SOLANA BEACH — With design consultants beginning to weigh options and community input for a potential new Marine Safety Center at Fletcher Cove, the current 1,480-square-foot, 70-plus-year-old building is one step closer to its bittersweet end.
The center — otherwise known as the Solana Beach Lifeguard Headquarters — has earned its reputation in town as both a community relic and an ailing, archaic building operating far beyond its means.
“We’re really good at putting puzzles together,” said a Lifeguard Sergeant Greg Uruburu during a recent community tour, as Marine Safety Captain Jason Shook showed residents the building’s equipment-packed rooms, asbestos-ridden awnings and door frame gaps prone to letting in rainwater and stray rodents. An attic is used as office space, which can only be reached by a ladder. An approximately 80-square-foot room serves as both a kitchen and first-aid room.
“I can say with a fair amount of certainty that our facilities do not measure up to what we need to continue operating at an effective and efficient level,” said City Manager Greg Wade in reference to the lifeguard facility, at a Feb. 7 community workshop aimed at getting resident feedback on a new Marine Safety Center.
The workshop drew a modest group of residents, lifeguards, consultants and city staff to discuss possibilities for a new 4,000-square-foot structure. The city took on a consultant in October — domusstudio architecture — to draft a preliminary design of the project.
The architects expect a design will be ready within the next 18 months.
Although possibilities are still broad, at this point the consultants have made one thing clear: “this is not about the architecture.”
“Anything we’re doing really is almost more invisible,” said Jon Dominy, an architect with Domus. “This is enhancing a park … the architecture is the park and how we make it better for the public while still fulfilling all the requirements of the lifeguards.”
“None of us have pictured a big building sitting there,” he said, proposing early ideas such as having a segmented facility, or pushing the structure into the adjacent hill to the south.
Residents pointed out concerns for the project — from the potential impacts of bluff erosion to preserving the center’s historical character.
Resident Ira Opper said he hopes the city will try to retain some of the artifacts currently in the building, and maintain the building’s “look and feel.” The current facility’s locker room is decorated with old black-and-white photos of former lifeguards, evoking the feel of a museum as much as a lifeguard center.
Wade said the city will be taking the structure’s historical value into consideration as project planning moves forward.
“It does have a valued place in the hearts and minds of our community, as well as our lifeguards past and present,” he said.
Staff also weighed how to improve lifeguard access to the beach during rescues — a primary concern pointed out by lifeguards during the first phase of the project. Currently, when lifeguards see a struggling swimmer from the center, they lose sight of them by the time they reach the cove’s ramp to head down to the beach due to the structure of the park.
The lifeguards formerly used a goat trail in front of the station to reach the beach, but due to erosion flattening out the face of the cliff, the route is no longer safe or even possible to traverse. Staff and attendees discussed a number of potential solutions, such as the possibility of a staircase along the bluff.
Consultants said one of their “No. 1 goals” is improving the sightline of the entire facility by “(getting) the observation back towards the center of the cove.”
The facility’s view to the south is largely obscured by the encroaching bluff.
Met with a comment about maintaining the ocean view through Fletcher Cove, Dominy responded, “I don’t think we can do anything that’s going to even take an inch out of that public view corridor.”
“We understand this is a base parameter — we can’t take away public space, we can’t take away public view,” he said. “So now we start looking, what are the options, and it’s a complicated puzzle in that respect.”
The city embarked on a feasibility study in 2016 to assess the needs of the facility, with the conclusion that the center was far past its prime, and provides “questionable” compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility codes. It concluded that “nearly all” building components are degraded.
“Even your finest stainless steel will rust in this environment,” Shook said at a recent community tour of the center.
Given three options — to build a temporary, modular facility, renovate the existing structure or start from scratch with a brand-new facility — the city opted for a new facility.
Dialogue with lifeguards determined the need for a space between 3,700 and 4,800 square feet — which has now been narrowed to 4,000 square feet.
Consultants are envisioning a durable structure, using, for example, cast-in-place concrete.
“Everything about that building needs to be built to take heavy abuse,” Dominy said.
Councilwoman Judy Hegenauer lauded the city’s lifeguards for operating “under quite a few constraints” with the current facility.
“Thank goodness for their amazing capability and organizational skill,” she said.
Although funding sources are still up in the air, she hopes the community will rally in support of a new center.
“There’s no question that we need a new one,” she said.
According to city staff, the current preliminary design phase of the project is budgeted at $138,000. Staff estimates $450,000 will be needed to complete the environmental and final design for the project. The cost of construction is currently unknown.