80,000 Sign Petitions to Block Plunge Development

Times Staff Writer

A citizens group fighting development of the Mission Beach Plunge turned in 80,000 signatures Monday on petitions calling for a citywide vote on an alternative to a planned commercial complex around the historic indoor swimming pool.

Members of the Save Mission Beach Park Committee carted boxes full of their petitions to the San Diego city clerk's office, which now has a month to check whether the signatures belong to registered voters.

The group needs a minimum of 50,449 verified names to place a measure on the November ballot that would keep the Plunge area as parkland.

But even with the overwhelming number of signatures, it was still unclear Monday whether the petition drive would be enough to derail the proposed 70,000-square-foot Plunge development of shops and restaurants, which has drawn a blizzard of criticism from people living in San Diego's beach communities.

The ballot proposal, which seeks to preserve the Plunge and a nearby roller skating rink, includes an exemption for projects that are well under construction in advance of the public vote.

The developers said Monday they will press on with their plans to tear down portions of the dilapidated swimming pool structure, perhaps as early as March, to make way for the restaurants and shops.

Terry Curren, a Save Mission Beach Committee spokesman, said Monday the citizens group is worried about the exemption, which was written into the petition by the committee's attorney, and is checking how to halt the development until a November vote.

Curren said the group may ultimately have to appeal to the City Council to stall the development; council members voted 6-1 to approve the project last June.

"Obviously, we would like the City Council to say, 'There are a bunch of concerned people out there. Maybe we should look at this,' " Curren said.

But Graham MacHutchin, one of the three developers who formed Belmont Park Associates, said the exemption shows that opponents to the development have conceded that the project will probably go forward.

"The proponents of the initiative have made provision for our project in that they knew we would be under construction during the course of this year, and they knew the referendum would not be held until the fall," MacHutchin said.

"It's a last-ditch attempt by the merchants, the erstwhile politicians, to stop the development, but it seems to me that it was not well thought out," MacHutchin said.

Councilman Mike Gotch of Mission Beach, who has taken considerable political heat over his decision to support the development, said that if the measure qualifies for the ballot, council members might be inviting trouble by voting to put it on the ballot.

"We have heard from attorneys that if the council would be attempting to place the issue on the ballot, it would be breaking a contract with the developer, and the city would be liable for the investment the developer has made to date, which I am told is a million dollars or more," Gotch said.

The councilman said that opinion has been circulated by private attorneys, presumably working for the developer, and the city attorney's office has yet to release its opinion. The initiative will automatically qualify for the ballot if the council decides not to act on the measure within 10 days after it qualifies.

Gotch on Monday also criticized the way signatures were gathered for the petitions. The Save Mission Beach Committee hired a firm that paid workers between 25 cents and 35 cents a signature.

"Money is a powerful aphrodisiac," Gotch said. "It makes people author and circulate petitions, based not upon principle but based on the intrinsic mercenary value that they can achieve.

"Certainly, that was the case of the Belmont Park initiative," he said. "They were paid, and they didn't give a hoot for the cause but their back pockets. And in the process, they misled the public."

Gotch said he was approached twice to sign a petition and, on both occasions, the purpose of the measure was misstated. One time he was asked to sign to "save the coastline," he said, and the other to help preserve the roller coaster, which is not affected by the Plunge development.

The fate of the Plunge, once a popular city landmark but now a seedy area that attracts undesirables, has been a social and political question in the beach area for years.

The Plunge was built as part of a 33-acre Mission Beach amusement park that opened in 1925 and once was hailed as one of the West Coast's most impressive fun centers.

In addition to the Plunge, which became the site of Hollywood extravaganzas put on by such movie stars as Johnny Weissmuller and Esther Williams, the park included the roller coaster, a ballroom and a roller skating rink.

Local real estate magnate John D. Spreckels owned the park, and it was donated to the city after his death. The roller coaster was subsequently placed on the national register of historic places.

The condition of the buildings degenerated to a point that city officials said in 1982 it would take $2.6 million in remedial construction just to bring the Plunge up to building codes.

Despite pleas by historic preservationists for the city to spend the money and preserve the area as a park, the council voted in 1984 to enter into exclusive negotiations with MacHutchin and his partners to develop the site.

Their $14.2-million proposal would tear down the roller rink and parts of the Plunge building, such as the locker area. It would retain the building immediately around the 60-by-165-foot swimming pool, and build 98,500 square feet of new structures around it.

Most of the new space--70,000 square feet--would be used for shops and restaurants. The development also would add 233 parking spaces in the car-choked Mission Beach area.

MacHutchin and his partners have argued that the development could add $1 million in sales and property taxes annually to city coffers.

Final approval for the project came last June during a stormy council meeting when vocal Save Mission Beach Committee partisans packed the council chambers and shouted their disapproval.

Gotch, whose top political fund-raiser was MacHutchin's wife, defended his vote in favor of the project at the time by saying he would not "abandon" the Plunge "to the derelicts, drug pushers and the decay that is there now."

Save Mission Beach proponents began planning their petition drive immediately after the vote, and the committee eventually hired the Left Field Management Co. to gather signatures.

The company paid between 25 cents to 35 cents a signature to 125 employees for the job, Curren said, adding that the committee raised more than $30,000 in donations to pay for the drive.

MacHutchin said he disagreed with some of the pitches used in the petition drive.

" 'Hey, would you like to see a shopping center on public land or would you like to see the Plunge torn down? Well, sign here.' It's not a fair argument," MacHutchin said, adding that he and his development partners will not wait for the vote because it would cost them $500,000 to "educate the voters."

A city building department official said MacHutchin and his partners have submitted their plans for preliminary checks but as of late Monday had not yet received demolition or building permits.

Gotch said that despite the strong showing of petition advocates, he stands behind his decision to develop the Plunge.

"I believe as strongly today that this project is important to the city, the beach community, the key to the revitalization of Mission Beach," said Gotch.

If the measure makes the ballot, he said, "it tells me that there are a number of people out there, if in fact they were properly informed, that believe there are other options to look at. And that's a valid position to have."

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