Ocean Beach Brouhaha : Sides Form in Battle Over Plans to Build Boardwalk and Seawall


As Phyllis Purchas strolls along the sands of Ocean Beach at sunset, she can’t envision how man-made “improvements,” especially a concrete boardwalk, could make her stretch of paradise any better.

“We’ve got the prettiest little unspoiled surf town in Southern California, and now they’re going to develop it and put concrete on about a third of our sand,” said Purchas, a member of the Ocean Beach Preservation League.

Purchas, who has lived in an apartment near the beach for 14 years, fears a boardwalk would do the opposite of what proponents hope to achieve. She believes it will draw gangs, derelicts and speeding skateboarders; not the moms with strollers, the disabled and senior citizens that the boardwalk’s backers say they’re trying to accommodate.


Public access to the beach, long a cherished principal in California, helped inspire the boardwalk proposal three years ago. Boardwalk proponents maintain that the best way to “clean up” their beach and make it accessible and safe for everyone is by installing a half-mile-long, lighted walkway between Newport Avenue and the jetty of the San Diego River at Dog Beach.

The nine-block-long beach, which is largely unimproved, is popular with beachgoers and surfers, drawing more than 2.5 million visitors annually, according to city estimates.

At issue is whether Ocean Beach Park, a city park that is maintained by taxpayer dollars, should be made more accessible despite possible adverse impacts on the local community.

“Should we not build parks because they may attract crime? Do we penalize everyone for the actions of a few?” said Kevin Oliver, a project manager with the San Diego Park and Recreation Department. He is overseeing Ocean Beach’s Beachfront Improvement Project, which will include a boardwalk, a sea wall in some areas to prevent flooding, boardwalk lighting and improvements at three beachside parking lots.

The challenge, Oliver says, is to design a boardwalk and sea wall that will not lend themselves to loitering, drinking and “other activities not conducive to family enjoyment of the park.”

“I think we’ve found that in the majority of parks in the city that the more programs and improvements we have that can attract the families and other types of average law-abiding citizens, the more likely we are to discourage and drive out those who aren’t law abiding, or who are interested in other activities,” Oliver said.

Denise Knox, owner of Cabrillo Art Center in Ocean Beach and an Ocean Beach Merchants Assn. member who supports a boardwalk, said residents banded together three years ago to improve the beachfront because many felt it was unsafe to walk there.

“The general consensus was ‘isn’t it a shame about the beach,’ “she said. “The lighting was poor, the access was poor and the parking lots were in terrible shape. We had a real transient problem. The people who have worked on this (boardwalk and lighting improvements) have wanted to make our beachfront comfortable for everyone to be at.

“We can’t be stupid and say our beachfront is ours and for nobody else.”

Dewey Schwartzenburg, a spokesman for the state Coastal Conservancy, said public access for the local community as well as tourists was a primary factor in the conservancy’s decision to award a $300,000 grant to Ocean Beach for the boardwalk and lighting.

Schwartzenburg said the conservancy insists that the design stage for such improvements, which is where the Ocean Beach project is now, be open to the public.

But boardwalk opponents say they don’t want to discuss the boardwalk’s design; they simply want the project stopped.

As the opposition to a boardwalk grows, the issue threatens to divide a community that has begun to jell in opposition to another perceived threat: a city plan to construct a sewage outfall pipe that would jut out of the San Diego River, off Dog Beach.

“The sewage outfall pipe gets all of our attention right now, but this boardwalk issue is heating up,” says Steve Elbogen, an 18-year “OB” resident and president of the Ocean Beach Merchants Assn.

It’s heating up mostly because of one man, 49-year-old David Diehl. He’s a 25-year OB resident and an attorney who works out of his beachfront home. The proposed boardwalk would run along the backside of his house.

Diehl attended initial community workshops on a boardwalk three years ago and he raised a stink. But then, he says, he just assumed “it would just disappear, like a lot of other bad ideas in this city.”

