The Elusive New Lifeguard Station for Ocean Beach

by on May 13, 2021 · 8 comments

in Ocean Beach

By Frank Gormlie

What ever happened to the promised new lifeguard station for Ocean Beach? This question is so untimely, it appears, as OB residents and merchants grapple with the concept of the millions needed to repair or replace the beloved OB Pier. And as our mayor says the city’s coffers are so empty, he’s cutting hours and staff at the city’s libraries.

This is so untimely. And like the elusive rare butterfly, the new OB lifeguard station flutters around in the ether, unable to land and become a chrysalis where it can develop into a beautiful, new being.

Yet, the question needs to be asked. Over the course of the last 12 years, through the administrations of 3 mayors (Filner, Faulconer and now Gloria) and 3 city councilmembers (Faulconer, Zapf and now Campbell), Ocean Beach has been promised a new lifeguard station to replace the one standing today, built in the early 1980s. Nearly 40 years ago.

Here, then, is a brief look at this recent history of promises, pledges and concerns.

Early October, 2009: OB Town Council Takes on Lifeguard Station and Restrooms

In early October of that year, the Ocean Beach Town Council, under the direction of then president, Jim Musgrove, adopted the lifeguard station and its public restroom facilities. The OBTC wanted to shepherd though any improvements to the site. Musgrove told the OB Rag that his Board was taking the lifeguard building under its wing.  He acknowledged that the City of San Diego has no money to completely replace the aging building, even though OB was promised a new one a few years back. The Town Council, he said, is working with the City, the lifeguards, the Park and Rec Department, Councilmember Kevin Faulconer’s office and the OB Mainstreet Association, and together they have held discussions on the improvements for the last year.

A local architect, Steven Lombardi, offered his services and is drawing up changes to improve the building and deal with certain safety issues. “We’ve been told by the city,” Musgrove said, “that there are no new buildings on the horizon.”  So, they’re looking at a number of ideas and improvements,  but “nothing set in stone.” And they include:

  • placing a gate on the lifeguards’ own small parking lot; there have been a couple of close-calls with pedestrians, Jim said; this would also help with the lifeguards egress and ingress to the lot; – Note: this was completed a couple of years ago.
  • possibly new landscaping with drought-tolerant vegetation;
  • putting up a mural on the top section of the lifeguard tower;
  • installing mosaic tiles on the building – and OBceans can buy a tile to help with the costs of improvements;
  • new paint job for the building;
  • locking the restrooms themselves – as there have been problems with people sleeping in them.

The tower does need to be updated and cleaned up.  “The lifeguards would love to see the upgrades,” Jim added. He wants to avoid, however, what happened about 10 years ago, when a bunch of OB volunteers took it upon themselves and painted the lifeguard station on their own.  “OB style.”
The restrooms did get an upgrade a few years back. And the tower got a new paint job, new cameras … but that’s about it.

Late November, 2010 – Groundbreaking for new lifeguard station in La Jolla
A new state-of-the-art station for lifeguards was begun, that will encompasse 1485 square feet, a 270 degree view from a new “observation tower”, and rooms for first aid, men and women’s locker rooms, staff room and administration rooms as part of the mix.  The new building was anticipated to be completed in December 2011.

Late December, 2012OB Rag gave Mayor Filner Christmas list for OB – Lifeguard Station was number 2

 “2.  New Lifeguard Station

Yes, the lifeguard station at the foot of Santa Monica Avenue did just get a new paint job.  But the facility needs to be demolished and a brand new one built.  The current one was constructed a half century ago – yup, about 50 years ago, and such a highly-used center for our life guards – needed first responders – is way overdue for replacement. La Jolla just got a new lifeguard station; Pacific Beach just got a new lifeguard station … and OB got … a new public restroom at the foot of Brighton – yes, state of the art – but not a new station. In fact, we need a new lifeguard station for our living lifeguards more than we need a bronze memorial to the past.  Both would be nice – and we’ll probably get the statute a lot sooner than a new station – but the station is what OB needs – now.”

