The City Fiddled While the Ocean Beach Pier Crumbled – A Classic Story of Neglect

by on May 19, 2021 · 14 comments

in Ocean Beach

By Geoff Page

While the rest of the news media was doing nothing more than reporting what The OB Rag had already reported on the sad state of the OB Pier, The Rag kept digging. The news stories focused on several things, the major one being that the western end of the pier will be closed to the public indefinitely.

In fact, the engineering firm’s April 23, 2021, recommendation on vehicle traffic at the west end of the pier was almost the same as the recommendation Moffatt & Nichol gave the city five years ago in September 21, 2016.  These recommendations were detailed in a memo from the city’s Director of Public Works.

April 23, 2021 Moffatt & Nichol memo: “Prohibiting vehicle access beyond the expansion joint to the west of the café is recommended.

September 21, 2016 city memo: “Restrict the use standard vehicles (1/2 ton pickup trucks or less) to the eastern portion of the pier, east of the existing building.”

Notice a key difference, the 2016 memo said “east of the existing building” but the latest memo said “west of the café.”  It is not clear why the engineers shifted the point of concern west of the café.

The 2016 memo contained five recommendations as follows:

1.       In order to minimize the wave loads, the pier should be closed to the public when sea levels (including wave crests) encroach with [sic] 2-feet of any pile caps. To aid in this determination, it is recommended that marks be placed on pile caps as visual reference.

2.       Prohibit the use of heavy equipment or vehicles larger than standard pickup trucks in all areas of the pier.

3.       Restrict the use standard vehicles (1/2 ton pickup trucks or less) to the eastern portion of the pier, east of the existing building. Use of All Terrain Vehicles (ATV’s) in- lieu standard equipment is recommended for the western portion of the pier and during times of high tide or heavy wave action.

4.       Prohibit the use of all vehicles in areas (10 ft x 20 ft) of deficient pile caps. Avoid large concentrations of pedestrians in these areas as well.

5.    Prohibit the public from using the areas of deficient railings between pile caps 35 and 37. Interim repairs of these railings may be possible to stabilize the areas.

Item #1 above provided the explanation as to why the pier has been closed so often in the past several years, when there was no actual damage or even any threatening surf.  The important wording was “sea levels (including wave crests) encroach with [sic] 2-feet of any pile caps.”

This meant the pier could be closed with a high tide and small surf or low tide with high surf.  This seems devoid of common sense.  High surf with small wave actions would hardly seem a danger to the pier. Large surf and the power that it can exert against the pier is the danger, not just sea level height.

And, the allowable height was considerably below the pier deck. Within two feet of the pile caps means two feet below the large beam-like concrete structures that top each set of two pier piles.  The pile caps are 2.5 feet tall.  The engineers were recommending the pier be closed when the water was within 4.5 feet from the bottom of the deck.  The deck section is 22” thick putting the top of the deck six feet four inches above the recommended water height.

Now imagine how low the ocean has to be when “sea levels (including wave crests) encroach with [sic] 2-feet of any pile caps” at the lowest point on the pier. It’s a wonder it hasn’t been closed more often than it has been open.

Item #4 recommended keeping all vehicles and “large concentrations of pedestrians” out of 10 x 20 feet (200 square feet) areas above “deficient pile caps.”  Having run this pier several times weekly for years, this reporter has never seen anything on the pier to indicate this recommendation was followed at all.  The obvious questions for the engineers would have been: “What constitutes a large concentration of pedestrians?”  “How many pedestrians could safely cross that 200 square foot section safely at one time?”

Ocean Beach Fishing Pier Visual Inspection Draft Report

Attached to the city’s September 2016 memo was a draft report from Moffatt & Nichol of a visual inspection the firm conducted of the pier.

In the “Pier History” section, the report related that the pier was designed in 1964 by a firm named Ferver-Dorland and Associates and Lykos & Goldhammer Architects and Engineers. Construction began in May of 1965 and completed in July of 1966.  Keep in mind that the pier had a 50-year design life.

