Forty years before the first bulldozer tore into Bakersfield's Westpark neighborhood, people were attempting to drive on the Centennial Corridor freeway.

Westbound drivers, some in RVs and big rigs, would come barreling down Highway 58 at 70 mph from the Tehachapi Mountains late at night and, apparently dozing, fly past the flashing yellow lights that announced the freeway's absurd, abrupt dead end. Crossing Real Road, they would launch themselves like missiles into a strip mall parking lot and bumper-car across the asphalt all the way through the plate-glass window of the U.S. Air Force recruiting station.

The Wild West Shopping Center could be wild indeed.

That surreal, occasionally fatal scenario — which played out several times over the years, including twice in one 11-month period — was made possible by a remarkable lack of collective foresight and will by local politicians, developers and city and state transportation planners decades ago.

Westpark moved into the path of the crosstown freeway because city and county planners failed to claim "dibs" on land that would have provided a more direct, westward expansion of the route. That was prior to 1976, when Highway 58's present configuration was completed and the dead-end "T" put in place at that now-demolished strip mall. The city's scattered west-side development at the time would have made the freeway extension considerably more logical, affordable and less traumatic. But no.

Now, 43 years later, the work is well underway. And, though the city of Bakersfield, the Thomas Roads Improvement Program, the California Department of Transportation and the project's many contractors have tried to make the process as fair, clean and painless as possible for Westpark residents, it has been anything but.

WINNER AND LOSERS

When those agencies set themselves to the task of running the Centennial Corridor freeway right through the middle of the Westpark neighborhood, they created winners and losers.

If your house was taken to make way for the freeway, you were most likely a winner: You would receive full market value and have your Realtor fees and moving costs paid. If you owned a house right on the border of the planned freeway but not quite within the line of demolition, you were a loser: The value of your house likely suffered.

Take the case of Dan and Jacqueline Geisler, who lived at 4501 Charter Oaks Ave. for 47 years, and their next-door neighbor, Marguerite Smith, who lived at 4505 Charter Oaks Ave. for 45 years. Their three-bedroom, two-bath homes were almost identical; the yards, too, although the Geislers had a pool and the Smiths didn't.

"It was a really nice neighborhood," said Dan Geisler, acknowledging that they'd been hearing about the freeway project, and a multitude of potential routes both near and far from their homes, for years.

"The single lady who lived next door, Marguerite — I was always her handyman — she came one day and knocked on the door. She says, 'They finally made me an offer. What should I do?' I said, 'Get your check before they change their mind.'"

Mrs. Smith received $235,000 and the benefit of cost-free relocation.

"I was afraid the value (of our house) would drop and it sure did — it dropped it way down," Dan Geisler said. "We got $170,000 — and we had a pool."

That's a difference of $65,000.

"I got a lawyer and had him write a letter to the city," Geisler said. "They said 'too bad.'"

Mrs. Smith bought a condo nearby, just off Mohawk Drive, so she could keep shopping in the stores she'd become accustomed to. The Geislers moved to the city's northeast, to the Rio Bravo-area adult community dubbed Four Seasons.

"I felt very bad for them," Mrs. Smith said of her old neighbors. "When they started screening out houses to take for the freeway, they took mine and four on the other side of me — and left theirs alone.

"I was very happy. The city was very good to me. I have no complaints. It was the best thing that could have happened me because I was all alone — my husband died 15 years ago." 

Terry Wong, who was raised in and later owned the home at 714 Montclair St. before finally selling it in May 2018, feels the Geislers' pain. He gets both sides, however, having worked for Caltrans for decades.

"Our house was right on the edge (of the final freeway alignment)," he said. "If they had moved the right of way 10 feet, they would have taken it. I know I would have gotten a better price, because we had friends who lived across the street, and they got a premium. Everything was covered for them."

Priscila Gallardo lives in the Wongs' old house with her parents, Gabriel and Blanca Gallardo. They say vibration from the construction in front of and along the north side of their house, behind the new sound wall where the freeway will go, has caused their concrete patio deck to crack and dirt to fill their pool — so much it damaged the pool filter. The city, they said, told them to contact the contractor about the issue. It remains unresolved.

But, worse, they claim, they weren't told about the freeway until they had paid a nonrefundable deposit. What they were told, Gabriel Gallardo told me in Spanish, was that the city was building a park across from their house.

Vicky Gresham, who has lived at 4200 La Mirada Drive for nine years, said the construction may have delivered an even more serious byproduct: valley fever, a respiratory illness caused by an indigenous fungus that becomes airborne when soil is disturbed by, say, earth movers.

