A SYMBOL EBBS AWAY | Beach life erodes | Crowding, drugs and crime are taking toll

June 20, 1991 No Comments

Gordon Smith. San Diego Tribune. San Diego, Calif.: Jun 20, 1991. pg. E.1

Editor’s Note: Now that one in eight Americans live in California, is it already too late for them to find the promised land? In this eighth part in a series, the Tribune looks at the havoc caused by the California boom.

On a hot summer day, San Diego County’s second largest city isn’t Chula Vista, with 135,000 people, or Oceanside, with 128,000.

It’s the beach. Up to 450,000 people flock to the county’s 70- mile coastline, transforming it into an instant megalopolis.

This is not the serene or fun-filled beach featured so often in TV ads for banks and beer. It’s a place bulging at the seams with traffic, drugs, crime, commerce and noise — a place increasingly hard to get to and, once there, to enjoy.

In fact, as the region’s population continues to soar, the beach – – long a symbol of the Southern California lifestyle — is becoming instead a symbol of urban crowding.

“Everyone’s ability to enjoy the beach has been diminished because there’s so many people trying to get there and the space is finite,” said Ellen Lirley, a planner with the California Coastal Commission’s San Diego office. “It’s (becoming) like Disneyland — you’d rather go on a Tuesday morning than on a Saturday afternoon.”

Mission Beach is a good example. Fifteen years ago you could jog on the boardwalk at any hour, “and you could always get a parking place,” recalled Cathy Scott, 41, a longtime resident.

These days, traffic in and out of Mission Beach comes to a standstill virtually every summer weekend. Along the narrow beachfront streets, cars and trucks with thunderous stereos circle endlessly, their drivers searching for parking spaces.

“It’s a nightmare. You sometimes get gridlock by 10 a.m.,” said Capt. Jim Sing, commander of the police department’s northern division.

Meanwhile, drug dealers, derelicts, gang members and other people crowd the boardwalk near Belmont Park. The fatal stabbings of two men earlier this month in a parking lot near Mission Bay were part of a chilling trend toward violent crime that has made the area one of the most dangerous in the city, according to police.

And while residents and City Council members argue over whether recently enacted restrictions on drinking at the beach will help, another problem — sewage spills from overtaxed pipelines — continues to plague nearby Mission Bay.

Ironically, all of these problems stem in part from the beach’s own powerful allure. It’s an allure that has drawn residents and visitors to Southern California for decades, and draws them to the ocean’s edge once they arrive.

“It seems as if the center of the country is emptying and everyone is going to the coast,” said Roger Revelle, former director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a founder of UCSD.

Musing about why people are attracted to the beach, Revelle went on: “You never get tired of looking at the ocean because it’s always changing. It’s an ideal place for a great many different kinds of recreation, too. And there’s moderate weather — it’s neither too hot nor too cold.”

One measure of the beach’s popularity is this: An average of more than 71,000 people went to San Diego County beaches every day throughout 1990, according to ConVis — four times the daily attendance of the zoo and Sea World combined. A preliminary survey by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) shows that about 80 percent of those people are local residents.

And that should come as no surprise. The beach is where we Californians forged our active, outdoor culture.

On any weekend you can find thousands of people at Mission Beach and nearby Mission Bay sailing, water skiing, jet skiing, roller- skating, roller-blading, jogging, cycling, flying kites, throwing Frisbees and footballs, playing badminton, volleyball and over-the- line, surfing, windsurfing, boogie boarding, kayaking and swimming. These are the kinds of activities that people move to Southern California to pursue — or at least, these are the things they do once they get here.

But a rising tide of growth-related problems interferes. On a breezy Saturday afternoon not long ago, a heavyset Hispanic man who had just gotten out of a van stared at a sign posted at the bay front that warned people to stay out of the polluted water.

“Margarita, no one can swim here,” he called in Spanish to his wife.

“Why?” she asked, surprised.

“Porque contaminada (Because the water’s contaminated),” he replied. The couple’s three children, dressed in bathing suits, stood by uncertainly.

