Balboa Island keeps its appeal despite losing parts of its past, local Realtors say

To Marlys Vasterling, Balboa Island’s mixture of old and new, quaint and modern, makes it a special place, even though an old gas station, bank, pharmacy, hardware store and, most recently, a market that had been in the same location for around 80 years are gone.

So, too, are many of the island’s original beach cottages — replaced by bigger houses.

“Yes, the island is changing, no question about it,” said Vasterling, a real estate broker who grew up on Balboa Island and is continuing Vance Realty Group, the business her late mother, Lora Vance, established 45 years ago.

But the island remains one of the most desirable places to live, she said.

The Vance family originally moved to Collins Island (a piece of Balboa Island) from Corona del Mar before they bought 1311 N. Bay Front in 1960 for $63,000. Vasterling sold the latter three years ago for nearly $3 million.

“No. 4 Collins Island is still owned by the family my parents sold it to for $120,000 that same year and is the same configuration with an estimated value of approximately $5 million to $6 million, depending on interior improvements,” Vasterling said.

She noted another example of price appreciation by providing the sales history of a cottage sold the year the Vance Realty office opened on Marine Avenue, Balboa Island’s main drag. The home, at 215 Amethyst, sold for $74,000 in 1974 and for $900,000 in 2001. It was then torn down and built anew. In 2018, the property sold for $3.065 million.

Real estate broker Mary Hardesty, whose office is on the west end of the island, can’t believe she has lived on Balboa Island for 50 years.

She recalls the first time seeing it and thinking, “Oh my God, who gets to live here? It’s like Disneyland.”

It was 1966, and she, along with her brothers, had just crossed the bridge on their way to go surfing. Three years later, Hardesty got to live on Balboa Island after she married a real estate broker who owned an office there.

Hardesty obtained her real estate license in 1971 when she began working with her then-husband at Hardesty Realtors on Park Avenue. That continued until 1985, and after working as an independent broker, she opened her own office in 1997 on Agate Avenue with associate and family member Erika Primeau.

Hardesty said she has seen an increase in single-family homes replacing duplexes, mainly because of parking requirements for new duplexes that call for four spaces instead of two.

During the past 40 to 50 years, Hardesty has seen a gradual shift on Balboa Island from homes being mostly vacation rentals to mostly permanent for their owners. Many of them have been handed down through generations.

“Most of the vacation rentals were owned by families from the greater Los Angeles area and the plan was to ultimately retire and move down here into the beach house,” Hardesty said. “Today, 75% of the homes on the island are owner-occupied or second homes, while 25% are rental properties.”

Real estate agent Bing Girling said that as more properties have become permanent residences, many people have made full use of the lots by replacing original beach cottages with big houses.

Businesses also are turning over with increased frequency.

“The dynamics of the island may change, but not the community feel,” Girling said. “It’s still a unique community that I don’t think will ever change.”

Girling — who is partnering with his son, David, in the Girling Real Estate Group, affiliated with Villa Real Estate — moved to Balboa Island in 1979, when the price for a 30-by-85-foot inside lot ranged from $300,000 to $400,000. Before that, he recalled, he saw a home for sale on South Bay Front for $105,000 in 1967.

Girling said a 30-by-85-foot lot currently ranges from $2 million to $8 million.

Hardesty sees similarities between Balboa Island and a “blue zone” environment where people tend to live longer.

“Some of the qualities that contribute to longevity … exist on Balboa Island, like the social networking and the camaraderie that goes with living in a tight community, looking out for one another, talking to the people in their 90s who are sitting on benches, and getting out and walking,” Hardesty said.

Vasterling agreed, saying the community is distinguished from all others by its 2½ miles of sidewalk stretching around the island, providing a continuous water view for pedestrians, plus its shopping, dining and, for some, the privilege of a boat dock in front of their house.

There’s no other place on the California coast quite like it, she said.

“As they tear these … cottages down and build lovely new homes, they cannot tear down this truly historic place,” she said.

Susan Hoffman is a contributor to Times Community News.