“I never dreamed they could get state funding for this,” he said, referring to about $450,000 in Coastal Conservancy and state park grants. He learned of the grants while attending a meeting of the Beachfront Improvement Project steering committee in August. The citizens’ group was formed years ago by the Ocean Beach Planning Board, merchants association and Town Council.

Shortly after that August meeting he began to galvanize friends who also were opposed to the boardwalk. They passed out petitions and so far have collected about 2,000 signatures opposing the project, Diehl said.

Construction is expected to begin next fall. Many residents believe a boardwalk is inevitable because it’s one of the few unimproved beaches in the county.

Boardwalk opponents and proponents have battled it out in the town paper, The Peninsula Beacon, over the last two months.

Among recent letters to the editor, one reader accused boardwalk proponents of pursuing “filthy lucre,” while another wrote that she wondered if the town committee set up to oversee the boardwalk “had some monetary value in mind.”

And that’s one reason why seven perturbed residents--led by Diehl--formed the Ocean Beach Preservation League three months ago. The Preservation League is getting its message to Ocean Beach’s approximately 20,000 residents through flyers and the signing of petitions.

“One Mission Beach Boardwalk is enough,” states one of league’s flyers.

As now planned, the Ocean Beach boardwalk would be 10 to 15 feet wide and would connect an existing paved pathway near the Ocean Beach pier northward about 2,500 feet to Dog Beach. The city is in the process of hiring a consultant to determine the exact design of the boardwalk and a sea wall that will run along part of the paved pathway to provide flood control.

“If there are any retaining walls, our hope is that they will be beneath ground,” said Margery Grant, chairwoman of the Beachfront Improvement Committee. “We want the boardwalk to look as natural as possible and we don’t want it to obstruct views or change the character of the beach.”

The boardwalk has been funded by a $300,000 grant from the state Coastal Conservancy and $150,000 from the state Department of Parks and Recreation. The city has earmarked another $250,000 for improvements to three Ocean Beach parking lots--at the pier, the lifeguard station near Santa Monica Avenue and at Dog Beach.

Before any of the money is put to use, Preservation League members want three things:

* An environmental impact report on the proposed boardwalk. Planning officials say an environmental review isn’t needed because the sand on which the boardwalk would be placed is already trampled upon daily, Oliver added.

* A city-sponsored public hearing on the boardwalk and the rest of the Beachfront Improvement Project.

* A vote on the boardwalk by Ocean Beach residents.

All planned improvements must still survive a City Council decision to hire a contractor, as well as public hearings held by two city Park and Recreation Department subcommittees and, ultimately, the Park and Recreation Board. The full City Council must sign off on the final plans.

Preservation League members still have work to do to educate the community because, they say, little effort was made over the years to publicize beachfront planning efforts by the OB Town Council and Planning Board or the OB Merchants Assn.

Three years ago those groups formed a Beachfront Improvement Project steering committee that members say has met monthly since the boardwalk concept hatched. About 40 people attended those original workshops, organizers say.

Boardwalk proponents argue that they have advertised their meetings over the years in the local newspaper, community bulletin boards and occasionally on flyers handed out in town.

“We have not been doing anything behind closed doors,” says Grant of the beachfront improvement committee. “When you’ve been at this (beachfront improvement planning) for three years, the people who say they’ve never heard of this baffle me.”

Though he sympathizes with Ocean Beach residents who are forced to live with severe traffic congestion and limited parking much of the year, Alfred Strohlein of the Save Everyone’s Access group in San Diego said all the fuss over the proposed Ocean Beach boardwalk underscores “a very parochial attitude.”

“I would be in favor of making the beach accessible,” he said. “The problems of transients congregating on the path can be solved with good police patrols. And the alcohol ban at Mission Beach has been massively successful--you don’t get the derelicts like you used to.”

But Diehl has a different view of the proposed improvements: “It’s not that I think I am living in pristine wilderness, and I support beach access. I just don’t support concrete, drugs, gangs, skateboards or anything else associated with boardwalks.”