Is This the End of the Ocean Beach Pier?

by on February 16, 2021 · 34 comments

in History, Ocean Beach

By Geoff Page

A recent puff piece in the local weekly newspaper about the Ocean Beach Pier can serve as an illustration of the differences between what readers get in The OB Rag what readers see in the other local paper.  What people need to read about are things that matter.  The pier doesn’t need a puff piece, it may need an obituary.

The Beacon article asked why “the fuss over a few washed-out railings?”  The answer lies later in the piece after a brief bit of history.  That history included a colossal mistake and a truly idiotic location chosen for the pier.

First, the railing comment. The article quoted the general contractor that built the pier as saying:

“Those railings are doing exactly what they were meant to do — wash away in high seas, lessening resistance of water hitting the pier,” says the general contractor who built the pier (he prefers we not mention his name for privacy’s sake). “Rails can be easily replaced, though at an expected cost to the city.”

That the contractor did not want his name used is a really mystery.  Contractors are proud of things they build and they especially like their names attached to iconic structures like this much-loved pier.  Go into any major contractor’s offices and you will see pictures of these signature projects. Very odd.

That the rails were meant to break away is true but not for the reason stated. The rails were built that way as a partial mitigation for a colossal engineering error.  The engineer was Greer Ferver.  The article stated that “Ferver had done his underwater design study the summer ahead, noting four feet of sand on top of the natural sandstone layer under the area where we put the pier,” the general contractor said.”

He did his study in the summer.  Why would an engineer design a pier for the summer, the most benign part of the year?  Almost anyone who knows the ocean would laugh at that. The contractor went on to say:

“The whole idea of a fishing pier was to keep it as low as we could for fishermen pulling up their catch.”

So, they designed a pier as low to the water as possible that could handle OB’s fierce summer surf. You can’t make this stuff up.  So what happened?

“Midway through the build it was necessary to alter the original blueprint after an aggressive January storm washed out three forward pilings and nearly forced a costly crane into the water. Keep in mind that at the time, the pier was still under construction when the sea devoured portions of two, 30-foot precast concrete deck sections.”

It was then discovered that the natural progression of winter tides took out all that sand from the sandstone ledge, which increased the height of waves that would hit the pier.

“To accommodate this revelation, the structural engineer redesigned the grade of the pier from the destruction point, or from where the pier bends up,” notes the contractor, “thus increasing the grade, or slope, by 1 percent to get above the surf, nearly two-thirds the length of the pier. All in a day’s work…”

“All in a day’s work?” Trying to fix a major engineering error? That is why the bridge railings keep getting damaged.  Halfway through construction they realized they made a serious mistake and angled the pier up, instead of rebuilding what they had already constructed.  Look where all the railing damage happens, at that angle point and on either side until the pier rises high enough to avoid damage.

Now that they knew the low point would be a problem, they designed breakaway rails, not because they would lessen the impact of water against the pier, that is preposterous. The pier is made out of concrete, a bit of railing is not going have such an effect.

The railings were designed that way because they knew the waves would damage whatever they put up because the pier was too low.  The low spot is also in the surf break zone.  It was pointless to try and put up more sturdy and expensive rails because those would be more expensive to fix. No, this was a way to mitigate some of the engineering mistake and to avoid a more costly rebuild of the badly designed pier.

The article ended with this:

“The contractor holds rich esteem for the community of Ocean Beach, for its early tenacity for want of a pier, and its on-going affection of it. ‘Everybody loves that pier!’ he crows.”

So why doesn’t the contractor want anyone to know who he is?  The fact is, not everyone loves the pier because of how stupidly it was sited.  Unfortunately, the surfers from the 1960s were not an organized group.  If someone tried to put that pier there today, surfers from everywhere would protest like hell.  It runs smack dab through a beautiful reef-to-beach break.

When that pier was not where it is, a surfer could catch a long left from the outer reef west of Niagara to the sand.  To do that now, surfers have to shoot under the pier, which is not something most want to risk.

The Beacon article recounted that a pier was begun in the 1940s off Del Monte street but was not built because World War II took the steel intended for the structure.  That would have been the perfect location.  It is likely that the merchants in OB lobbied to move it closer to Newport Avenue as better for business.

