24, 1955, voters approved the measure with 7,002 voters in favor and 5,406 against. In an Alameda Magazine story, Mary McInerney wrote that some considered the vote “a backlash against the well-to-do families whose homes were on the Bay.”

Come explore the impact of Utah Construction with the Alameda Post’s Adam Gillitt and Dennis Evanosky as they untangle the tales that brought an out-of-state giant to town—and how that colossus transformed Alameda. We held a Zoom presentation for about Utah Construction’s role in creating South Shore and Harbor Bay Isle and a link to the recording will be available for ticket holders. Join one of the walking tours on Saturday, April 20 to visit Harbor Bay Isle—meeting at the end of Veteran’s Court, or choose either Sunday, April 21 or Saturday, April 27 to explore South Shore—meeting at Rittler Park. Tours will start at 10 a.m. and tickets are $20 each.

It is important to note that the referendum was a vote on Ordinance 1148, which included two major landfill projects. As soon as the voters approved the ordinance, Utah contracted with Yuba Construction Company in Benicia to construct a dredge to do the job. On November 7, 1955—five and a half months after the voters approved Utah’s project—the dredge Franciscan appeared in the waters off Alameda’s south shore.

The Franciscan pumped the sand from the bottom of the bay about a mile offshore, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Problems arose almost immediately. In her book, Alameda: A Geographical History, historian Imelda Merlin noted in that in a single month alone, this dredge used two miles of pipe six feet in diameter to pump 1 million cubic yards of sand into rows upon rows of ditches the company had excavated along the shore. The Franciscan forced enough sand into these conduits to force waters right up to the sea wall built along Alameda’s southern shoreline.

The new sand “covered springs on the beach,” Merlin wrote. This forced water into the basements of homes along Alameda’s coastline. To relieve the flooding, Utah agreed to excavate two 250-feet-wide lagoons along the sea wall on each side of Grand Street. Instead, Utah Construction’s lagoons ended up measuring only 125 feet wide at most.

Alameda Post - a map of lots
In 1909, George W. Emmons built what he called “a new residence tract” on the east side of Grand Street. He created Palmera Court by extending a street into the tract, in Emmons’ own words, “at a point midway between Grand and Union streets and then southerly to the water, thence around into Grand street.” Emmons purchased builder/architect Joseph A. Leonard’s home—which included the property on today’s Palmera Court—in 1900. Plan courtesy Alameda Museum.

Opponents did not stay silent. They pointed out that the City Council’s ordinance allowed Utah to dredge 36 million cubic yards of sand—worth $1.8 million—at no cost. Proponents replied that Utah was not only creating $75 million worth of residential developments, but beaches, parks, and a shopping center where nothing existed before other than marsh and bay waters.

“Dredging job completed,” the Oakland Tribune headline announced on November 16, 1956. “The giant dredging operation … is over today, after a year (375 days to be precise) of pumping sand from the bottom of the bay,” the Tribune told its readers.

When it finished the Alameda project, the Franciscan moved to Oakland Airport to help Utah fulfill a $3.75 million contract with the Port of Oakland to add some 14 million cubic yards of sand to reclaim 650 acres of tideland for the airport. The Port of Oakland planned to build an 8,600-foot-long runway and a terminal on its newly acquired property.

While at work at the airport, Utah also moved forward with grading and leveling the new land added to the City of Alameda. The company continued to work on what Utah spokesperson Charles Travers called “the core of its Alameda project,” excavating and shaping a series of landlocked lagoons the company had agreed to create. Travers told Western Construction magazine that his company hoped to have the lagoons complete and in place by February 1957.

Alameda Post - a beautiful, large home on the water
This photo of builder/architect Joseph A. Leonard’s home shows the west side of the property, on the left, with the windmill. George Emmons converted this land into property defined by today’s Palmera Court shown in the plan above. Photo Alameda Museum.

Once it completed the lagoons, Utah planned to concentrate its efforts on readying a .65-acre portion of the new land for the “South Shore Center,” a 400,000-square-foot regional shopping center with spaces for an estimated 4,000 automobiles to park. Travers said that Utah planned the shopping center’s opening for some time in 1958.

Alameda Post - Mid-century South Shore Center postcard

Travers also said that Utah hoped to develop the 400-plus acres of made land with “approximately 1,000 homes, plus multiple-dwelling units, neighborhood shopping areas, a professional and administrative zone, schools, churches and parks, as well as a new public beach on the perimeter.” Utah Construction created the South Shore Land Co. to accomplish all this. Travers told Western Construction that he estimated Utah would complete this development sometime in 1960.

Utah began planning part two of the voter-approved developments, putting the Franciscan to work adding 880 acres of new land onto Bay Farm Island. This project would increase the size of Alameda by 17 percent.  To accomplish this, Travers said that the Franciscan would dredge some 25 million cubic yards of sand from San Francisco Bay. Utah hoped his new land would provide space for up to 3,500 homes.

Next week, in Part 3 of this series, we will take a close look at how Utah converted Bay Farm’s marsh lands and tidelands into Harbor Bay Isle and Harbor Bay Business Park in the 1960s.

Dennis Evanosky is the award-winning Historian of the Alameda Post. Reach him at [email protected]. His writing is collected at

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