The success of South Coast Plaza is due to a myriad of factors and influences, most involving the vision of Henry Segerstrom. But to an outsider, the fact that the 405 Freeway opened in 1968 adjacent to the Segerstrom family farm acreage where South Coast Plaza was under construction was simple good fortune.
South Coast Plaza rose from the lima bean fields to officially open in 1967, before the 405 Freeway’s debut next door, but it was the freeway that formed the fulcrum for the center’s birth.
Henry exercised his already considerable political influence to ensure that the exact location of the freeway would be advantageous to South Coast Plaza. The company archives include documents revealing Segerstrom’s acute attention directed toward the location and design of the freeway, down to the nuances of the exit and entrance ramps near South Coast Plaza.
Henry Segerstrom’s influence was born out of his civic involvement since his return from World War II. He was a transit organizer as early as 1949, promoting road construction and improved traffic flow. He was influential in the founding of Orange County bus lines, such as Santa Ana Transit, a small transit agency with five bus routes.
In the late 1960s soon after South Coast Plaza opened, there was a movement to split Orange County away from the Southern California Rapid Transit District, the predecessor to today’s LA Metro, the major operator of bus and rail service in Los Angeles. Henry Segerstrom was the chair of the Orange County independence committee that led the fight to “get out from under LA’s thumb.” The successful Orange County referendum spearheaded by Segerstrom led to a state law that created the Orange County Transportation District, which held its first board meeting January of 1971. Today it’s evolved into the Orange County Transportation Authority.
In the 1990s, Henry participated with other business leaders in leading efforts to pass Measure M, which would add a half-cent sales tax in Orange County to build roads, improve freeways and support rail and bus transit. County voters had twice rejected transportation sales levies, and as a reporter at the time put it, “are famous for pulling the plug on anything that hints at higher taxes.”
The referendum passed, resulting in more than $4 billion in transportation improvements over the 20 year life of the measure, including adding 192 freeway lane miles, improving 170 intersections and 38 freeway interchanges, and implementing Metrolink service in Orange County. Voters renewed the sales tax for transportation improvements in 2006 for another 30 years.
“We were the first metropolitan area in the state to tax ourselves to build freeways Henry said about Measure M’s approval by county voters known to be tax averse. “We have been a community that has a reputation as being ultraconservative. But my interpretation of conservative is that Orange County believes in doing good things politically for the benefit of your community and its citizens. It wasn’t blocking passage of progressive actions by government. It was instead encouraging private enterprise to work with the public agencies to get things done—and we did.”
Ralph Clark, an Orange County politician often dubbed the “godfather of public transit in Orange County,” would credit Henry Segerstrom as being the true father of transit in the region.