Neighbors balk at big lifeguard tower

By Jeff McDonald

April 23, 2015

A long-planned lifeguard tower now under construction on South Mission Beach is drawing complaints from residents that the building is too big and too expensive.

Property owners along Ocean Front Walk are worried the nearly 4,000-square-foot edifice will obstruct their views and degrade property values. They also say the city failed to properly inform the community about the project.

“If they are going to force the residents down here to take this to the courts to get a stop-work order, then we will,” neighbor Ken Giavara said. “If the city wants to waste more of their private citizens’ time, health and money on this illegal project, that’s up to them.”

City officials say they followed all of the normal procedures, convening community meetings, soliciting feedback and securing a permit from the California Coastal Commission and the San Diego planning department since the upgrade was proposed more than a dozen years ago.

They say the three-story tower is badly needed because the existing facility built as a temporary structure is more than 40 years old and deteriorating. The price jumped from $1.1 million in 2002 to just under $5 million due to delays, erosion-control and other problems, the city said.

“San Diego Fire-Rescue continues to make every effort to closely collaborate with various community planning groups while ensuring that the lifeguards’ operational needs for emergency responses are met,” spokeswoman Monica Munoz said. “Life and safety remain the top priorities during the design of these facilities.”

South Mission Beach is a popular destination for San Diego residents and tourists, drawing surfers, swimmers, sunbathers and vacationers year-round. The beach volleyball courts just west of the boardwalk are used as early as 8 a.m. and stay busy most days.

The existing tower is three stories high but is less than 900 square feet. Its wood is faded and sun-baked.

Officials say the new 3,809-square-foot facility was designed to minimize any impact to ocean views and should meet the needs of the community through 2050. It includes a first-aid station, rescue vehicle bay, administrative quarters and two observation decks.

Munoz said the city did its best to keep the community and visitors informed of the construction plans and schedule.

“There are no residences or businesses within 300 feet of this project so the construction letters were sent to about 125 residences on the oceanfront boardwalk and across Mission Boulevard as a courtesy,” she said.

Critics say the city failed to properly notify stakeholders, sending letters to rented-out residences rather than to property owners. They also note that public disclosures depict the tower as 3,125 square feet, rather than the 3,809-square-foot complex now being built.

“It was a shock to us,” said Deneen Nielson, a Chandler, Ariz. woman who owns an Ocean Front Walk property with her husband, Kirk. “We got one letter in January 2015 from the city of San Diego.”

Nielson said she was aghast when she learned about the size of the tower.

“We are very upset. We bought in 1998, never dreaming that our view would be obstructed in any way,” she said. “I’m all in favor of giving the lifeguards what they need, but seriously, this is a little bit overboard.”

The construction design was approved by the Coastal Commission at 3,125 square feet as long ago as 2007, but the project stalled due to city budget cuts and other delays. The coastal permit expired after 2009 but was re-approved in 2011 before being formally issued last month.

Giavara, who has been watching the development daily from his front window, said construction work began before the state permit was issued. He also said city officials should have restarted the notification and hearing processes once the first Coastal Commission permit lapsed.

“It’s deception. It’s illegal,” he said. “That alone should be enough for a stop-work order.”

His attorney, Leslie Devaney, said the city project is getting different treatment than a private developer would receive.

“The city needs to take this project back through the transparent public route so that the public can weigh in,” she said. “It is way too stale and way too secret.”

The city said construction did not begin until April 3, more than two weeks after the state permit was issued.

The Coastal Commission said it examined the design plans for the 3,809-square-foot tower and determined that it was substantially the same as the 3,125-square-foot project it approved in 2007 and last month.

“The overall bulk and scale of the final structure is essentially the same, the building location and orientation has not changed, the maximum height and number of floors of the final structure is not changing (30 feet and three floors) and the building is not being located any further seaward,” District Manager Deborah Lee wrote in a March 18 email to a commissioner’s aide.

Construction on the project is not permitted between Memorial Day and Labor Day, so the tower is not expected to be finished until Summer 2016. Lifeguards will remain in 1970s era tower while the new one is being built just to the north.