In 1987, only 21 years later, despite the 50-year design life, the pier was found to be damaged after an investigation conducted by the Ferver Engineering Company.  Despite Ferver having been part of the design team that clearly had not designed a 50-year pier, the city had Ferver prepare the contract documents for needed repairs.

Ferver was also responsible for the “dip” in the pier that was actually where the design team began to correct the design assumption about how high the pier really needed to be. Why the city stuck with Ferver is a mystery.

Here is what the report said about the repairs:

“The structural repairs entailed removing and replacing concrete and reinforcement damaged by corrosion and adding concrete beams to reinforce the existing precast slabs where a significant number of prestressing strands had been damaged.

During the 1987 underwater investigation, horizontal cracks were observed in several of the piles.

The cracks occurred near the ocean bottom in the piles near the ends of the north and south legs of the Tee at the offshore end of the pier. Grade beams were added connecting the piles at the bottom and reducing the effective height of the piles.

During the repair of vertical cracks in the plies at Bents 6 through 13 it was discovered that significant damage had occurred to the pile prestressing strands, A change was made to the contract during construction to add reinforced concrete encasements to the affected piles.”

Without explaining all of this, it is sufficient to say these were major, expensive repairs and the nature of the damages were clearly design failures.

The Moffatt & Nicholl report described a 2004 Structural Survey the firm conducted. The survey found:

  • The piles were in fair to good condition. Damage was found in approximately four percent of the piles.
  • Concrete encasement of the damaged piles, similar to the repairs completed in 1991, was recommended.
  • The pile caps were generally in poor condition. Virtually every cap was damaged and approximately 25 percent of the surface area of the caps exhibited the effects of corrosion of the reinforcement.
  • Removal and replacement of damaged concrete and reinforcement was recommended.
  • The deck slabs were in fair condition with only about seven percent of the surface area exhibiting damage.
  • Recommended repairs for the top surface included removal and replacement of damaged concrete and reinforcement, and application of a super low viscosity coating that would penetrate and seal cracks.
  • Repairs to the soffit were based on removal and replacement of damaged concrete and the addition of beams to replace the capacity lost due to damage of prestressing strands.
  • Other areas of observed damage included the failure of portions of the concrete coatings applied during the 1991 repairs and missing or displaced expansion joint bearing pads.

Moffat & Nichols report was dated August 2, 2016, twelve years after the 2004 Survey.  The last sentence in the “Pier History” section tells the sad story.

“None of the recommended repairs from the 2004 Structural Survey appear to have been completed.”

Moffatt & Nichols provided their summary of the pier’s condition based on six ratings, good, satisfactory, fair, poor, serious, and critical. Poor condition was defined as “Advanced deterioration or overstressing observed on widespread portions of the structure.” Serious was defined as “Advanced deterioration, overstressing, or breakage may have significantly affected the load-bearing capacity of primary structural components. Local failures are possible.”

  • Five piles were rated as poor to serious
  • Pile Caps are generally in poor condition
  • Precast pre-tensioned concrete planks from pile cap 16 to pile cap 37 where it is in poor to serious condition
  • Edge of the deck is in fair to poor condition
  • Railing and the connections to the deck between PC 35 and PC 37 are in serious condition

To repeat, none of these problems seen in the 2004 Survey were ever attended to by the city, the pier was left to continue rotting.

May 21, 2019 Memo from Director of Public Works

In May of 2019, three years after the city’s 2016 memo, the city’s Director of Public Works published another memo with five recommendations. This memo detailed another visual inspection after the storm in January 2019.  The recommendations were introduced by this amazing sentence:

“Several areas of concern were identified that appear to warrant the need for interim changes to the pier’s operation until the review of the detailed study is finished and more permanent repairs are complete.”

Four of the five recommendations were identical to the recommendations in the city’s 2016 memo.  What the sentence made clear was that the city had never implemented any of the 2016 recommendations.

Recommendation #4 in the May 2019 memo was new.  It stated “Prohibit parking between Bents 28 and 32. Avoid large concentrations of pedestrians between Bents 28 and 32.”