"Last year my grandson, who played freshman basketball, was diagnosed with it, and I have no doubt that it was because of this," she said.

He is better now, but her view isn't: a 12-foot-high sound wall now towers over her backyard, a mere 10 paces from her rear sliding-glass doors.

"No sunset, no view," she said. "It's like a prison."

FROM CRAYON DAYS TO TRIGONOMETRY

This sort of random injustice is one of the consequences of living in Westpark, a 1-square-mile, middle-class neighborhood of about 6,000 people. Developed mostly in the late 1960s and early ’70s — some custom-built homes on its south side are older — it occupies territory delineated roughly by Highway 99 on the east, Stockdale Highway on the south and the long, sweeping curve of California Avenue on the west and north.

It was portrayed almost in idyllic terms back when new homes were still being built there. A 1974 real estate ad in The Californian promised Westpark residents a different way of life:

"Churches, banks, professional buildings, shopping — all are within minutes. And there are schools for your kids from their crayon days through trigonometry and college," the ad read, warning potential buyers: "You might find your new John Deeter (a well-regarded local builder) home so enjoyable, you never want to go outside."

But Westpark was also situated, inconveniently, right in the path of the connector that one day — way off in the distant future, it seemed — would link the Bakersfield-to-Barstow portion of Highway 58, to the east, with the Bakersfield-to-Interstate 5 portion, to the west.

The city, which will have spent close to $1 billion over the past decade on the Centennial Corridor and other ambitious highway projects within the Bakersfield metro area, weighed several alternatives that would have moved intrastate traffic from point A to point B with the least possible grief and expense. But, once the city and county allowed private builders to buy up and develop swaths of land that would have made the best possible routes, Westpark became, by default, government planners' favorite option.

Westpark residents came out in force to fight it. They formed Citizens Concerned About the Centennial Corridor, or CCACC, and the Westpark Homeowners Association, or WHOA, representing residents whose houses would be destroyed if the corridor were built.

They threatened to sue and — talk about grassroots — at one point held a series of yard sales throughout the neighborhood to help fund legal expenses.

“The endgame, ultimately, is turning Highway 58 into the 40, to turn that into the interstate (east of Barstow)," WHOA co-president Marc Caputo told The Californian in 2014. "This was never about trying to help the congestion or any type of transportation in Bakersfield — this was about transportation through Bakersfield. The greater benefit is for the truckers who are going to be driving through Bakersfield, splitting our neighborhood."

(Efforts to reach Caputo, who still lives in Westpark, were unsuccessful. Robert Braley, another prominent leader of the opposition, died in March 2018.)

Transportation agencies held public talk-back forums, but the conclusion, in retrospect, now seems to have been foregone.

"When they started clearing houses," said Randal Wong, whose husband Terry's parents bought their Montclair Street house in 1969, "we knew it was inevitable."

Over the years, families like the Wongs watched Westpark transition from one of the city's westernmost residential developments into a neighborhood now actually near its geographic center. In Westpark's five decades of existence, the city's population has ballooned more than fivefold from 69,000 in 1970 to about 385,000 in 2019.

Over that time the traffic intersection at Westpark's southwestern corner, Stockdale Highway and California Avenue, has become the city's second busiest, with nearly 64,500 vehicles passing through daily. (The nearby intersection of Stockdale and Gosford/Coffee Road, with 65,600, is the busiest.) Meanwhile, Westpark's western border has evolved into something akin to a city skyline: One of the highest concentrations of buildings more than five stories tall in the city, modest as that measure may be, are along the section of California between Stockdale and Marella Way.

Significant though those changes might have been, none rival today's: the 400-foot-wide channel that cuts through Westpark where, sometime in 2021 or 2022, a new ribbon of concrete will be overlaid with lane markers. The new freeway will have displaced an estimated 961 people and razed 200 single-family homes, 110 multiple-family units and 121 commercial and industrial businesses.

‘WAY IN THE FUTURE’

Rosa Adame used to walk out of her front door, turn left at the sidewalk and walk about a mile to the Smart & Final grocery store. No longer. There's no sidewalk anymore, no road, just a huge mound of dirt. In a year or so, there will be a soundwall and, just on the other side, the new freeway.

When she and her husband bought the house nine years ago, she claimed, their real estate representative failed to clearly describe the situation. When Adame learned it was coming — and that one of the proposed routes would take out their house — she telephoned the agent. "Oh, that's 10 or 20 years down the road, the agent said. "Way in the future."

The future arrived. The selected freeway alignment took out several houses to the south of her home — her next-door neighbor to the south gets a sound wall — and Adame must take a different, longer walk to Smart & Final.

