It’s no secret, the Ocean Beach Pier has weathered one too many storms. The pier is closed for months on end every winter now because of wave damage. In 2017, San Diego spent almost a million bucks on an extensive evaluation of the pier’s dilapidated condition. The related report, which opens with “the Ocean Beach Fishing Pier, built in 1966, has reached the end of its service life,” recommended three potential courses of action: repair, rehabilitation, or replacement. Since then, the City has concluded that total replacement is the most ‘viable’ option. Which brings us to where we are today... sort of.
A Quick, Critical Note About The Alternatives
I want to point out that if you do a double-take of the three proposed alternatives you’ll realize they're all variations of one theme - fix the pier. A fourth option — to decommission the pier — is apparently so unthinkable, that it wasn’t even considered by the City. This coastal preservationist's opinion is that the City sold us short by failing to present decommission as an option, in effect tunnel visioning us into the assumption that OB could never exist without a pier.
Before you call me anti-pier, let me affirm what is well understood by many locals. The structure provides many benefits to the community, not the least of which is a novel form of coastal access where all kinds of people can fish freely - including those who may not have the time or resources to fish on the open water. The pier attracts visitors and residents, benefitting local businesses as an attraction. Lastly, it’s an iconic part of OB’s history that many OBecians are attached to.
While I’m not necessarily convinced that OB would give all these benefits up if the City included a decommissioning alternative, I do think it’s important that such an alternative had at least been part of the larger conversation. Sea level rise threatens an overwhelming amount of coastal access, recreation, and infrastructure in and around OB, and pouring money into the pier could result in less funding or support for other meaningful projects to prepare our stormwater systems, trails, public beaches, and roads for several feet of sea level rise by 2100.
Pre-pier OB still looks iconic to me! (circa 1962, photo credit unknown)
The replacement effort thus far
The City hosted the third of five scheduled public workshops on the pier renewal effort on September 9, unveiling three initial design concepts for the pier. As the timeline from the OB Pier Renewal website shows, the design process will continue throughout 2024. There is still plenty of time for community members to chime in.
But opinions are like eroding public beaches, everyone has one. Rather than wax poetic on the pros and cons of each initial design concept, I'll suffice to say that all three improve upon the existing pier (even those who oppose design changes must concede, at the very least it must be raised to avoid Winter waves!). I encourage everyone to check out the initial design concepts and take the city's survey. But if - in addition to the pier itself, you care about the long-term health of the waves and beaches that surround it, then please do read on.
The 5-minute version of the pier design alternatives
The "surfing experience"
The presentation for each of the three designs involved talk of the "surfing experience,” but those discussions focused on the experience of spectators on the pier, not that of surfers in the water.
So far, I've heard nothing about how the new pier may affect the actual surfing experience. This is disappointing because the existing pier obstructed a long, left-handed wave called "off the rocks" that a generation of older OB surfers still remember fondly. For over 50 years that wave has been largely unrideable, except for those willing to risk a broken board (and body) to "shoot the pier."
To that end, the "surfing experience" is one area where the local surfing community ought to speak up on the surveys and at the public workshops, even if it's simply to pose the question: how can the architects do a better job considering our surfing resources than the original pier designers?
What about the beach?
In addition to fighting for better wave conditions, we also need to consider that Ocean Beach is most eroded at the pier - in part because of the infrastructure used to access it. Our annual King Tide documentation clearly shows that unless the seawall, boardwalk, and parking lot are moved back, this popular stretch of beach will permanently disappear as sea levels rise over the next 50 years. If and when a pier renewal project turns the area into a construction site, then it really makes sense to reconfigure the beachfront at the same time.
King Tides, January 2023. A sobering glimpse of OB's future beachfront (Alex Ferron)
The good news is that the pier design consultants are already thinking in this direction, coming up with several "equitable access alternatives" to better connect the pier with the beachfront. The Beach Front Terrace concept (pictured below) reveals how much public space can be reclaimed by replacing the existing parking lot with a smaller, two-story structure. However, it misses the mark by proposing stadium seating instead of more beach space.
None of the proposed access alternatives seem to consider sea level rise, which is on track to drown this stretch of beach by 2100. Rather than incorporating retreat to save the beach, the renderings make the fatal mistake of offering additional built infrastructure in exactly the place where it needs to be removed. Meanwhile, the City is finalizing its Coastal Resilience Master Plan while this design process moves along - the pier design team and the climate resilience teams must work closely together to ensure that additional infrastructure isn't built in harm’s way.
The Beachfront Terrace concept. File under equitable access? (City of San Diego)
If you're a local surfer and/or beachgoer who enjoys OB, I strongly encourage you to check out the latest pier renewal presentation (full video + powerpoint deck) and complete the public feedback survey. If you agree that additional consideration must be given to protect surfing resources and the pier beachfront, please let City staff and their design team know about it by submitting comments at the bottom of the OB Pier Renewal webpage (or emailing them to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Nobody shoots the pier when big swell converges with high tide (photo: Alex Ferron)