Then, the concluding line of the memo from the Director of Public Works:

“Therefore, I recommend that the identified measures be implemented prior to reopening the Pier in May of 2019.”

Mayor Faulconer and Councilmember Campbell held their grand pier reopening three days later on May 24, 2019.

The detailed pier assessment, described in The OB Rag’s April 13 expose, was delivered to the city in September 2019.  Faulconer did nothing and Campbell claims she had no idea the pier was in such bad shape.

You be the judge.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank J May 19, 2021 at 4:22 pm

I guess Faulconer had his mind on something else.


Geoff Page May 20, 2021 at 10:54 am

Faulconer – 2013 to 2020 and his good buddy Jerry Sanders 2005 – 2012. For their combined 16 years, they did nothing.


unwashedWalmartThong May 19, 2021 at 6:47 pm

Faulconer has a mind?


kh May 19, 2021 at 9:32 pm

That last picture is especially frightening. Is that from the 2016 assessment?

That reminds me I need to go to the dentist and have him take another look at this rotting tooth he recommended I pull 16 years ago.


Geoff Page May 20, 2021 at 10:48 am

Yes, kh, all the pictures were from the 2016 visual inspection. The city only releases exactly what you ask for, so I have now asked for the 2004 survey of the pier to see the differences in the 12 years.

Too bad the pier can’t scream like a person with a bad tooth, the sound would be amazing.


sealintheSelkirks May 20, 2021 at 12:12 pm

I used to see this when paddling under the Pier to surf Southside. On big days I’d be a lot farther out and much closer to the bottom of the deck and this was already becoming quite obvious by the time I closed my ding shop and moved in summer 1987 when they did that first inspection.

These pics show far worse damage than I remember seeing back then but of course in 30-odd years it would be since absolutely nothing but band-aids and more money poured into pockets for ‘inspections’ and paperwork that nobody in the mayor’s office bothered to really pay attention to.

Why am I not surprised? Just more of the San Diego politics that I grew up with! I’ve got a rather jaded view of that by the way…isn’t it obvious?

Like earthquake movement and big concrete structures, ocean wave harmonics can act like P & S waves and ground shock so what I’m reading here is that there is a very real danger of sections of the Pier literally falling down, yes? And it wouldn’t take monster storm surf, just the right combination of wave action, piling movement, and weight (people and/or vehicles) to cause a catastrophic failure. No wonder they have been closing the Pier so much.

Geoff, one of most common causes of death in the past was from rotting teeth. This looks pretty dang bad, dude, and if the Pier was human it wouldn’t be screaming because that would hurt too much. It would drunk as hell and have its head in a pillow whimpering in sheer agony as it died.

You know, the more you dig into this the worse it gets. Hell of a job, Geoff.



Geoff Page May 21, 2021 at 1:19 pm

You are correct, seal, most of the money that has gone into the pier, other than the major expenditure after only 21 years to shore up the pier with the 50-year design life, has been spent on inspections the results of which have been ignored. At least they looked, eh?

And, your scenario about what could cause a catastrophic failure is right on. What everyone needs to focus on is the worst-case scenario. The failure may be at a particularly bad section of the pier but it would bring down, or ruin, the part of the pier that is not in serious condition. The bad parts won’t just fall quietly into the sea by themselves without taking down what is connected to them.

I like your bad tooth simile, much more feeling to the pain the pier would experience were it a living being.


James R May 20, 2021 at 1:23 pm

This is bad looking for sure. What sort of objective statements were made regarding actual failure though? Something can look bad but still be strong. Anything can fail given enough stress. What magnitude of strength reduction compared with failure stress thresholds are we actually talking about?


