The first time I took a trip on Sierra Highway was in 1956. I was a junior high school student living in Studio City. My best buddy lived down the street, and his dad was in process of homesteading a parcel of land near Victorville. He was a contractor and very capable of putting in the improvements required to take possession of the land. On Friday nights, for almost a year, his dad’s pickup would be loaded with supplies. Then, father, son and I would leave early Saturday morning for a ride to Apple Valley. The Highway 14 freeway had not been built yet, and the best way to get where we were going was north on Balboa Blvd to San Fernando Road and then Sierra Highway. We would typically stop for breakfast at the Halfway House before proceeding on the final leg of our weekend journey out onto Highway 138. Little did I know then, less than 10 years later, Sierra Highway would become the pathway to my own family’s home.
By 1965, my wife Pam and I had been married for two years, and our eldest son Ernie was an infant. I have always had a love affair with motorcycles, which led me to join the 4 Aces MC, an American Motorcycle Association District 37 Competition Club. Motorcycle racing was the focus of the group and something was happening every weekend. We typically competed in TT Scrambles in the summer and Desert Races in the cooler months. For those who are unfamiliar with the terms, TT races, or Tourist Trophy races, were done on a smooth dirt track, with more left-hand turns than right, including at least one jump. Corner banking was optional. When all this got going in the ‘30s and ‘40s, it was customary for competitors to ride to and from the race; Hence the name “Tourist Trophy.” But by the time I got started, we were all trucking our competition bikes to races. Desert Racing was a whole different story. Hare and Hounds were typically around 100 miles of off-road terrain, with riders never passing over the same ground more than once. Hare Scrambles were also the same distance, but over a course which was completed multiple times. Lastly, European Scrambles was a much shorter racecourse, completed as many times as you could in one hour.
About half a dozen members of the 4 Aces lived on Dewdrop Street in what is now Canyon Country. And, as my wife and I found ourselves in the area often, we decided to move here. It was a wonderful rural setting close to a grammar school, and a junior high school was staked out only three blocks away. In those days, the 405 ended at Rinaldi and did not pick up again until Sand Canyon. Sierra Highway was one lane in each direction and provided the link between the two freeway sections. We both traveled Sierra Highway going to work and back every day. Never could we have imagined that the future would put us back into a big city, but that is another story. Today, Highway 14 is directly connected to the 405, and Sierra Highway has been widened to two lanes in each direction. Since Santa Clarita has become a city and Sierra Highway is within its jurisdiction, Caltrans has wanted the city to take ownership of the road. Santa Clarita has declined the offer, indicating their desire for Caltrans to upgrade the road to Santa Clarita standards before the city would take possession. So, with the two jurisdictions at an impasse, the majority of Sierra Highway today looks very much like it did in 1965, with exception of it being widened.
Yet, there have been some missed opportunities for improvement. You may recall, on April 19, 2019, KHTS reported, “The Santa Clarita City Council is expected to … discuss the proposed Newhall Gateway development.” The article went on to say, “The City Council is also expected to receive a conceptual plan for the Newhall Gateway project, a commercial development proposed near Newhall Avenue and Sierra Highway … In 2008, a similar project, Sierra Crossings, was proposed at the same Newhall intersection, but it was later withdrawn in 2010.”
While what was reported is interesting, a lot of pertinent details were left out. As it turns out, the applicants and owners of the property at the southeast corner of Newhall Ave and Sierra highway did not just propose a project, they spent almost $250,000 putting plans for the project through the city’s planning process. According to the April 23, 2019 Staff Report, “The project consisted of approximately 99,000 square feet of commercial space in five buildings including a drive-through restaurant, and a hotel.” The resulting plan was approved by staff and the Planning Commission, as it complied with all of Santa Clarita’s codes and requirements. Normally that would have been enough to put the project on a path for development, except in this case, a city councilmember decided to call the project up for a special City Council Review, “citing design aesthetics and environmental aspects.” I wondered then; how could the project meet all the city’s codes and requirements and have these kinds of issues remaining? Would the city staff be proposing code changes to prevent another project from meeting the same fate? Plus, if you as a citizen want to protest a project and have a special City Council Review, you get to front a hefty fee, but if you are a city council member, you can do it at a whim.
I remember sitting in the audience, listening to Council members Mclean and Weste redesigning the project from the dais. None of the changes were required because the project failed to meet current Santa Clarita codes. Instead, the changes were included because of their personal preferences. In addition, they wanted the developers to include property within the project the developers did not own. Also, there were questions about the economic viability of what was being demanded. Councilmember Ferry suggested the city fund a $200,000 study, which would be repaid by the developer at some point in the future. KHTS reported about it also, stating, “The City Council directed staff to enter into an agreement with Poliquin Kellogg Design Group (PKDG) to conduct a conceptual design and economic analysis for the entire southeast quadrant at the Newhall and Sierra intersection.”
Now, almost 10 years later, the city council again discussed the project on April 23, 2019. But redevelopment agencies have been dissolved, which the April 24 Staff Report indicates “eliminated the city’s ability to assemble parcels and … it’s options to participate in future projects as a funding partner or lead applicant”. Plus, “the City adopted a new General Plan and Zoning Ordinance which increased the site’s development potential,” meaning a larger development could be proposed today, as opposed to the 2010 plan. I would like to cap this narrative with an indication of what the city council decided to do, but minutes of the April 23, 2019 meeting have not been put on the city website yet, as the minutes will not be approved until the May 14 city council meeting.
But one thing stands out. Santa Clarita has been a city for over 30 years, and Sierra Highway, “the Gateway to Newhall and Canyon Country,” is far from what it could and should be. When I look at what the county did on the Old Road, as it borders our city, it is past time for Sierra Highway to get a similar treatment.