The Plunge’s fall into disrepair raises questions about safety and future of former OB saltwater pool
“Do you want a blade?” Kevin Hastings, vice chairman of the Ocean Beach Planning Group, asked while holding a 6-inch knife in one hand and tightening the leash to his dog Rusty, a German shepherd/hound mix, in the other.
Hastings had discovered the knife minutes earlier while waiting to conduct a personal tour of the former saltwater diving and swimming pool known as the Plunge (also affectionately called the “Sandbox” today).
In its heyday, the Plunge was one of the most popular features of the swanky Silver Spray resort in the 1920s, drawing visitors and locals alike. Today, the remnants, on the shore just south of the Ocean Beach Pier, stand like an ancient Roman ruin — the exposed block wall on the west border slightly leaning into the ocean slowly decimating it, while a contemporary white wooden railing serves to prevent people from falling into the ocean on the north side.
Inside the “pool” area, now filled with sand and partially overrun with weeds, Hastings found an empty 50-milliliter plastic bottle of cognac on a slab of broken concrete. He gingerly stuck his hand into a random spot of sand and sifted through it, pulling out a fingernail-size fragment of broken glass. He repeated the procedure at another spot and found a much larger shard.
“It’s a giant litter box, is what it is,” Hastings said. “That’s why I wouldn’t even run my dog in here because there’s broken glass.”
Hastings was there to point out some of the problems associated with the approximately 90-by-65-foot lot at the foot of the Silver Spray Apartments, the present-day incarnation of the former hotel off Narragansett Avenue. The trash told most of the story.
With a public walkway running through the Plunge property to connect the south end of the beach boardwalk with the northern starting point of Sunset Cliffs, the site offers stunning views of Ocean Beach and the pier and is a great draw for sunset watchers.
However, its remote location and sporadic police patrols also have garnered attention from drug users as well as homeless people, according to Ocean Beach Town Council President Mark Winkie.
“We’ve just neglected the area,” he said. “And the homelessness and the nefarious activities ... you throw those all together and that’s what you get down there — this cocktail of problems.”
To many, the unkempt condition of the Plunge is inextricably linked with the fading facade of the Silver Spray Apartments above it.
“It’s just really ugly,” said Planning Group treasurer Craig Klein. “It makes the community look like some run-down inner-city ghetto. It’s in a very prominent place. It’s incredibly visible from the beach and boardwalk and from the pier and it stands out like a sore thumb.”
Yet the issues run much deeper than what’s apparent on the surface. According to Hastings, a mechanical engineer who works on building structures, the footings of the Plunge were poured atop the tidal pools that surround it, meaning the seemingly sturdy structure is vulnerable to slow erosion by the ocean.
Around the beginning of the year, a fissure opened in the foundation of the Plunge’s south end, mirroring a similar incident on the north end in 2018.
“A huge cave developed underneath there and people were actually living inside of there, doing drugs and having parties and burning whatever to have light and stay warm,” Hastings said.
“You want a textbook definition of a dangerous condition of public property?” Klein said at the June 24 Town Council meeting. “You couldn’t come up with a better definition of this. ... [If it] caves in and somebody is seriously injured or killed, this is a slam-dunk case of huge-dollar liability for the city. And speaking as a taxpayer, I shouldn’t have to be running that risk.”
According to a July 10 memo from the San Diego Transportation & Storm Water Department, roughly 360 feet of the walkway stood above the cavernous void. Emergency work was undertaken by city crews July 6 to remedy the situation, requiring four days and $90,000.
Department spokesman Anthony Santacroce wrote in an email to the Point Loma-OB Monthly that “the walkway showed signs of vertical movement, indicating an imminent collapse. A concrete slurry was injected to fill the void, and that will continue to prevent collapse.”
In addition to filling the cave, the city installed a concrete staircase to provide safer access to the tidal pools and cliffs, replacing one demolished almost two years ago.
But Pat James, vice president of the Ocean Beach Historical Society, worries that the repairs are just a temporary patch on old threadbare material.
“It’s still pretty solid there, but obviously over time it’s going to get worse,” he said. “The Plunge itself is really protecting the [Silver Spray] building. It’s a pretty massive hunk of concrete. But in 50 years’ time, that may not be the situation with sea-level rise and whatnot. And then what do you do?”
The Plunge’s predicament stands in sharp contrast to its sparkling past. Opened on May 1, 1919, the heated saltwater pool was a highlight of the resort built by William Dougherty, which included a spa, skating rink and ballroom. The Plunge was enclosed and had two diving boards, according to a historical walking tour brochure from the Ocean Beach MainStreet Association.
Local children took swimming lessons at the Plunge, and notable swimmers trained in its water, including Florence Chadwick, the first woman to swim across the English Channel and back; Faye Baird Fraser, considered the first female surfer in San Diego; and one of the city’s first water ballet groups, the brochure states.
“It was a hit, not only with the tourists that were staying there but also with the locals,” James said. “The locals swam there as well. It was a pretty popular destination.”
Referencing the book “Beach Town: Early Days in Ocean Beach” by Ruth Varney Held, James said the decline of the Plunge, the Silver Spray and the entire Ocean Beach resort era began with the onset of the Depression in the 1930s.
“Its days were numbered as soon as the Depression hit,” James said. “Things just went to a standstill. Building stopped. People quit traveling like they were.”
James couldn’t say when the Plunge fell into disuse. In the comments section of a March 2010 article on the Plunge published by OB Rag, Allen Lewis recalled swimming in the pool as a child in Ocean Beach in the early 1950s. The Historical Context Appendix C of the Ocean Beach Community Plan update of 2015 reported that by 1956, the Plunge was no longer identified as a structure on Sanborn Maps (used by insurance companies).
Despite its past glory and present decay, the Plunge’s fate is very much up in the air. But turning back the hands of time seems out of the question, according to Klein.
“The pool belongs to the city,” Klein said. “Restoring the salt pool has never been seriously considered as a capital improvement project.”
City representatives did not respond to questions from the Monthly about the Plunge’s future.
Hastings argues that nothing remains of the Plunge worth preserving and says he prefers that the entire site be deconstructed and returned to its natural state as a tidal pool. However, he concedes that such a project might be costly.
Hastings believes inexpensive improvements such as park benches or a horseshoe pit would do wonders, though any enhancement would be subject to the same forces undermining the Plunge itself.
“It would have to be a seasonal thing, because when those king tides hit, any kind of structure that’s put in there without spending some money to raise everything and add drainage would be obliterated in wintertime,” he said. “But I’m certain it could be something better than what it is now, which is a homeless encampment and a trash pit.”
James disagrees that the Plunge’s disrepair warrants its removal. As a historian and preservationist, he argues that there’s a lot more connected to the site than meets the eye.
“It’s an icon of our heritage and our resort days,” James said. “The more of those assets we lose, the more of our character we lose.”
Winkie said he sees merit in all the suggestions as long as the safety of the area can be secured. Though he acknowledged that the means for any improvement may not readily available now, he questioned whether the will to do anything about the Plunge might not be in short supply as well.
“There are hundreds of things — simple things — that can be done,” Winkie said. “They need to reach out to the community and ask them, ‘What would you like to see here?’ Then ... see if they’re willing to discuss the idea of creating usable space there. And then move forward from there and obviously try to find the funds to get that done. And none of that’s happening right now.”