Late December, 2013 – Some History of Current Lifeguard Station by Former City Councilmember Byron Wear

Byron Wear, former city councilman and former lifeguard, gave the OB Rag a history lesson:

“The OB Lifeguard Station was built around 1980-81. Due to a 1977 drowning at Mission Beach and problems with view obstructions in the old tower there, three new lifeguard stations were funded by the City Council – Mission Beach, Ocean Beach and La Jolla Shores. The old OB lifeguard station was built around 1938 as a Lifeguard and Police Station and included a jail cell that was later used a shower. In 1978 there was serious discussion about relocating the Ocean Beach main lifeguard station further north but coastal views of adjacent residential homes at Cape May Avenue would be seriously affected and the Santa Monica Street location was maintained.  … Ocean Beach provides a diverse experience for lifeguards with rescue activity around the Pier, the Mission Bay Channel, the jetties and response to Sunset Cliffs and the end of Point Loma.”

June 2014 – Lifeguard Station Placed on Infrastructure Needs in new OB Community Plan

Early May, 2015 – OB Leaders Press Council on Infrastructural Needs – Lifeguard Station at Top of List

A group of OB leaders attended a City Council hearing on the mayor’s budget in early May and gave the politicos an earful of what Ocean Beach has in infrastructural needs. On top of their agenda was the lifeguard station and the OB Library. Gio Ingolia and Gretchen Newsom from the OB Town Council, Valerie Paz and John Ambert from the OB Planning Board, Judy Collier from the Friends of the OB Library, and a representative of the Sunset Cliffs Nature Park committee joined dozens of other San Diegans requesting their different priorities in the proposed budget of Mayor Kevin Faulconer. The City Council listened to public comment about various projects and issues for two hours. The OBceans were told there was no current funding for the OB lifeguard station, as it’s at the “bottom” of the fire and rescue projects capital improvement list. KPBS reported on the OB lifeguard station:

The mayor’s budget shows the project needs more than $4.5 million in funding and lists it as a medium priority. The replacement structure would include an observation tower, first aid area, restrooms and garage for rescue vehicles.

January 20, 2017 – Councilmember Zapf’s Top Priority: Building a New OB Lifeguard Station

Here is what Councilwoman Lori Zapf stated about her priorities (quoted directly from her memo of January 20, 2017):

Ocean Beach Lifeguard Station Design Funding:  Building a new Ocean Beach Lifeguard Station remains a top priority for the community of Ocean Beach and our San Diego Lifeguards. The existing station is inadequate to accommodate staff and equipment. SDPD has indicated that a new station could also be used as a joint facility with San Diego Fire-Rescue. As part of last year’s budget discussions, 7 Councilmembers listed design funding for the Ocean Beach Lifeguard Station as a top priority for funding.  As a result of this overwhelming support, I am requesting the $600,000 be allocated to the Ocean Beach Lifeguard Station CIP Project (S10121) to begin design workshops and environmental permitting.

Mid-May, 2017 – Ocean Beach Town Council Advocates for New Lifeguard Tower

In early, mid-May, members of the OB Town Council advocated for a new OB Lifeguard Station before the San Diego City Council. Below is a copy of the testimony given by OBTC President Gretchen Newsom with support from OBTC boardmembers Gio Ingolia and Andrew Waltz:

Gretchen Newsom on behalf of the Ocean Beach Town Council and our hundreds of members – we are an organization dedicated to promoting the general betterment and beautification of Ocean Beach and the welfare of our residents of 92107.

I stand here to inform you that the Ocean Beach Town Council is in support of Councilmember Lorie Zapf’s efforts to obtain design funding for a new Ocean Beach Lifeguard Station as identified in her 2018 Budget Priorities memorandum. This project is consistent with the Ocean Beach Community Plan and is a long time advocated need within the community and by community based organizations.

The Ocean Beach Lifeguard Station was constructed 40 years ago and has lacked adequate improvements and renovations.  The popularity of Ocean Beach has also grown and just last year, Ocean Beach Lifeguards performed over 1,000 water rescues.