What the Beacon article did not mention was that the pier is in really bad shape for a number of reasons.

The first goes back to the design.  The underside of the pier and the deck above were not designed to be regularly bathed in salt water.  They were designed to withstand the elements of course but because the engineering mistake was never corrected, part of the pier receives much more immersion in salt water than the design intended.  The higher parts of the pier, even in times of very high surf, do not suffer this kind of abuse from the sea.

Wherever you see rust on the pier, you see a problem.  The pier structure is reinforced concrete.  That means it looks like concrete on the outside but there is an inner structure of steel reinforcement bar inside the concrete.  This is the problem.  When cracks appear in the concrete, water intrudes and cause the steel to rust.  Rust actually cause the steel to expand and the pressure of that expansion cause the concrete to crack more and more.

If cracks are not maintained and sealed regularly, the damage just continues to the point of failure. The stanchions that the rails are attached to are bolted to U-shaped metal braces anchored to the concrete.  These connections have shown obvious damage for years, which caused this reporter to begin to query the city. As the pictures shown, these steel braces have been torn out of the concrete.  These were not intended to break away.

The city has spent almost $700,000 for sole source engineering studies of the pier using the engineering firm of Moffat & Nichol from Long Beach.  The first evaluation was for $518,333 dated 2-28-2017. The second evaluation was for $167,162 dated 2-20-18.

All that money just to find out what was wrong with the pier. The original amount was only $300,000 but was increased by memo in 2016.  A PRA request in April 2018 was unsuccessful in obtaining the actual pier assessment report from Moffat & Nichol.  A new request was recently filed.

Sometime last year, the OB Planning Board was told the city had set aside $3 million for work on the pier to deal with some of the damage.  Nothing has happened.  Now, with the COVID impact on city finances, money for the pier has a low priority.

A document from Parks & Recreation for “Fiscal Year 2021 CIP Proposed Budget” describes what needs to be done.

“Description: This project will strengthen the pier piles by adding additional concrete surrounding the existing piles.  Steel in the decking will also be replaces as necessary, as well as adding beams to the underside of the decking and replacement of the deck edging that has spalled off.

Justification: The project is needed to address structural issues with the pier that may be safety issues to the public.”

How serious are the safety concerns? The pier used to be closed only when railing was damaged.  It is closed regularly now whenever the surf gets a little high because the city is so worried about the pier structurally.

The budget document listed the “Project Category” as “Low.”  Only $103,571 is included for the pier in the 2021 budget.  The estimate of money needed is listed under “Unidentified Funding” totaling $20,000,000.  This reporter’s experience in estimating and construction says this figure may actually be too low.

A full story on the actual condition of the pier will be described later when the engineering assessment is obtained.  Suffice to say folks, that we are watching the crumbling, and possible demise, of the OB Pier.

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Avatar Marilyn Steber February 16, 2021 at 12:36 pm

The construction relied on engineers’ input instead of that of Oceanographers?

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Avatar melpomene February 16, 2021 at 2:01 pm

There’s plenty of information about the pier’s construction readily available. There’s a video with the contractor (I do not know whether he is the same person referenced in the Beacon article; I’ve never heard of that firm. But Leonard Teyssier’s identity is not a secret!) at https://oceanbeachsandiego.com/media/videos/ob-pier-history-construction-opening-weekend and plenty of other information at https://oceanbeachsandiego.com/attractions/ocean-beach-pier

The pier was designed to last 50 years and it did. Every year we’ve had since that time (5 so far… 10% over its expected lifespan) is a bonus. It requires refurbishment at a minimum. The techniques used to build the pier were new at the time. It makes sense that a modern analysis would yield new information and insight into what would work best at that location and whether/how the existing pier can be refurbished for long-term enjoyment by our community.

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Avatar stu February 16, 2021 at 2:31 pm

Mel Thank you for stating that I am not familiar with the pier construction but 50yrs is standard life span for many projects like that. It no doubt the pier needs a good rehab but it is old Your house needs a rehab after a lot less than 50 yrs I am pretty sure that state of the art engineering was probably used in 1960s to design and construct that structure and many eyes looked at the design and construction while it was happening.
I am pretty sure everyone in the community had a thought, pro or con about the pier in the 60’s and the expense of it. It does have to be maintained

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Avatar kh February 17, 2021 at 9:41 am

And much of the pier will likely last 100 years. Except for the section that was installed too low and gets heavy wave action every winter.