Meanwhile, the beach area’s horrendous summer traffic jams are leading many residents to avoid going to the beach altogether. Longtime San Diego resident Fred Post, who lives in La Mesa, is among the locals who don’t bother to fight the throng anymore. “We used to go to the beach,” said Post, who is married and has two children. “Now we stay home.”

Traffic and crowding have altered the lives of beach residents, too. Cathy Scott said that on days of heavy traffic, people in South Mission Beach ride their bikes to stores and restaurants, and sometimes park their cars near major intersections, to reduce the aggravation of getting in and out of their bottlenecked neighborhoods.

And the beach itself — that strip of sand where sea gulls cry and tanned flesh glistens — is likewise groaning under a deluge of humanity. You already know that if you’ve planned a beach-side barbecue at a fire ring recently; you have to stake out a ring shortly after the sun rises and guard it vigilantly until your family or friends show up in order to be able to use it at all.

But a recent study made it official. Evaluating the ongoing erosion of sand at Mission Beach and other county beaches (and the recreational opportunities and tourist dollars that are being lost as a result), a SANDAG committee noted in laconic bureaucratese: “It appears that these beaches have reached, and exceeded, their estimated peak capacity.”

The planners expect beach erosion and access to loom larger and larger as visitors to beaches throughout the county increase by 23 percent over the next two decades (and by nearly 70 percent over the next five decades).

But the issue of rising crime at the beach is both more urgent and controversial. An increasing gang presence has contributed to several homicides and violent incidents in Mission Beach in recent years; but even so, what bothers many beach residents the most is the growing number of petty crimes and “seedy” drug users and derelicts in their community.

“These are people who go to the beach to sit and drink,” said Bill Luther, president of the Mission Beach Town Council. “They don’t have swimsuits. They’re not barefoot. They don’t even look at the ocean.”

“It’s the little nuisances that make living here unpleasant,” agreed Adam Wertheimer, a 31-year-old attorney who has lived in Mission Beach for nine years. “People walking around drunk, yelling and screaming at all hours. People driving down the alleys with these boom boxes in their cars that shake the windows. A lot more derelicts. More people — period.”

Police say that at least 90 percent of the tickets they write at the beach involve alcohol or drugs — people fighting, drinking under age or getting stoned on meth or LSD. As a result, last week the City Council banned drinking around the clock at La Jolla Shores and the Mission Beach and Ocean Beach boardwalks, and restricted it to between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. on the beaches themselves.

The cops, along with many beach-area residents, think the restrictions will help curb rowdiness. But other residents are fighting the new ordinance, arguing that if there were more police to enforce existing laws, it wouldn’t be necessary to curtail drinking. Meanwhile, still other residents would like to see even more-severe restrictions.

Jeanne Lenhart-Wright, a retired schoolteacher and lifelong beach resident, suggests closing beach routes to most traffic during busy summer weekends; only residents would be allowed to drive there. Everyone else could walk or be shuttled in from parking lots.

“You don’t want to restrict people using the beach, but it’s the cars that present the problem,” said Wright, 45. “It would be ideal if nobody could drive down here and it would all be foot traffic.”

But Cathy Scott doesn’t think that’s the answer. “I agree there’s a problem, but I don’t think closing the beach off to the taxpayers is the solution,” she said.

Scott and other residents insist that for all its problems, Mission Beach is still a great place to live. The community is tightly knit, they say, and there’s nothing like living only steps away from a game of beach volleyball or a jog on the sand.

“People who live here are real proud of it,” said Scott. “Traffic is, of course, bad, but it’s a tradeoff, just like it is for (commuters) who live in the East County and sit in a (freeway) parking lot on the way to work every day.

“Crowds have always come to the beach,” she went on. “But we’re a bigger city now and bigger crowds come.”

Scott shrugged. “We had a population explosion,” she said.

Tomorrow in Scene: Can’t think of anything nice to say about growth? Consider this: Restaurants, night life and the arts have all improved as San Diego’s population has mushroomed.

[Illustration]

1 LOGO | 2 PICS; Caption: 1. Tribune file photo by Dave Siccardi 2. Tribune photo by Trenton L. James

Credit: Tribune Staff Writer

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