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Ocean Beach community leaders see a rebuild as best option for aging landmark pier

Waves roll under the Ocean Beach Pier in January 2020.
(The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Ocean Beach Pier has been a landmark for the coastal community since it first opened in July 1966. As many as a half-million visitors walk the popular fishing spot each year.

Now, 55 years since the pier opened, the city of San Diego faces a decision on its fate.

“It needs a lot of work,” said Denny Knox, executive director of the Ocean Beach MainStreet Association, the management organization for the local Business Improvement District. “Nobody has an idea of when to expect a resolution to these issues. This is a continuing saga.”

The original ribar reinforcements, which were standard materials at the time of the pier’s construction, are made of an uncoated steel that has deteriorated over time, leaving the foundation’s concrete pillars at risk of falling apart.

At the community level, Knox, Ocean Beach Town Council President Mark Winkie and Ocean Beach Planning Board Chairwoman Andrea Schlageter are part of a working group to discuss potential options for the pier.

All three indicated they believe building a new pier would be a better option than rehabilitating the existing one.

“Ultimately the pier will have to be rebuilt at some point,” Knox said. “It was only supposed to have a life span of 50 years and we’re on the 55th year.”

The pier has been closed since January after railings were damaged by high surf. It also was closed in 2019 while the city repaired winter storm damage.

Waves crash over the Ocean Beach Pier on Jan. 11, damaging railings.
(Jim Grant)

City crews are working out the best use of limited funds to try to reopen the pier for the summer and secure funding for a longer-term fix. Building materials have already been ordered to fix the damage to the railings in the middle section.

San Diego plans to reopen the Ocean Beach Pier after repairs to damage earlier this year are completed, the city said May 5.

While there is no set date, engineers overseeing the immediate repairs are confident the pier will be partially opened in coming weeks. Guests will be able to walk as far out as the Walking on Water Cafe.

But damage to the ribar and foundation beyond the cafe will keep the end section closed, officials said.

“I am grateful that a large portion of the Ocean Beach Pier can be safely reopened for the enjoyment of residents and visitors,” said City Council President Jennifer Campbell, whose District 2 includes Ocean Beach. “Much more work will need to be done to address the damage to other parts of the pier and find a long-term solution moving forward.”

An evaluation report completed in 2019 and released in April this year said the pier has “reached the end of its service life.” The inspection found cracked pilings and erosion, particularly at the junction where the downward-sloping pier from the land meets the slightly upward-sloping pier heading out above the water.

The 55-year-old pier has significant deterioration that could cost the city of San Diego millions to rehabilitate, according to the newly released report.

The 364-page report written by Moffatt & Nichol, at taxpayer expense of close to $700,000, found three options going forward:

• Repair existing damage, amounting to $8 million. This would be the cheapest option but would not address the pier’s deterioration, according to the report.

• Rehabilitate the pier at a cost of $30 million to $50 million, which would increase its service life but would not address “sea-level-rise vulnerability,” the report said.

• Tear down the pier and build a new one. This could bring service life of 75 years or more but would cost $40 million to $60 million, according to the report.

Campbell said her team has met with Mayor Todd Gloria’s office and city staff. An official decision is still developing.

Stretching 1,971 feet, the Ocean Beach Pier is the longest concrete pier on the West Coast and one of the longest in the world. A prominent feature is the T-shaped terrace at the end of the pier that extends more than 400 feet parallel to the shore. Out beyond the terrace, water depths can be as low as 30 feet, making it a favorite spot for local fishermen.

“It’s a wonderful experience to be able to walk so far out onto the water,” Knox said.

Visitors walk the Ocean Beach Pier in June 2020.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The pier also is a major piece of the local economy. Citing the high volume of visitors the pier attracts, Winkie said not having the landmark open to guests and tourists is a disadvantage to local businesses.

“It’s not just a big deal for Ocean Beach but for the entire county,” Winkie said. “It’s a huge draw from a business perspective. A lot of people will use the pier and then go to a local establishment. Not having that available is definitely going to hurt. That’s why we’re really anxious to get a solution from the city. Whether it happens immediately or not, we want to know just what’s going to happen.”

The 2019 report projected that retrofitting the pier to modern-day environmental standards would be slightly less costly than building a new pier. But the current structure is so old and the materials so dated that this could prove less effective in the long run.