The design error means any repairs will always be in the line of fire. It’s clear that some of the concrete piers below have at least been rehabbed, which is inevitable in this environment.

But that’s all water under the bridge. Or pier. The real question is what are the options moving forward, but the public has yet to see the results of the $700K in reports. Bad news can’t wait.

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Avatar Geoff Page February 17, 2021 at 10:25 am

I agree, kh. We need to see the reports. One idea might be to go east and raise/rebuild that whole center section and see if the higher sections on the east and west ends are more easily saved.

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Avatar Paul Webb February 16, 2021 at 3:24 pm

Two things. First, Moffat and Nichols is a very reputable firm in the field of coastal engineering. Really, one of the best. I have worked with them numerous times over the years and found them to be first rate. I have worked with other coastal engineers, that I will not mention by name, that I would never, ever trust to do an evaluation.

Second, I recall a number of years ago (probably in the mid- to late-eighties, (my memory for dates is a little hazy) when the city came to the Coastal Commission requesting an emergency permit for work on some of the pier’s pilings because they were no longer firmly attached to the sea floor. My first response was “Yikes!” My second response was “YIKES!”

We may be lucky that the pier has lasted this long.

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Avatar Frank J February 16, 2021 at 5:00 pm

A simple search for what it takes to qualify for historic designation gives some useful links. Here is one line- The National Register is the nation’s official list of historic structures, focusing on sites and properties that are more than 50 years old. Dept of the Interior grants?
https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nationalhistoriclandmarks/grants-and-incentives.htm

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Peter Peter from South O February 17, 2021 at 6:41 am

Our pier was first built on the site in 1894. We have rebuilt the pier five times since then. The present pier was constructed in 1987.
But the Oceanside pier is made of wood and it moves when there are storms. It flexes, and makes a heck of a creaking symphony in heavy surf.
Concrete and salt water are an unfortunate pairing.

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Avatar Geoff Page February 17, 2021 at 10:29 am

While I agree that wood seems like a better material, Peter, I will say that the OB pier sways considerably in large surf. If haven’t done it yet, go out to the end on a big day, it’s kind of a fun ride.

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Peter Peter from South O February 17, 2021 at 10:59 am

The difference is that each time the concrete sways there is a certain amount of damage done to the internal structure components rubbing against each other, however slightly.
Wood is naturally more flexible, pilings are easier to repair and replace, plus the aesthetics . . .

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Avatar Geoff Page February 17, 2021 at 2:33 pm

I agree with the last sentence completely, Peter, especially the aesthetics.

But, I can’t agree with the first one. The components of structural concrete do not rub together, that, frankly, would be a nightmare. The rebar and concrete have an elastic characteristic that allows a good degree of movement. But, as things age after years of stress, fractures do appear and need to be attended to quickly. Wooden piers don’t have this problem.

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Peter Peter from South O February 17, 2021 at 5:13 pm

I’m talking about at the micro level. The natural structure of the tree trunks used as pilings are far superior to a reinforced concrete structure when constant flexing is considered. Over 50 years it is significant.
The microfractures around each piece of rebar eventually migrate together and the concrete in the immediate layer around each piece of rebar fracture into a powder, then the movement increases slightly, and so on.
When the City opened the modern Broadway pier back in the ’70s my first ship was the Navy’s contribution to the ceremony (open house and ship tours; a sailor’s nightmare) and the company that did the new construction had a big display set up showing how the pier had been replaced and how the combination of timber AND concrete in the new pier was a superior design.

I remember this, although I’ll be durned if I remember what I had for breakfast.

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Avatar melpomene February 17, 2021 at 10:38 am

Peter, that’s the Oceanside pier:

Ocean Beach’s current pier opened in 1966. There had been a prior pier off Del Monte Avenue that is now long gone. https://oceanbeachsandiego.com/attractions/ocean-beach-pier/50th-anniversary/predecessors-ob-pier

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Peter Peter from South O February 17, 2021 at 10:56 am

Yes Mel. That is why I am “Peter from South O” and mentioned Oceanside in the second sentence.