"It has changed everything," said Adame's husband, Raul. "The grandkids came here often and they liked to play basketball and soccer at the park, which was three or four blocks away. Now it's blocked.

"We thought about leaving and maybe getting a smaller house. But we saw the prices were going down, too far down, because of the freeway."

The noise of the construction bothers them a little, but it's not as bad as when houses nearby were being demolished. A wave of cockroaches, presumably evicted from the destroyed homes, swept past them, and families of skunks, possibly rousted by the commotion from the nearby Carrier Canal, took to the streets.

Some order will be restored once all of the construction is finished, but for now it's still a bit of a mess. The postal carrier who worked the Westpark neighborhood for years transferred to another area several months ago because of his frustration over the constant route deviation — the ever-changing detours and closed streets.

Yet it could be worse.

"The construction workers are neat and clean," said Margaret Pugh, who lives at 4400 Charter Oaks Ave. "It's been a pretty good operation. Nobody likes it but they haven't disrespected property. I'm quite impressed."

Yuri Garcia, the neighborhood's relatively new postal carrier, actually sees some benefits to the ongoing construction.

"I think people are actually happy that it happened because it cut back the street traffic," she said. "People are always walking on these streets and it's safer for them now."

But she has also seen some heartbreak. A woman on her route, whose house was designated for demolition and sold to the city, bought another one in Westpark, just a few blocks away. "She still walks over to her where her old house used to be, just because she misses it," Garcia said. "There's a cat over there she's been trying to find, too." 

ALL FOR 1½ MILES

The new freeway, said Luis Topete, a lead civil engineer with the city and the co-managing TRIP agency, will be a mile and a half long. Once you're on it, you're on it — the new section of freeway will have no on- or off-ramps until, depending on your direction, you get to Highway 99 south or a Mohawk Street exit yet to be built. That Mohawk exit will be vital because it will take motorists transitioning from westbound Highway 58, by way of 7th Standard Road, to northbound Highway 99. The Centennial Corridor's most significant shortcoming is that it will not deliver vehicles directly to northbound 99.

The freeway corridor will be built in four phases, which are color-coded on the transportation agency's map. Blue represents the Belle Terrace Operational Improvement phase, which will cost $32 million. It'll have two new bridges, at Wible Road and Belle Terrace, and is scheduled for completion at the end of 2020

Red, phase 2, is the Bakersfield Freeway Connector, a $48.5 million project that will be completed in mid-2021.

Bidding on a new batch of projects associated with the corridor begins March 19.

The work will employ hundreds, but the city can't say how many until the projects are further along. But if it's anything like the Westside Parkway to the northwest, it'll be a huge boon to the local economy. Some 75 percent to 80 percent of the workers who built the parkway were Kern County residents.

Three overpasses will connect the two distinct halves of Westpark so that residents on the east side of the new freeway can access Centennial Park and other destinations on the west.

PROFIT, YES; POLITICAL WILL, NO

Years ago, I asked two fishing buddies, Dale Hawley, the former city manager of Bakersfield, and Dale Mills, the former director of the Kern County Public Works Department, what was taking so long.

The bureaucrats emeritus told me I didn't know the half of it: The freeway debate went all the way back to at least 1958, when Hawley was an assistant highway engineer with Caltrans and the idea of a crosstown freeway was first put on the table. Homeowners, supported by Mayor Frank Sullivan, successfully fought it.

The issue was a source of frustration again in the mid-’70s, when the two Dales were well-established in top-level jobs and another push for an east-west freeway got rolling.

California, under Gov. Jerry Brown (part one) and controversial Caltrans director Adriana Gianturco, was not in a freeway building mode at the time, however, and route planning studies were never undertaken. Undermining the overall political will was mega-developer Tenneco West, forerunner of Castle & Cooke, which saw big things for the very land transportation planners were eyeing for the freeway.

Westpark property owners — yes, back then, too — feared they’d be displaced by the freeway, or stranded since the plan did not include exit ramps in their area. They opposed the plan as well.

Hawley, who died in 2005, and Mills, who died in 2013, appreciated those concerns, they told me, but they foresaw utter gridlock if the crosstown freeway were somehow ditched or substantially altered.

It's finally happening now, at last, and Westpark residents are paying a hefty price. It does no good to point fingers at this juncture, though. And not just because it would require so many fingers.

Contact The Californian’s Robert Price at 661-395-7399, rprice@bakersfield.com or on Twitter: @stubblebuzz. His column appears on Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays; the views expressed are his own.

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