Additionally, Lifeguard staffing along Sunset Cliffs was increased due to demand. While these Lifeguards positions were funded in this year’s budget, they have put an increased strain on equipment and locker needs at the existing station. The current station is inadequate to accommodate this additional staff and equipment.

A new Ocean Beach Lifeguard Station will result in a more effective deployment of lifeguard personnel and equipment, therefore improving the safety of the public.  It will also improve our public restrooms and shower facilities which are used by thousands visitors and tourist every year. As part of the project, we also envision San Diego Police Department facilities to support their welcomed presence in Ocean Beach.

Late May, 2017 – Potential Funding for Assessment Study

During May’s Ocean Beach Town Council public meeting, the representative from Councilwoman Lorie Zapf’s office, announced that there is potential funding for an assessment study for a new lifeguard station for Ocean Beach. Conrad Wear told the meeting that Zapf’s office has determined that there is a sum of $200,000 available for a preliminary engineering assessment. And at a recent San Diego City Council Infrastructure Committee meeting, Zapf’s motion to allocate the $200,000 to begin the design process for a new OB lifeguard station – as part of the 2018 budget – was unanimously approved by the committee.

In an email to the OB Rag, Conrad Wear gave more details about the study: This design process is considered to be preliminary engineering which is standard for all capital improvement projects and is needed after so many years of stagnation.It will help to narrow the scope, schedule and budget for the entire project by analyzing the operational needs of a new facility through engaging our Public Works staff in conversations directly with our Lifeguards and SDPD.

Among other things, it will review the additional amenities of a new station which may include, but are not limited to, new bathroom facilities, SDPD office space/facilities, a preliminary environmental assessment and ADA review. Perhaps most importantly, it will raise the priority of the project and help it to receive future funding and continue progress unlike in past years.

Early June, 2017 – Zapf Begins Online Petition for New Lifeguard Station

Councilmember Lorie Zapf began a petition for a new lifeguard station for Ocean Beach. Councilmember Lorie Zapf began the petition on very recently, and asks for people to sign the petition in support of her motion for $200K that would pay for a design process for a new facility. She states: “The final step for approval will occur on Monday, June 5th at 2 PM, when the City Council will be asked to approve this allocation as part of this year’s Budget Revision Process.” Here is Zapf’s full statement on the Petition:

Join me in advocating for a new Ocean Beach Lifeguard Station! Last week, I made a motion to move $200,000 into the Ocean Beach Lifeguard Station project to begin the design process. The final step for approval will occur on Monday, June 5th at 2 PM, when the City Council will be asked to approve this allocation as part of this year’s Budget Revision Process. Please share your support for a new OB Lifeguard Station by signing this petition which will let all members of the City Council know that this is a top priority for Ocean Beach!

– Councilmember Lorie Zapf

The Petition includes a letter to the City Council, and it states:

Dear Councilmembers,

I am writing in support of Councilmember Zapf’s motion to allocate $200,000 to begin the preliminary engineering and design process for a new Ocean Beach Lifeguard Station.

The funding will help to narrow the scope, schedule and budget for the entire project by analyzing the operational needs of a new facility through engaging our Public Works staff in conversations directly with our Lifeguards and the San Diego Police Department. Among other things, it will review the additional amenities of a new station which may include but are not limited to, ADA review, new bathroom facilities, SDPD office space/facilities and a preliminary environmental assessment.

The Ocean Beach Lifeguard Station was constructed almost 40 years ago. Since that time, the needs for a new station have grown with increased Lifeguard staffing along Sunset Cliffs. A new Ocean Beach Lifeguard Station will improve our Lifeguard’s ability to respond to crucial water rescues and ensure they have the resources to keep us safe.

The public restrooms and shower facilities are also in desperate need of an upgrade and are used by thousands of locals and tourist every year. This project is listed as a top priority for the Ocean Beach Town Council and the Ocean Beach Planning Board. For the reasons stated above, I encourage you to support Councilmember Zapf’s allocation of $200,000 to the Ocean Beach Lifeguard Station as part of this year’s budget.