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Avatar melpomene February 17, 2021 at 12:46 pm

I was clarifying since one might naturally assume when you say “our pier” on this particular website you would be referring to the OB Pier. Also I figured you were from South OB! Our piers (and towns) get confused frequently… not everyone is a huge pier aficionado like both you and I clearly are :)

Anyway, I didn’t mean to imply you didn’t know what you were talking about. Apologies if I caused offense. Again, just clarifying since there is a lot of pier confusion out there.

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Peter Peter from South O February 17, 2021 at 1:06 pm

Have you ever heard someone from OB referring to themselves from being from “South O”? Of course not. Use your google machine and search for “South O “; it is a geographically defined area up here in the North County.
There are a whole lot of people who are regular commenters here that do not live in OB.

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Avatar melpomene February 17, 2021 at 2:16 pm

Ok. I already apologized above for causing offense somehow with my previous comment, but please accept my further apologies for daring to post a clarifying comment on a local blog covering a topic in my own neighborhood before thoroughly researching the identities of other commenters and regional areas.

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Peter Peter from South O February 17, 2021 at 5:17 pm

This is hardly a local blog. It is the digital representation of a Nationally important news outlet that is more than half a century old.
Quoted in such disparate organs as the NYT, Washington Post, LA Times and The Onion!

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie February 18, 2021 at 11:06 am

Wow! How true.

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie February 18, 2021 at 11:07 am

Don’t take it too personally – and come back with more insights, please.

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Avatar Geoff Page February 17, 2021 at 2:41 pm

Ok, guys, calm down, I think you both really don’t mean to argue. So, Peter, I’ve lived in San Diego since 1977 and have to admit I did not know that name either. My jobs, for 26 years, took me all over the county but I never heard this. I Googled it, sounds like OB. Maybe tell us all a little more. How long has it been called that for instance?

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Peter Peter from South O February 17, 2021 at 5:20 pm

When you search, put South O in quotes, and make sure to leave a space after the O so the algorithm won’t return everything BEGINNING with an O.
I moved up here in the mid ’80s, and it was a very territorial thing, especially with the surfers.

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sealintheSelkirks sealintheSelkirks February 19, 2021 at 1:12 am

I was born in OB and knew that Peter from South O was an Oceanside guy. Guess you have to be a native surfer to know that nickname??

sealintheSelkirks

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie February 19, 2021 at 11:36 am

Before “Dog Beach” was a thing, OB was divided into “North Beach” and “South Beach” (which is why one OB restaurant calls itself Southbeach Bar & Grille).

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sealintheSelkirks sealintheSelkirks February 19, 2021 at 12:04 pm

Yeah, I kinda remember that, Frank. It was pretty funny having a tiny beach like OB being split up like that, though. South Mission and North Mission Beach made more sense being so much farther apart, ya know? And then me being raised in Middle Mission where my paper route was Santa Clara to Belmont Park broke the two up even more!

But as a traveling surfer who loved the finger reefs of North County I knew the South O nickname from surfing up that way having heard it from locals. That and San O…

sealintheSelkirks

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Avatar kh February 17, 2021 at 9:44 am

Also those aren’t breakaway rails, at least not as they currently function. Many of them are tearing the concrete deck apart. They had to relocate many of them 2 years ago.

Perhaps with some sacrificial hardware on the railings mounts we could at least minimize the damage and downtime after big storms.

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Peter Peter from South O February 17, 2021 at 9:49 am

An article from San Diego Magazine article celebrating the 50-year mark takes issue with the “storm” part of the design-change story:

“Piers are traditionally built from the ocean inward. But due to Ocean Beach’s rough surf, its pier was built from the shore out. During construction, tsunami waves originating from an earthquake near Japan wiped out three concrete piles and nearly toppled a crane. To accommodate future large waves, a slight vertical incline was added to the pier’s original profile.”

I have not gone digging for Tsunami records ;-)

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Avatar Geoff Page February 17, 2021 at 10:36 am

Wow, that writer needs to go back to journalism school. It was written by someone who just thought the word tsunami was a great descriptor for large surf, when it is a name of a specific oceanic event that is much more than large surf. I can see you knew that too, Peter.

