Old Del Mar bridge crosses over to new use

DEL MAR — The Friends of the San Dieguito River Valley anticipated a good turnout for the opening of the Grand Avenue Bridge as a public viewing platform, but they never expected more than 125 people would attend. And they certainly couldn’t have planned for the surprise appearance of several California least terns, an endangered species whose hover-and-dive feeding behavior provided a fitting backdrop throughout the Jan. 25 ceremony.
It was almost as if the seabirds were showing appreciation for the five nesting sites created as part of the $86 million San Dieguito Lagoon restoration currently under way by Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric.
“What was formerly an intrusion is being reborn as a major public facility to allow people to appreciate and enjoy the value of the wetlands,” said Dick Bobertz, executive director of the
San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority,
a local agency of city and county representatives that improves, operates and maintains the river park. “That’s a very positive evolution of a public structure.”
“This is an exciting afternoon,” said Councilman Richard Earnest, who has a lagoon view from his home. “The enthusiasm is wonderful.”
“It’s been a long time coming,” Councilman Don Mosier said.
The bridge, located on the southwest end of the lagoon, was built in the early 1940s to provide access to a landing field for blimps used by the Navy during World War II to spot Japanese submarines up to 100 miles off the coast.
“It’s hard to imagine we once had blimps taking off and landing here,” County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price said. “That would never be permitted under today’s regulations. No chance.”
After the war, the site reverted to its previous use as a municipal airport, which was shut down in 1959 as plans for Interstate 5 began to take shape. Throughout the years, the old airport buildings were used for everything from a worm castings company and motel to a duck shooting club and manufacturing plant that produced one of the first personal computers.
In 1987, an Orange County developer bought 109 acres and planned to build a “shopping center, hotels, restaurants and parking,” San Dieguito Lagoon Preservation Committee Chairwoman Dawn Rawls said. “It would have been “the Los Angelization of a natural resource,” according to Rawls, who said the Del Mar Fairgrounds later tried to purchase the parcel for “a shopping center, hotels, restaurants and parking.”
“This is a far, far better use,” Rawls said.
The bridge, which most recently was used for construction access during the restoration project, was slated for demolition to eliminate entry into the wetlands area.
“Six or seven years ago, Jacqueline Winterer, representing the Friends, stood up before the JPA board and made the suggestion that instead of tearing down the Grand Avenue Bridge, we take off the last two sections of it and use it as a viewing platform,” Bobertz said. “It’s the first time I’ve seen an idea almost instantaneously taken to heart by everybody there.
“I remember very specifically thinking, ‘What a good idea.’ It was one of those moments when you think, ‘I wish I’d thought of that,’” he said. “It’s turned out to be not just a good idea, but a terrific idea.”
The conversion, which should be completed next month, is being made at no cost to the city. Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric contributed approximately $300,000 to the project. Slater-Price secured a $35,000 county grant.
“It’s great to be able to give wings to (Jacqueline’s) dream,” Slater-Price said.
David Kay, manager of environmental projects for Southern California Edison, said the company initially didn’t favor restoration. “You all made a compelling case,” Kay said. “Boy, are we glad that you prevailed.
“If you get enough smart people and give them the opportunity to change your mind, you can accomplish anything,” he said.
Kelly Sarber, spokesperson for the two energy companies, said the least tern is one of about 160 species of birds identified to date in the lagoon, which is also home to 12 million fish.
“The birds and fish are here,” Sarber said. “Now we’ve got to get the people here.” The new viewing platform and a $60,000 grant from Sempra Energy for a visitor center should help.

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