En Guard: A battle on the beach in South Mission


The original South Mission Beach lifeguard station was constructed in 1974 out of wood and a promise. The promise being that it would be only a temporary building. The new one will be a nearly 4,000-square-foot structure with a first-aid room and dual observation areas for lifeguards. It will be built out of sturdier stuff than the original, with room for rescue vehicles and equipment. Not to mention a few bushels of controversy.

While it has stayed upright for much longer than anyone could have predicted, the original 897-square-foot lifeguard station on North Jetty Road has never been an architectural treasure. About the best you can say is that its chocolate-brown paint job has a comforting 1970s shag-carpet vibe, and its prominently displayed Red Cross signs make it easy to spot, even with sunscreen in your eyes.

Otherwise, it does not have the makings of a keeper, which is why it is a shock to be reminded that the legal and administrative battle to build a replacement began more than a decade ago, and the ETA for the new one might as well be written in sand.

The journey started in the early 2000s, when city officials began planning to replace the tower they deemed decrepit and too small. In 2004, the Mission Beach Planning Group rejected plans to build a 3,500-square-foot tower and asked the city to build a smaller station. The city agreed, and a permit was secured in 2006. And then, things got quiet. Too quiet.

When the recession rolled in, the project was put on hold. By the time the Coastal Commission approved the permit in 2015, the structure proposed for just north of the original station was bigger than the 2006 version. Concerned about the tower’s growing footprint and the alarming prospect of lost ocean views, a group of neighbors called Citizens for Beach Rights sued the city for not following its own permitting rules. Later that year, a judge granted an injunction to halt construction.

But, wait! There’s more legal stuff where that came from. Earlier this year, an appellate court reversed the judge’s ruling, and the city was back in the new South Mission Beach lifeguard tower business. Sort of. The city halts beach construction projects during the summer tourist season, so work will not resume until the fall.

Meanwhile, the old South Mission Beach lifeguard station still stands, in all its earth-toned glory. As for South Mission Beach, it is still one of the widest beaches in the city, where there is plenty of room for the people who love beach volleyball and Frisbee tossing and for the people who want to squint at their phones in peace.

If you are in search of a true chunk of San Diego beach history, the Mission Beach Giant Dipper Roller Coaster is just one mile away. The 92-year-old coaster is made of wood, too. But it isn’t going anywhere.

The Price Was Right*

What critical beach gear cost in 1974

$1.59: Cost of a six-pack of Budweiser cans

$16: Cost of a itsy-bitsy bikini at Robinson’s department store

$1.47: Cost of a 4-oz. bottle of Sea & Ski suntan lotion at Thrifty

$1.89: Average cost of a movie ticket (the top-grossing film of the year was “Blazing Saddles”)

*CBS’ daytime version of The Price is Right, then starring Bob Barker, first aired in 1972