Solana Beach begins discussions to replace 75-year-old Marine Safety Center

Solana Beach has begun taking steps to replace its 75-year-old Marine Safety Center at Fletcher Cove with a larger and safer building more suitable to today's lifeguards and beachgoers.

City staff and the architects behind the project, Domus Studio Architecture, gathered feedback and input from community members at a workshop Feb. 8 regarding the replacement of the structure, which sits atop the bluffs and was built in the early 1940s.

Previously, the city was faced with three options for the structure: renovate it, replace it with temporary modular buildings or build a whole new center. The council decided in 2017 that a new building — while the most expensive choice — would be the best option.

The existing building is poorly laid out, undersized, “insufficient and functionally obsolete,” according to a 2017 report prepared by the city’s staff and consultants. Among the problems: there is only one restroom, which is small and inadequate; a second-floor office is accessible only by a ladder; doors and fixtures are beyond repair; and the building’s foundation is crumbling.

The new building is proposed to be about 4,000 square feet, in one facility or divided between two facilities, the project’s designers said. The current center is about 1,480 square feet, but the facility needs to grow in size based on the needs of lifeguards today, city staff added.

City Manager Greg Wade said they'll also look into options to preserve or replicate aspects of the current building, which he noted has "value in terms of what it represents to the city."

City Engineer Mo Sammak said one of the problems with the current station is if lifeguards want to go down to the beach for a rescue, they need to loop around to an access point, which means they can lose sight of the person they need to get to. He also noted access to the beach is not ADA compliant and questioned if there was an easier way to get rescuers down there.

Wade said an ADA accessible ramp would "eat up" much of the nearby park, and the city should focus on the facility instead.

A resident questioned if a stair or other accessway would be a necessity and if that would compromise the effectiveness of the lifeguards.

Marine Safety Captain Jason Shook considered the ability to observe the beach as more of a priority.

"We've done without [stairs] but we are very, very, extremely proactive," Shook said, adding that the city hasn't had an unguarded drowning since the 1980s. "We go out of our way to prevent. We're 1,000 percent prevention. We'll interact before it becomes an issue. That being said, that can't always happen."

One resident also suggested a terraced lookout for the community to be able to maintain views above the beach.

Council member Judy Hegenauer, who was listening and commenting as part of the community audience, said the city had previously suggested placing part of the station down on the beach and part of it on the bluff. However, she said, because of sea level rise, that is no longer an option. High tide comes up to the toe of the bluff, she noted. She suggested the designers could look into implementing a basement beneath the existing footprint so lifeguards have easier access to the beach.

One resident asked about bluff stability and what that could mean for the location of the center. Jon Dominy, of Domus Studio Architecture, said studies have been done and issues have been identified. He said they need to look more into the details and numbers and continue researching.

He added his firm is planning to work with caissons — watertight retaining structures used as foundations — to help stabilize the building.

The city expects to have a preliminary design of the building done in the next 18 months. Dominy said his firm is planning more community workshops to engage residents in the process.

The construction project also will require the approval of the California Coastal Commission.

The Marine Safety Center houses the city’s entire lifeguard staff and equipment, as well as public safety services such as first aid. The building sits atop the bluffs at the edge of Fletcher Cove, which was created in 1924 by one man working with a fire hose over three months to blast a ramp through the sandstone cliffs down to the beach.

The cove opened with a celebration and horse races on the beach on July 4th, 1924, according to the Solana Beach Historical Society.

-- San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Phil Diehl contributed to this report.

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