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Peter Peter from South O February 17, 2021 at 11:03 am
Avatar Geoff Page February 17, 2021 at 10:22 am

So, maybe you should ask the Beacon writer why she said the contractor did not want his name used. Seems even more odd since this information is available.

The pier may have been designed to last 50 years, with no serious maintenance, and it has. Imagine how much more life it could have had if this city had devoted yearly maintenance to it. Is it worth saving? That depends on what is in the actual engineering report. These reports often contain engineer’s estimates for the work. Factor those costs against the costs to demolish the pier and see if it would be better to build a new pier.

Rest assured, if the safety liability gets too high, they will close the pier. And it will sit there and rot.

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Avatar melpomene February 17, 2021 at 10:36 am

Yes, it is odd, especially given that the same journalist wrote an article about the pier and interviewed Mr. Teyssier at the pier’s 50th anniversary in 2016: http://www.sdnews.com/view/full_story/27219131/article-Walking-on-water–50-years-on-the-Ocean-Beach-Pier?instance=update1

At any rate, Geoff, I agree with you. If the City continues to ignore this problem, it isn’t going to go away, and they will certainly close the pier if it’s unsafe and they refuse to make it safe – or can’t figure out how to pay for making it safe. It’s mystifying that they continue not to prioritize this while the situation gets worse and worse. I also agree that more information is needed and likely already exists as far as whatever is in those reports.

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sealintheSelkirks sealintheSelkirks February 22, 2021 at 11:31 am

One thing I noticed about all the pics of winters storm waves on the Rag is that none are really older than a decade. I remember much bigger days in the 80s and 70s; New Zealand Cyclonic monster Souths and huge cold water Winter NWs coming in from the north Pacific that broke way off the ‘T’ that were surf-able. Big lefts! When I was running my ding shop on Sunset Cliffs…maybe ’81 or ’82 I was run off the Pier because I was out on the ‘T’ when a swell started up, sets just suddenly marching in that were breaking 200 yards farther west that morning. The lifeguards had a fit. The entire T was rocking back and forth. No, I’m not kidding, I remember it doing that! Almost a seasick sensation. That couldn’t have been good for the concrete…and they were frantically trying to get the fishermen off it because the dip suddenly had waves washing over…

I have hazy memories of big days in the early 60s before the pier was there, too, but I was just a little surfer kid and everything seemed bigger then… Anybody reading this have any pictures to share from back then of big waves before the Pier was built and they blasted the reef?

So it’s outlived its projected lifespan. One of these days it will be condemned, everything croaks eventually that we all know, and I wonder what the projected cost of removing it will be? Anybody do a study on that? Possibly blow the pilings and drop the entire thing turning it into a reef at one point? I can’t imagine removing all that concrete!

As the atmospheric scientists and ocean experts are saying, the storms are going to get more intense and we sure saw that in he last two decades. In the Atlantic especially, and last year’s record hurricanes was pretty mind-blowing. Of course that western Pacific typhoon with 303mph sustained winds just a few months ago? Three hundred miles an hour? That shocks the brain trying to assimilate that concept.

So The Pier will continue to be battered and it will continue to degrade, count on it. Being built wrong in the first place…I cackled at the idea of a summer survey…. I mean, really? I had no idea that’s when they did it. Too freaking funny.

sealintheSelkirks

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Avatar Geoff Page February 22, 2021 at 12:51 pm

seal, I’ve been on the end of the pier when the waves were that big and felt the pier sway appreciably. There is nothing wrong with that, reinforced concrete has a degree of flexibility that helps deal with stress.

I also don’t think it was supposed to outlive a useful life. With proper maintenance, it could have lasted much longer and been in better shape today. Unfortunately now, the cost would be significant at a time when the city’s finances are bad. No one in city government saw too it that money was ever set aside to maintain the pier.

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Avatar Michael H. Visser April 10, 2021 at 2:27 pm

How about the Chubosco that tore out the old arcade buildings, in fact everything except the lifeguard tower which still remains. Usually they turn towards Hawaii but sometimes they don’t

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