Meet your Solana Beach Mayor: Involvement on the political landscape followed Nichols’ passion for the outdoors

By Claire Harlin

You can’t think about Solana Beach without picturing iconic landmarks like the Coastal Rail Trail, Fletcher Cove Park and the newly renovated Community Center. But behind that public-art sprinkled meandering path, mosaic-trimmed beach park and ocean-view gathering space are handfuls of residents whose resources, effort and expertise have made those projects possible over the past decade. And one of the most influential visionaries behind those masterpieces has been Mike Nichols, the local landscape architect who designed them, his passion projects launching him into two fruitful terms on the City Council.

“Getting involved with government wasn’t my direct route of travel,” said Nichols, 43, who began his second (nonconsecutive) term as Mayor in December. “I never set out to become a council member.”

But things started falling into place for Nichols just over 10 years ago when he moved to Solana Beach from La Jolla to take a job with landscape architecture firm M. W. Peltz & Associates and was assigned to turn the huge parking lot that once stood at Fletcher Cove into the park that is there now — the single most memorable work of design in his portfolio, he said.

“No doubt, I’m the proudest about that project,” he said, adding that meeting his wife, Heather, at Fletcher Cove makes the landmark even more special. “Being able to live in the same city and enjoy it, I don’t think I will ever have a project more memorable than that.”

Unlike that project, he was not hired to sketch out the landscaping found along the rail trail and around the Fletcher Cove Community Center. He stepped in voluntarily in 2005 to create a design for the rail trail that lies between Highway 101 and the railroad because he and a group of residents didn’t like a city-commissioned design that had already gained council approval. In the case of the landscaping around the Community Center, which was renovated last year, he was one of many who got involved in both the concept and completion — from sketching designs, to picking out plants to putting shovel to dirt.

“I like to come up with the ideas and do presentations, but I like to physically get involved too,” said Nichols of his work last year helping the new Community Center come to fruition. “I spent a lot of time up there just because it’s something I like to do.”

Nichols’ first taste of government involvement went hand-in-hand with one of his first landscape architecture projects — a skate park he both designed and petitioned to have built while he was attending college at the University of Georgia. A skateboarding and BMX enthusiast himself, he said he realized there was no place for kids to practice that type of recreation in Athens, Ga., so he mobilized support and held a presentation for the mayor and city leaders to educate them about the function and benefits a skate park would bring.

“There were a lot of aspects to it. The report addressed health issues, safety issues and the misperception that these parks would be a liability to the municipality,” he said. “For me, it was also a matter of helping at-risk youth because this was their way of expressing themselves, and because skateboarders were prohibited to ride on the streets they were being classified as outlaws, cast in the light of doing something illegal.”

While the project was a class requirement, Nichols said bringing awareness to Athens’ city leaders was his priority, and he was happy to see the park actually get built two years later.

“I was amped to have seen how landscape architects can really make change in communities and people’s quality of life,” Nichols said.

A native of the small, coastal North Carolina town of Nags Head, which has sand dunes so tall they can be seen from miles out to sea, Nichols is an outdoorsman at heart. Not only was his career inspired by the role outdoor spaces play in a community, but his longtime love of surfing and skateboarding fueled the California intrigue that landed him in San Diego after college. He first lived in La Jolla, where he said he observed and was inspired by the work of landscape architect Jim Neri in the Windansea area. He then moved to and began working in Solana Beach, and after 15 years in the business, Nichols started his own landscape architecture firm about a year ago, where he does both residential and commercial projects.

It was also his involvement in the community’s outdoor spaces that started turning heads around town. Having majored in parks and recreation in college, Nichols first got involved in the community by serving on the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission more than 10 years ago, and his input on public projects slowly started to gain him the trust of city leaders.

Margaret Schlesinger, who served as the first mayor of Solana Beach when it became a city in 1986, said she started hearing Nichols’ name being suggested as a viable candidate for city council by movers and shakers around town, so she met with him one day before his 2006 candidacy to get an idea of whether their goals were in line.

“We talked about our visions for the city, and he told me what he hoped to accomplish, and it sounded like he’d be a great candidate,” said Schlesinger, who has been active in the community for decades. “He seemed like he really caught the spirit of what we were trying to do when we became a city, when San Diego was dumping big development on us. I think it was his idea of being protective, keeping Solana Beach the way it is, that really made me confident in him.”

Schlesinger said Nichols, one of the youngest residents to ever join the council, has fully understood throughout his two terms the vision that she helped draft in the city’s first General Plan — and Nichols said revisiting that plan this year for the first time in 25 years is a council priority he looks forward to.

“When you read the plan that was written a quarter century ago and everything they talk about as far as how to develop the city, those forefathers should be applauded,” said Nichols, adding that updating the General Plan will come before the council during the next few months, with a workshop tentatively scheduled for Feb. 21. “I hope in 25 years people will be just as inspired as I was when I first read the plan.”

Schlesinger said she has been impressed that Nichols’ humble influence in the city spans beyond the council chambers.

“He really helped renew the Plaza area [by Fletcher Cove]. It was his idea to take all those palms trees out and open up that beautiful view from Lomas Santa Fe,” she said. “And look what he did for Fletcher Cove. It was just an asphalt parking lot, not nearly as friendly to the beach as what’s there now.”

Nichols has taken a passionate interest in the ongoing construction on Highway 101 as well, he said. While employed at M.W. Peltz, he was the project manager and lead designer on developing the Highway 101 Master Plan for the city in 2005, prior to his service on the city council. The document he was responsible for has since become the basis for the design that is being constructed today.

“As a council member, I continued my focus on this project and dedicated hundreds of hours to continue the development of these plans,” he said. “The result of this project will strengthen the long-term economic sustainability of our community and create a vibrant, energetic business district along the corridor. It will also provide a very pedestrian-and-bicycle friendly environment and have many aesthetic enhancements to complement our community character.”

On the council’s radar is also the future development of a mixed-use project at the train station property at the corner of Cedros Avenue and Lomas Santa Fe, and Nichols said the project is becoming more and more likely as negotiations with the North County Transit District continue to progress. He said he’d like to see the “next big project” in the city create an “east-to-west streetscape beautification that would create a ‘rail trail-like’ pedestrian and bicycle corridor from Highway 101 up to Highland Drive.”

Nichols will serve as mayor until December, and his term on the council ends in 2014. For upcoming city meetings and an additional biography on Nichols, visit the city’s website at

  1. Information on Nichols’ landscape architecture work is available at