Geoff Page May 21, 2021 at 11:07 am

James, I think you can find your answers in the 2019 pier report. Go to this link and have a look.


sealintheSelkirks May 21, 2021 at 2:30 pm

Geoff: At least they looked? HA! That’s a hoot! Our yearly average number of wildfires per season in District 1 is somewhere in the 50s, both big and small. In ten days last month, April, we had 47…

If the firefighters only looked where the fire was burning but did nothing like the pretty incompetent-sounding SD City Politicians have done with the Pier for flipping years, my property and house and shop would have burned to the ground in the 2015 Carpenter Road fire just after it burned through the tiny town of Springdale and swung north up the ridgeline heading for Jump Off Joe Lake…

But I’m thinking like the nurses union motto that they just published about Covid; follow the Precautionary Principle and focus on the Worst Case Scenario. What made me think of it was remembering seeing wedding parties being held on the Pier back in the day and they always gather for a wedding picture in one spot and…won’t those be interesting cell phone pictures? Or the Pancake Breakfasts with crowds of people crowding the tables and hanging out that are in the Rag stories every year.

Or maybe not a big group just a small one gather when one of the many faultlines running through the sea bed offshore or the Rose Canyon or Elsinore Faults let a little pressure off and gives a little shake. They will sometime, everybody knows that, and the Pier is, bluntly, rotting! Obviously so and worse from neglect by those in charge. The Pier should have at the very least standard Japan-level required earthquake reinforcements on all the pilings…boy wouldn’t that cost a pretty penny, eh? Ouch!

And you are absolutely correct, one section going down is going to twist that old concrete like a dry pretzel. More than just the worst sections are gonna follow it down to the seabed and the shock will do an enormous amount of structural damage to the rest even if they don’t hit the water. Worst case? Serious bummer there, that’s for sure.

Chris: The cautionary report by the inspectors said to NOT drive heavy trucks on the Pier, or anything over 1/2 ton. Hell, my little ’93 Toyota 4x weighs in at 3,300 pounds without the pipe bumpers, shell, and anything in the bed. Much less a work truck full of machinery or a food truck delivering to the cafe. And it also implied that it wouldn’t be prudent to let large groups of people stand in the same place (the same slab maybe?). I would have to say that those two statements pretty much covers the objectivity you are looking for. If the inspectors say ‘DON’T DO THIS’ it might be a good idea to listen, wouldn’t you agree?



sealintheSelkirks July 8, 2021 at 2:43 pm

What to expect. Florida Condo collapse?

Note: 3rd try posting this. Not going into ‘moderation’ for some reason.

Read this link. Excellent view of rebar reinforced concrete and I can absolutely see this happening to the Pier one night. At least there aren’t hundreds of people living on the Pier, yes?



Geoff Page July 9, 2021 at 10:09 am

The link didn’t work, seal.


sealintheSelkirks July 11, 2021 at 11:23 am

Sorry Geoff, This short blog hits it dead on. Different link below should work. This is one intelligent overview that just fits right into the narrative of your piece about the Pier. San Diego gov acts like Miami gov? Pretty much…Spooky to read!

Been a bit busy to get back. Almost got burned out…for the 3rd time in ten days. Two set by human hands blown into wildfires. They haven’t caught the firebug yet. The second was by idiots on 4wheelers riding up the ridgeline in the driest conditions ever recorded in triple digit heat. All three within 2 1/2 to 3 miles upwind of me. Literally right down the ridge I live on. 15 minute warning, Evac II, and load up what little you can. I have an ‘earthquake bag’ still packed from growing up on the beach, though, and totes & boxes are piled in the kitchen & front room. I’m not emptying them at this point. If I disappear from the RAG…. A couple families (single wide homes) burned down in the third fire on the other side of the dirt road from the ridge I live on but it jumped across and was heading this way. Bombers at tree-top level coming right at me as they made their turns standing on one wing… Faces of the pilots…no kidding. Still crews all over again tonight. 80 acres, more? Everything is black, burnt trees standing. Scary.



Geoff Page July 12, 2021 at 10:12 am

Man, sounds like you folks have had a rough time. I don’t know much about forest fires but I have to think once an area is burned out, it’s probably safer now? Hang in there, dude.

Excellent piece from that link, very well said.


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