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Growth Is This Beachside City's Biggest Problem : There's Not Much There, but Some Like It That Way

June 21, 1990|SYD LOVE

Seems like Del Mar would be a tough sell. It lacks public schools, industry, museums and RV hookups. There is no university, movie house, nightclub or golf course. Senior citizens do not have a playground and neither do Little Leaguers.

The place is only 2 square miles. Traffic is stymied by stop signs and traffic signals and narrow hilly streets are incomplete or as twisted as a Hollywood juniper. The library is housed in a trailer. Anybody wanting to hear a concert or buy a new car must leave town. The airport disappeared, the bathhouse burned down, and the public swimming pool drowned in the surf. When people try to fight City Hall, it fights back.

Still, this city of 5,225 souls 20 miles north of downtown San Diego has a lure, a conjugation of the beauty in its many trees, wooden homes and seaside location; its tininess; the race track; and the good restaurants, first-class hostelries, shops and galleries.

Del Mar is the Carmel of Southern California, the rare beauty that keeps her looks while aging.

But is it not discommodious to lack so many of the amenities most communities have? Here is Grant Larson, 41, a lifetime Del Mar resident born in San Diego (There is no hospital in Del Mar):

"Oh, there are plenty of beach-type things to do--surfing, swimming, jogging, walking, building a sand castle, reading a book, laying down, . . . "

Larson has been a lifeguard since 1966. He would not live elsewhere, although he sees things he dislikes.

"The increased congestion," he said, "especially automobile traffic."

That is a lament heard frequently. Former Mayor Lew Hopkins, for instance, blames some of the traffic on residents of "many communities" that use Del Mar's main street, Camino del Mar, as an alternate to Interstate 5. They include staff and students from the University of California, San Diego, and workers at the scientific and medical facilities on Torrey Pines Mesa, many of whom live north of Del Mar. And he blames North City West residents, who frequently cross the hill to visit.

"Our growth has been evolutionary, not in population," Hopkins, a retired admiral living in Del Mar since 1974, said. "But areas around have grown. Del Mar is a very desirable place to live. It's kind of laid back."

But it is not laid back when the issue is growth versus no growth. The City Council comprises "Greens," who want open space. "Greens" call their foes "Grays," who desire "concrete."

Del Mar has an unusual city ordinance, resulting from citizen demand, that requires a public vote before any large commercial development may be constructed downtown, which basically is Camino Del Mar and two blocks of 15th Street.

"Philosophically we're about 50-50 divided between people who want changes and not," Hopkins said. "Even the vote for incorporation (1959) was around 50-50. . . . The Inn lost the first time. The Plaza won by a 47-vote margin."

The Inn L'Auberge, a 123-room hotel on the site of the former Del Mar Hotel, and Del Mar Plaza, a complex of shops, galleries and restaurants, both opened in 1989. Both are at the intersection of 15th Street and Camino del Mar.

Those two enterprises raised the business tide in the little seashell of a town, with one restaurant in the hotel and three--Epazote, Pacifica Del Mar and Il Fornaio Cucina Italiana--in the plaza (plus art galleries, a food market, clothing stores, etc). The plaza eateries are looking to rival as hangouts Bully's North, Baja Grill and Fish Market, Carlos and Annie's and Cafe Del Mar downtown; Poseidon Restaurant and Jake's Del Mar at the beach; and The Brigantine on the north rim.

Even in those restaurant-bars, much of the crowd is from elsewhere.

The median household income is a sturdy $39,000-plus, rents are high and housing is among the most expensive in the county, so plenty of folks cannot afford to live in Del Mar.

H. K. Throneson, retired Marine colonel, ex-educator and local historian, points out that many people who live here couldn't afford to move in now. Throneson used as an example the home he and his wife, Marge, built in 1959. They paid $6,250 for a lot with a panoramic view and $21,000 for construction of a two-level redwood home of four bedrooms and two baths, then adorned the grounds with fish ponds, big trees "and a tremendous amount of stone work."

The house next door, which was built 10 years later on a slightly smaller lot and not so fully finished, just sold for nearly $600,000.

Throneson, a collaborator with the late Nancy Hanks Ewing on her 1988 book ($35) about Del Mar, would rather talk history. He relates how:

By June 1885, Jacob Shell Taylor owned outright or with Theodore M. Loop 338.11 oceanfront acres after an investment of $1,800; how Taylor filed his plat map with the county recorder on Oct. 7, 1885; built at the foot of 10th Street the 30-room Casa del Mar, a dance pavilion, bathhouse, natatorium and several other structures. . . .

The flood of 1889 isolated Del Mar and killed tourism from Riverside and San Bernardino counties. . . . The South Coast Land Co., starting in 1905, invested heavily to again make Del Mar a vacation retreat and, in 1909, built the Tudor-style Stratford Inn (renamed Del Mar Hotel and razed in 1969).

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