“It isn’t sustainable the way it’s built now,” Winkie said. “Spending that kind of money to retrofit the pier would only extend the life of the pier for 10 to 15 years. The amount of funding required for a major overhaul seems to be almost as much as new construction.”

Schlageter agreed, saying: “The option for retrofitting doesn’t seem like it would work out. I think most people are looking forward to a rebuild of the pier.”

Winkie said a new pier that meets modern requirements “will last a lot longer and would allow for a redesign which would better serve the needs of Ocean Beach and the San Diego community at large for many decades to come.”

A crew works on the Ocean Beach Pier's construction in 1965. It opened in July 1966.
(Teyssier & Teyssier, courtesy of Ocean Beach MainStreet Association)

Future construction on the pier likely would include modern construction materials at higher elevations to withstand potential sea-level rise and the effects of climate change.

“The pier will need to meet all new state and federal requirements when rebuilt, and this will include the type of materials used and climate change adaptation,” Winkie said.

As of now, the deciding factor in whether to repair or rebuild the pier is funding. Winkie framed the local landmark as a worthwhile investment.

“There seems to be a lot of federal money kicking around for infrastructure repair,” he said. “Sixty million dollars [for the pier] isn’t that much money when you’re talking about billions for road repair.”

But Gloria’s team says those billions are still to be secured. David Rolland, senior advisor of communications for Gloria, said the city is waiting for infrastructure funds to be formalized at the federal level.

“Until we see the details of how Congress plans to move forward with its infrastructure package, it’s impossible to predict how much funding the city would be expected to receive,” Rolland said. “The city will be fiercely advocating for a broad, robust federal investment in our nation’s infrastructure that will help our city build back better for the challenges our community faces now and into the future.”

The city’s capital improvements budget currently is $747 million, and the city faces an infrastructure funding gap of $3 billion through fiscal 2026. How the Ocean Beach Pier will fit into that budget is still undecided as the mayor’s office balances other infrastructure needs such as city facilities, stormwater maintenance, roads and bridges.

A surfer rides under the Ocean Beach Pier in June 2020.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Knox sees the possibility of rebuilding the pier as an exciting opportunity for the coastal community.

“Materials have changed since the pier was first built, and there are so many new options for building in a water setting,” Knox said.

Schlageter said a rebuild would provide the opportunity to invest in more ecologically minded infrastructure.

“When we tackle a future-facing project such as this one, we should be keeping our sustainability and climate resiliency goals in mind,” she said. “Ocean Beach is a very eco-friendly community. We live so close to the cliffs and the tide pools and the ocean. The environment is at the core of almost everything we do here.”

Schlageter listed hypothetical wave-capture technology as a possible feature of a new pier.

“If the waves are powerful enough to knock out our pier each year, we should be capturing that,” she said.

City of San Diego reopened all piers and boardwalks.
Ryan Pelop goes fishing on the Ocean Beach Pier while another visitor takes an afternoon nap in June 2020.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Schlageter said the working group is looking into leveraging the costs of building a new pier with “green” infrastructure incentive funding by incorporating environmentally minded features into the project.

Green energy is something that has been discussed in a new pier construction, and it may be possible to pursue additional federal support for this,” Winkie said, suggesting the potential for a green energy-generating system to power nearby lifeguard towers.

The Ocean Beach Town Council will hold a town hall forum about the pier at its next scheduled meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 26, online on Facebook Live. Members of the public will be able to participate and voice their opinions on the situation.

“We want to ensure that the Ocean Beach Pier is enjoyed for generations to come and will be evaluating all options to keep this treasured resource in our community,” Winkie said. “If we have to close it to tear it down to build a new one, we would endorse that. But we don’t want to see it closed and sitting there just falling apart. The idea that we are just going to kick the can further down the road is just not acceptable.

“We are pleased that the mayor’s office is making this a priority and are looking forward to working with Mayor Gloria and our district representative, Jen Campbell, to develop a long-term plan that takes input from the Ocean Beach community into consideration.”

No matter what action the city takes in addressing the state of the pier, Knox said she’s certain Ocean Beach will have a landmark to call its own.

“The pier will definitely be there in some form or another,” Knox said. “We want the pier to live on in whatever form is necessary. If we do end up rebuilding the pier, we should do it in the best way possible and make it something that can help pay for itself and stay viable through the years.”

— City News Service contributed to this report.


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