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Beachfron Project OKd by Coast Panel : But Protesters Say They Plan to Collect 50,000 Names, Go to Voters to Save Park

Times Staff Writer

A controversial plan to allow development of a tourist-oriented shopping center in the old Mission Beach Belmont Amusement Park was approved late Wednesday by the California Coastal Commission over objections of two dozen residents who want the beachfront park preserved.

The commissioners, in the 9-1 vote favoring the developers, rejected two staff recommendations that would have placed strict conditions on the development to counter traffic and parking problems, but voted to impose a requirement that $70,000 in city revenues from the project be donated annually toward a traffic plan to ease the near-gridlock congestion in Mission Beach, Pacific Beach and Mission Bay Park.

Tom Crandall, Coastal Commission district director, said the San Diego City Council must approve the $70,000 allocation before the development can go forward. The funds would be used to develop a shuttle bus or railway system designed to curb auto traffic into the two beach communities and the city’s aquatic park.

The $70,000 is the estimated annual rental the shopping complex developers would pay the city.

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Angry Mission Beach and Pacific Beach residents protested the development, saying that it would turn the city park into another Seaport Village and would worsen already impossible traffic conditions in their communities. One group of protesters has announced plans for an initiative petition drive designed to allow voters to decide whether the private development should be allowed in the city beach park.

However, San Diego City Councilman Mike Gotch, whose district includes Mission Beach, applauded the Coastal Commission’s decision, which he predicted would help insure that the area becomes “a little more Balboa Island and a little less Coney Island.”

“The project is sensitive to the coastal resources, it is sensitive to historic preservation concerns and it offers a great opportunity for one of the most crime-ridden areas of Mission Beach to be reclaimed by the law-abiding public,” Gotch said.

Gotch added that he anticipates no problem with the council’s approval of the $70,000 traffic plan, noting that the council has previously stipulated that at least that much should be spent on easing traffic congestion in the area.

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Developers, who have sought for five years to build a complex of restaurants and shops in the park, had protested proposed Coastal Commission restrictions that would have prevented the installation of paid parking lots and would have restricted to evenings the operating hours of the restaurants in the complex during summer weekends.

Community groups fighting to keep the city park free from commercial development pointed out that the land at the junction of Mission Boulevard and Mission Bay Drive is the last oceanfront open space within the two densely-populated beach communities.

Traffic congestion, which presently requires closing of the one main street--Mission Boulevard--during summer weekends and holidays, will be made worse by the commercial center with its tourist-attracting boutiques and restaurants, opponents said. The staff-proposed conditions rejected by the Coastal Commission would have required the developers to provide 366 free parking spaces and would have limited restaurant hours to after 5 p.m. during the peak summer beach period.

Revenues from parking lots and unrestricted hours of operation for restaurants--expected to be the moneymakers of the commercial complex--are needed, proponents contended, if the city is going to reap revenues from the development. Originally, the developers--Paul Thoryk and Graham McHutchin--proposed construction of about 100,000 square feet of commercial buildings, including use of portions of the old Mission Beach Plunge. Present plans call for razing the exterior portions of the Plunge and a large roller rink and paring down commercial space to 70,000 square feet in seven low-rise buildings surrounding the swimming pool. The bulk of the Plunge building would be removed and only the Olympic-size enclosed pool would remain.

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The roller coaster that dominates the 18.5-acre city park would remain undisturbed by the proposed development. The 60-year-old structure is listed in the National Register as an historic site.

Several of the coast commissioners were said to have voted in favor of the developers because they felt the city had failed to keep the park from falling into disrepair over the years.

The developers said the park’s abandoned and dilapidated buildings have attracted derelicts and drug pushers. Criminal activities that have made the park unsafe for the public after dark can only be controlled by bringing in commercial development, they argued.

Brian Wagner, spokesman for a coalition of groups attempting to save the remaining historic features of the Belmont Amusement Park and to ban commercial development, said that a postcard poll of the beach community residents last year showed 95% of the respondents were opposed to commercial development.

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Wagner said the group is organizing a petition campaign to obtain 50,000 signatures and place an initiative measure on the June, 1987 ballot. The ballot measure, if approved by voters, would ban any commercial development in the city-owned beach park.

In other San Diego-related action, the commissioners approved two hotel projects without major opposition. One hotel, the 335-room Embassy Suites, will be built by Santa Fe Pacific Realty Corp. at Pacific Highway and Market Street near Seaport Village on the downtown bayfront.


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