State Senator Jim Mills is best known for his efforts at historic preservation. The bill he shepherded through the California State Legislature in 1972 to preserve historic homes and neighborhoods even bears his name. However, the well known Mills Act is just one of many legacies of his political career that protect the environment and the character of communities.
Mills, who turns 88 in June, served in the California legislature for 20 years; for ten of those years, Mills was the President pro tempore.
When he retired from the State Senate in 1980, Mills settled first in Del Mar; later, he moved to Coronado. “I foresaw the day that I could no longer drive and wanted to live in a community where I could walk everywhere.” That his son Bill also lived here at the time was yet another motivation to make the move to Coronado.
Popular in his district, the former middle school history teacher won his last race with 71% of the vote and, unencumbered by term limits, Mills had the time and political clout to shape the character of his district, which included Coronado.
Among the areas that Mills focused on during his time in the Senate were the San Diego Trolley, the Bayshore Bikeway, and giving port districts the power regulate tideland development. Prior to Mills’ efforts, the tidelands were managed by cities, and the land was often not put to the best use. In Coronado, for example, the Port of San Diego replaced a run-down housing complex with Tidelands Park.
“The city was collecting rents on the [run down] buildings,” said Mills. “It wasn’t in [its] interest to get rid of it.”
Beyond enhancing the tidelines or saving historic homes, Mills top concern was climate change and its consequences. In 1963, the Conservation Foundation issued a report linking a rise atmospheric carbon dioxide to a dramatic increase atmospheric temperatures that would radically change weather patterns and melt polar ice caps leading to increased flooding in the lower land surfaces around the world. That report led to a 1965 White House report, “Restoring the Quality of Our Environment,” that echoed these findings. Mills became aware of the risk posed by greenhouse gasses in the early 1960s, and for much of his political career took steps to reduce carbon emissions by crafting legislation that would encourage people to use public transportation or to simply cycle or walk instead of driving.
Mills was a proponent of light rail as a way to get people out of their cars and reduced carbon emissions but few joined his cause, many opposed him outright, including Pete Wilson, the Mayor of San Diego at the time, fought bringing a light rail to San Diego, and the Sierra Club ignored it.
Still, Mills was convinced the idea would work, and was certain people would warm to the idea once it was built. He was able to secure state funds for the Tijuana trolley. Despite pressure from Wilson and others, Mills oversaw the trolley’s launch — without ever putting the issue on the ballot.
“People in San Diego wouldn’t have voted for it with out seeing it,” Mills says. However, once the trolley began service and became a success, people were more than willing to fund it through bonds; in time, even federal money rolled in to finance the extension of the trolley line.
Ultimately, then-Mayor Wilson came around. “When he ran for the U.S. Senate, he took credit for it,” Mills noted. Much more important than who took the credit, though, was the San Diego trolley’s success. Mills points out that it “became the inspiration for light rail all over the country with a number of cities, including Denver, Salt Lake City and Dallas [embracing it].”
Mills didn’t just promote trains. In 1975, he secured state funds to begin building a bike trail around San Diego Bay. The Bayshore Bikeway, as it came to be called, eventually included 11.3 miles of bike bath and 14.2 miles of bike lanes and paths.
Mills initially hoped people would use it to bike to work, but it hasn’t work out that way. “People mostly use it for recreation, which is fine,” Mills said.
While Mills can look back on a career that has preserved much of the historical character of the region, there is one major change to the region that he wishes he could have stopped the construction of a bridge between San Diego and Coronado.
“The people of Coronado didn’t want it,” he said. “They voted against it twice.”
Mills argues that the reason it was built over the objections of Coronado’s residents was that John Alessio, who owned the Hotel del Coronado at the time, strongly advocated for the bridge. Alessio also owned part of the land the bridge was built on, and was trusted advisor to (and fundraiser for) former California Governor Pat Brown, who supported the bridge’s construction.
The bridge aside, Mills looks at Tidelands Park, the city’s every expanding trolley system, and the completion of the Bayshore Bikeway, and knows what a difference his life’s work has made.