June 7, 2017 – OB Planning Board Places New Lifeguard Station as Number One on Public Facility Financing Plan

The OB Planning Board re-ordered their capital improvement project priority list in early June, 2017. Their number one priority was the OB lifeguard station. They stated:

  1. OB Lifeguard station – this was no. 2 but since $200,000 has been budgeted to do an assessment for a new lifeguard station, it was felt that it should be moved up to the number one spot to assist the politicos in finding the potential $6 million needed to build a new one.

The OB planners spent part of the meeting dreaming – or, rather brain-storming about what they’d like to see in any new lifeguard station. The goal is to give city engineers ideas for the facility, now that $200,000 has been budgeted to perform an assessment. The current lifeguard station contains 1200 square feet with the new one doubling that.

Here were some of the ideas for the new lifeguard station:

  • Include police sub-station or support-facility,
  • double the size, taller and wider,
  • make it a “dream center” of 21st century first-responder center,
  • have it be of a green design with LEED certification,
  • public restrooms and showers,
  • gender restrooms and showers for lifeguard personnel,
  • include staff kitchen,
  • space for cliff rescuers,
  • community meeting space,
  • training area for junior lifeguards,
  • an amphitheater,
  • design that fits the community.

Mid-July, 2017 – Funds for Design Study Approved

Funds for the new design of the Ocean Beach Lifeguard Station were approved by the City Council and Mayor of San Diego. The approved $200,000 became part of the year’s budget and allowed the study and design phase for a new facility to begin. OB Planning Board chair John Ambert was quoted on the issue by the Peninsula Beacon; he said:

“This lifeguard station was constructed almost 50 years ago, and the deferred maintenance, lack of improvements and recent overloading of the building have made it inadequate for our public safety personnel. “The exterior block walls are crumbling away, exposed metal door and rebar systems are rusting out and the plumbing systems fail regularly.

Ambert added that the station –

“lacks space to accommodate the current number of lifeguards on patrol, adequate storage for equipment and cliff-side rescue equipment, functioning data and communications systems, and independent men’s and women’s locker rooms. The Ocean Beach Lifeguard Station is at the end of its useful life, and a new fully functioning facility needs to be constructed in its place.”  San Diego Community News Group

April 24, 2019 at OBTC meeting, Lifeguard Urges Crowd to Push for Money for New Lifeguard Station

An unidentified lifeguard representative urged the crowd at the OBTC meeting to attend the upcoming budget hearings down at city hall on May 1st and push for monies for the lifeguard station.

May 1, 2019 – Pushback Against Failure by Mayor Faulconer to Include Funds for OB Lifeguard Station

From a report in the OB Rag: “Friends of the OB Library are pretty riled up. Mayor Faulconer did not include any funds for the Ocean Beach branch’s expansion. Nor did he include any funds for the OB Lifeguard station. So, the guardians of our library have issued a call to their fellow OBceans: contact the Mayor’s office immediately about this and plan to attend city budget hearings – starting Wednesday, May 1st – down at City Hall. OB Lifeguards are also asking OBceans to advocate for funds for the new lifeguard station promised Ocean Beach. Friends met with Councilwoman Jen Campbell who said she supported the lifeguard station improvement, but didn’t know why it wasn’t in the budget; advises OB to contact Mayor Faulconer’s office.”

May 1, 2019 OB Planning Board Again Places Lifeguard Station as Number One on Capital Improvement Project List

Capital Improvement Projects: Every 2 years, the city has the various community planning committees come up with a list of prioritized improvement projects which the groups would like to see built in their communities. These capital improvement projects – usually the top six – are supposed to cost at least $100,000 each and are recognized – usually – as those communities’ main priorities by city government, the councilperson, the mayor, etc. In early May, the Board decided to keep a new lifeguard station at the top of their CIP list.

According to Board members, all the projects have been “funded” except the OB Rec Center upgrade, Saratoga Park and the Pier parking lot improvements. Once the city decides to “fund” a project, the funds are committed for at least 5 years. It may take even longer for a project to get on a CIP list, go through the “feasibility study” stage and then get built. The lifeguard station is funded – which means it’s in the “feasibility study” stage – still. As this reporter pointed out, the lifeguard station has been in this stage since the former council administration.

