December 18, 2007
Giant seawall at Pleasure Point wins approval
Kurtis Alexander
Sentinel Staff Writer

Pleasure Point has long set the standard for surfing. Now it’s almost certain to set one for stabilizing the shoreline.

The California Coastal Commission last week signed off on the county’s plan to build one of the largest, and perhaps most decorative, seawalls on the Monterey Bay. The approval, which the commission withheld four years ago, clears the way for nearly 1,500 feet of faux bluff wall to be mounted on Pleasure Point’s cliffs as well as a host of visitor perks on the bluff, including new bicycle and pedestrian paths, improved landscaping and educational panels about the ocean.

“When you think seawall, it conjures up a cement wall that’s long and linear. That’s not what we’re doing,” said Betsey Lynberg, director of the county’s Redevelopment Agency, which is financing the estimated $8 million project. “This has a whole different look.”

Building seawalls is a thankless task, especially in a place like Pleasure Point where longtime surfers and sightseers relish the area’s natural charm and are wary of change. Since the Pleasure Point project was introduced nearly 10 years ago, environmentalists have criticized covering the bluffs with concrete, watermen have questioned whether a wall would compromise the area’s popular surf breaks, and government watchdogs have chided the expense.

The irony of building such a massive wall to try to keep things the same is not lost on Lynberg.

“It’s about protecting public access,” she said.

Erosion already has taken its toll at Pleasure Point. In the mid-1990s, the crumbling cliffs, which planners say lose a foot each year, forced the county to close the road that runs along the bluff, East Cliff Drive, in one direction. A patchwork of makeshift seawalls followed, but those failed. In 2004, after an emergency was declared, the county gave the go-ahead for three small concrete walls between 32nd and 33rd avenues.

Meanwhile, county planners had begun looking for a permanent fix. In 2003, the first major plan to stabilize the cliffs went before the Coastal Commission. It didn’t survive.

“There was simply not enough information to make a decision of this magnitude,” said Dan Carl, the Central Coast’s district manager for the Coastal Commission.

The commission wanted more specifics about the impact of a seawall, particularly how it would affect the area’s famed surf break, where hundreds take to the water on any given day.

County leaders enlisted the help of U.S. Geological Survey. Researchers there shot video of the breaks over the course of a year and came to the conclusion that a wall would not affect the surf.

“That’s not to say every seawall is a good thing,” said UC Santa Cruz geologist Gary Griggs, who studied the breaks. “But the overall effects [of having a seawall] here will be better.”

It was that finding, plus a number of recreational amenities added to the plan, that won over the Coastal Commission last week.

“When you have this comprehensive of a solution, it helps the project to make sense,” said Carl, of the Coastal Commission.

The alternatives, which included closing East Cliff Drive entirely and moving the utility lines that run there or doing nothing, were not acceptable, Carl said.

While no homes are immediately threatened, about a dozen or so could be in the next few decades.

To benefit visitors to the area, the final seawall plan calls for separate bike and pedestrian paths along the waterfront and hooking up with the fledgling Monterey Bay Sanctuary Scenic Trail. [East Cliff Drive will be narrowed slightly in the process.] Visitors also will notice changes at the adjacent Pleasure Point Park, where a new restroom with an outdoor shower will be built and landscaping updated. The Coastal Commission has asked that the palm trees at the park be torn down to make way for native plants.

Below the bluff, two existing stairwells that lead to the water, at 35th Avenue and 41st Avenue, will be rebuilt and another will be added at 33rd Avenue, replacing a popular foot trail.

The seawall itself is actually two walls. The first segment will run about 1,100 feet along the cliff face from 32nd to 36th avenues. The second will be at the Hook, and run about 300 feet. Both walls will be made of steel-reinforced concrete and will match the color and contour of the bluff, much like the smaller walls that were built in 2004.

Phil Matthews, who has surfed at Pleasure Point since 1971 and is part of the surf club Pleasure Point Night Fighters, says the project is a long time coming.

In addition to securing the bluffs, he’s glad to know utilities there, which include a sewer line that gave name to one of Pleasure Point’s surf breaks, will be safe.

“When we’re surfing out there, we don’t want to see raw sewage pumped into the ocean,” he said. “I’ve heard the stories about dodging turds in the water.”

The project, however, still has its skeptics.

Jim Littlefield, officer of the local chapter of Surfrider Foundation, which represents about 700 people concerned about coastal development, insists seawalls are not the answer.

His primary issue is that the seawall will make it tough for people to get up and down the bluff, which is now covered with informal trails, and that the long-term effect of the seawall will be to erode the beaches, making it difficult for people to get back and forth.

“We’re concerned that with the seawall, the sand will actually disappear,” Littlefield said.

The foundation says it will work with county leaders throughout the design process.

The county Redevelopment Agency, which is partnering with Public Works, still needs to secure a handful of permits, a minor formality. Finalizing the details of the project will be the next big step, which county supervisors must sign off on.

County supervisors approved the work earlier this year.

Planners hope to put the project out to bid next year and begin construction on the seawall in 2009 and road improvements in 2010. The Redevelopment Agency already has set aside funding.
Contact Kurtis Alexander at 706-3267 or