The San Diego City Council voted during its Sept. 17 meeting against the wishes of the La Jolla Development Permit Review Committee (DPR) and La Jolla Community Planning Association (LJCPA) – and upheld that a retaining wall built at Children’s Pool substantially conforms to a previously approved permit and shall remain.
The 30-inch retaining wall under a locked gate was built as part of the Children’s Pool lifeguard tower reconstruction project of 2012 at 850 Coast Blvd.
In a report to the City pertaining to this project, City staff state “The retaining wall (1) provides additional support for the gate posts; (2) retains about a foot of soil; and (3) is a safety barrier for the newly constructed ramp which is required by City policy and the California Building Code (CBC). The CBC requires ‘guards’ or barriers along open-sided walking surfaces.”
City staff made the case that the construction of the wall meets the terms of an approved permit associated with the lifeguard tower construction, and presented at local community planning groups earlier this year, seeking approval in a Substantial Conformance Review (SCR).
However, local groups argued the retaining wall blocks a slope from the street level to the beach, referred to by beach access advocates as a “public access ramp.”
As such, at its May 21 meeting, DPR voted against the SCR because they disagreed with the City’s assertion that the wall was necessary and that the project conforms to the terms of a permit issued in 2012. One month later, LJCPA ratified the findings.
But by that point, the City had already approved the SCR, so LJCPA filed an appeal and asked to be heard at the full City Council.
Of the issues identified in the appeal, the primary one seemed to be the historic use of the slope for beach access.
Project manager with the City’s Development Services Department Helene Deisher said staff’s opinion is that “the access ramp has been blocked and used for City use only for decades” and that “no documents have been found to suggest the ramp is for public access.” She added that currently, the slope is only available for emergency personnel access if needed.
In an organized presentation, LJCPA chair Tony Crisafi and La Jollan Ken Hunrichs argued otherwise.
Crisafi said the wall “creates a significant impact” to the access ramp, which he said is identified in the La Jolla Community Plan.
Hunrichs echoed that “the ramp has been used for decades and to limit it to emergency access only is not in line with the Coastal Act.” He proceeded to show images of people and cars using the slope to access the beach in decades past.
The slope is currently too steep and degraded for ADA-compliance, and has no railing on either side.
“This wall was built very late in the project and without anyone in the community knowing about it,” Hunrichs added. “It was not part of the original plan and City staff is attempting to redefine the ramp even after decades of public use (to justify the change).”
Speaking for those in favor of upholding the SCR, Seal Conservancy of San Diego spokesperson Adrian Kwiatkowski called the appeal a “proxy war” and noted that the California Coastal Commission in June approved an extension to the seasonal beach closure of Children’s Pool during harbor seal pupping season to 2029 -- a blow to beach access advocates. (Children’s Pool is now closed by way of a post-and-chain at the mid-level landing where the bathroom facilities are from Dec. 15 to May 15 annually; and open the remaining months with a guideline rope in place to encourage distance between humans and pinnipeds.)
“Let’s be honest, this is a proxy war for the seals in La Jolla,” he told the City Council. “Opponents looks for all opportunities to undo the protections approved by the California Coastal Commission… and have taken it to appealing a minute construction project the City has done. This is not an ADA-access to Casa Beach (another name for Children’s Pool). It is not ADA-compliant, never has been, never will be.”
Agreeing, District 1 City Councilmember (whose district includes La Jolla) Barbara Bry asked City staff how long the ramp has not been available to the public, who replied, based on their information, that the gate that blocks the ramp has been in place since the 1990s.
She also asked San Diego Lifeguard chief James Gartland if guards use the ramp now to get to the beach, and he responded that the guards use stairs and other access ways.
Bry said, “This may be a proxy war and the Council is voting on the SCR only” and moved to deny the LJCPA appeal and uphold the SCR. With no other comment, the motion passed unanimously.