New lifeguard tower in La Jolla meets ADA-compliance ... just not to the beach

By Ashley Mackin

With the Children’s Pool beach lifeguard tower set for June demolition and a rebuild planned soon after, one detail is still causing concern for paraplegic and lifelong swimmer Jack Robertson of La Jolla.

While the tower plans adhere to all Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards, there is still no safe ADA-compliant way to access the sand from the end of the proposed ramp.

The slope leading down to the sand is too steep to be ADA-compliant, but for Robertson, that is his safest option. He said the beach will be used by all people, not just those in wheelchairs, and that making the Children’s Pool ADA-accessible would make it a tourism draw because it would be the only such beach in the area.

The lifeguard tower plans, as approved, include access to public restrooms and showers via the ramp. There will be at least one ADA- compliant stall. From there, all beach-goers must use a set of stairs to reach the sand.

This is in accordance with 2010 ADA Standards, which state that when altering paths of travel, “Restrooms, telephones and drinking fountains serving the altered area, (must be) readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities, including individuals who use wheelchairs.”

The plans as a whole have been approved, and the coastal development permit and site development permit have been granted, with only minor changes going back to community planning groups. For example, the La Jolla Parks and Beaches (LJP&B) committee heard updates about the tower color at its March 25 meeting.

City officials say at the time the lifeguard tower plans were drafted for the Children’s Pool, beach access was not as big an issue as it is now, so such was not taken into consideration.

At the LJP&B meeting, City of San Diego project manager Jihad Sleiman said access beyond the ramp is not within the scope of the current project.

However, Robertson countered, “Go one step further and extend the ramp down to the high-tide line. Children’s Pool is such a tourist attraction as it is, but if that happened, we could boast that (the beach is) ADA-accessible.”

There is now a slope leading from the south side of the current lifeguard tower to the sand that is too steep and cracked to be considered ADA-compliant. There is nothing in the new lifeguard tower plans to alter the slope or build around it.

Willing to take the risk, Robertson said he often asks the ranger at Children’s Pool to unlock the gate to the current slope so he can go down to the water and swim. When refused, he has to be carried down the stairs.

“I don’t like to ask my same friends to help me down the steps because they’ve gotten as old as I have and their backs are out,” he said. “My son is 23 and he’s helped me since he was 14 or 15, and I don’t want to see him do damage to his back.”

Robertson said he doesn’t know why the slope can’t be resurfaced and a sign installed warning people that it is too steep for ADA compliance, but to use it at their own risk.

This would open up beach access to those who use wheelchairs, baby strollers or walkers. “It’s amazing how many different people use what supposedly is wheelchair access,” he said. “It turns out numerous people utilize easier (ramp) access.”

Robertson said Children’s Pool is the most accessible beach for him and there are no other options in Southern California. Mission Beach and Pacific Beach have power wheelchairs available to those in need. But for Robertson, who wheels his chair into waist- deep water and dives in, the power chairs don’t work.

“The problem with the power wheelchairs is after so many years, batteries die and I can’t take them in the water,” he said.

La Jolla Shores has manual chairs available, but in Robertson’s experience, they cannot be self-propelled easily. “I have to be with someone for them to push the chair and the lifeguards aren’t responsible for doing that,” he said. “Those chairs look better than they work.”

Having a natural slope to the high-tide mark is the easiest and safest way for someone in Robertson’s situation to reach the ocean because at the high-tide mark, the sand is harder, more flat, and easier to maneuver in a wheelchair.

“They are going to get rid of half of the stairs anyway (with the installation of a ramp), so it doesn’t seem to be asking that much more to get rid of the lower set of stairs, ramp it, and make it look nicer,” Robertson said. “It needs an upgrade anyway.”