May 22, 2019 at OBTC meeting, Campbell Rep Announced $50,000 for Continued Study on New Lifeguard Station

Seamus Kennedy, representative from Councilmember Campbell’s office, talked briefly about then budget negotiations: the OB Lifeguard station will receive $50,000 for a continued study on a new facility. The last budget hearings are in June.

Early June 2019

Seamus Kennedy of Campbells’ office repeated the news of the city budget: There’s $50,000 for the design of the new lifeguard station which is planned to have space for police officers; earlier funds approved were for the feasibility study, which comes first.

Now What?

What this history clearly shows is that the community of Ocean Beach has been pressing for improvements to the current lifeguard station and to have a completely new one built for a dozen years. And there have been promises and pledges – but nothing has happened in the physical world. Meanwhile, new stations were built in South Mission, in Pacific Beach and in La Jolla. We don’t know exactly what the status is of any funding or any design or feasibility studies for OB. The public has not been told anything for a while now. No politico has made any announcement of any study results. The pandemic pushed everything away. And obviously, any new lifeguard station has been placed on the proverbial back burner, and the flame has been turned off.

With the millions needed for a pier and empty city coffers, it’s doubtful that there will be any move to build OB a new facility. Unless, of course, the residents clamor for one. That’s how things get done and are built. It takes a groundswell from the constituents, the voters to make things happen.

Allow the elusive butterfly to land and become a chrysalis.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank Gormlie May 13, 2021 at 10:27 am

For some reason, the font sizes got messed up in parts of the text. Sorry about that.


judith May 13, 2021 at 10:44 am

Thanks Frank for your comprehensive analysis of our sorely needed new lifeguard tower. Enjoyed and agree with the poetic ending. I really appreciate your informative and timely articles.


Gravitas May 13, 2021 at 2:25 pm

The City gets over $300 million (and more coming) from the Feds and can’t deliver on this?!!


Paul Webb May 13, 2021 at 2:43 pm

This article makes me feel really old. I worked on the coastal permit for the existing life guard tower.


Frank J May 13, 2021 at 4:55 pm

$200,00 for the study. Add $50,000. $6M for the building. $6M! I will never understand how something like this, if like PB at Grand, can cost this much? On city property already owned. A rectangular garage plus two stories up, tall windows, plumbing and electricity. For the price of building a small mansion in LJ? Call me dumbfounded.


Paul Webb May 17, 2021 at 10:15 am

Frank, a lot of it has to do with the way capital improvement projects work and also the way they handle the accounting. Most government agencies, at least the ones I worked for, require that you program projects well in advance, sometimes several years. There is generally a required accounting for inflation (a fixed percentage), as well as a required accounting for “contingencies” (also a fixed percentage). Because these are done well in advance of the actual construction project, the passage of time adds significantly to the cost. Add to this the fact that most contracts are awarded to the lowest bidder which frequently results in underbidding followed by cost overruns and contract amendments, and the cost keeps ratcheting up.

Also add the fact that construction costs are going through the roof right now. I was recently told that ordinary residential construction is costing up to $500 per square foot. A lifeguard tower also has special requirements not usually seen in other types of construction. I did the programming for the construction of a lifeguard tower in Orange County. We had to include features not seen in regular construction, including male and female locker rooms, all the necessary communications facilities, a tower that went up three stories, seismic safety improvements, ADA compliance,etc. It just all adds up.


Ed Harris May 15, 2021 at 11:05 am

Thanks Frank,

Just a little more info. In 2002 it was on the list of Lifeguard and Fire replacement. We were able to replace all the LG towers in La Jolla since that list was made. Further more, the guards are eligible for TOT funds. Instead of using those funds for the guards, the money has been moved to cover the Fire overtime budget.


Frank Gormlie May 15, 2021 at 11:57 am

Thank you, Ed Harris, for the clarification. Glad to see you’re still kicking.


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