Lessons Learned from What Was Lost at Sunset Cliffs Park

by on November 20, 2014 · 3 comments

in Environment, History, Ocean Beach, San Diego

Sunset Cliffs Park Old 1915By Bruce Coons

Sunset Cliffs Park was originally landscaped in 1915 by sporting goods magnate Albert Goodwill Spaulding at the cost of two million dollars. It was to be given to the City of San Diego with the provision that they maintain it.

This bequest consisted of landscaped walkways along the cliffs with rustic railings, pebbled steps and stairways, palm thatched shelters with benches, Japanese-style rustic arched bridges, caves with stairway access, even a 15 x 50 foot saltwater swimming pool carved into the natural rock that cleaned itself with every high tide. This was a major tourist attraction of which there are many postcards from the time around today that attest to its popularity.

The city did nothing to maintain the park and the land reverted to the new property owner, developer John P. Mills. In 1924 Mills refurbished the park and gave it back to the city, again with the provision that they maintain it.

In 1928 Mills requested that the city return it if they were not going to keep it up as agreed. The city’s reply was that the deed was vague and ambiguous, and continued to do nothing to maintain it. Quite the opposite, they allowed it to deteriorate and then claimed as an excuse for not maintaining the park that it was eroded and unsafe and then removed most of it.

Sunset Cliffs Park now bruce C

As you can see by present day photographs all the footings and cobblestone anchor for the bridge and handrails are still in place. Don’t always believe what you’re told, this historic site still exists. Instead of eroding away, the reality is, that tons of fill dirt was dumped by the city on top of the site. This park is a San Diego treasure that would have been private yards as in La Jolla if not for the foresight of the Spaulding and Mills Families.

Currently there is a new plan to develop the park and some of the historic elements should be incorporated into this plan. It is the right thing to do after all these years. It is time for the city to honor its agreements.

Bruce Coons is the head of the San Diego Save Our Heritage Organization.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Marisa November 20, 2014 at 11:29 am

I’m gobsmacked that a developer actually tried to do something for free. Sometimes, San Diego, you suck. That looked like an amazing park! A pool that refreshed with the tides? Genius! I’d love to see something like that today, of course it would cost a hell of a lot more than 2 million, some 100 years later.


Lois Lane November 20, 2014 at 1:48 pm

“Currently there is a new plan to develop the park” may give the wrong impression. There has been a long, public process to design a trail and to add native vegetation to the park beyond Ladera Street, but the development area you describe- the old Spalding Park- is not part of it. This is not development as most of us think of it. But you are absolutely right. The linear park has not been respected.


rchalmers3 November 22, 2014 at 10:18 am

Thank you so much for the historical recounting of Sunset Cliffs. It is interesting to see the finger prints of the different agencies that have worked on the cliffs over the years, including the early developers, the Army corp of Engineers and the city.

Speaking of which, down past Ladera, past the parking lot, there is some garbage buried about 8 feet deep in the strata that proves how Garbage got it’s name: there used to be a dump operated there. I’ve met some elder statesmen of the surfing community who attest to there having been an active dump there, but is there any historical accounting of the dump that was located above Garbage beach?



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