As Phyllis Purchas strolls along the sands of Ocean Beach at sunset, she can't envision how man-made "improvements," especially a concrete boardwalk, could make her stretch of paradise any better.
"We've got the prettiest little unspoiled surf town in Southern California, and now they're going to develop it and put concrete on about a third of our sand," said Purchas, a member of the Ocean Beach Preservation League.
Purchas, who has lived in an apartment near the beach for 14 years, fears a boardwalk would do the opposite of what proponents hope to achieve. She believes it will draw gangs, derelicts and speeding skateboarders; not the moms with strollers, the disabled and senior citizens that the boardwalk's backers say they're trying to accommodate.
Public access to the beach, long a cherished principal in California, helped inspire the boardwalk proposal three years ago. Boardwalk proponents maintain that the best way to "clean up" their beach and make it accessible and safe for everyone is by installing a half-mile-long, lighted walkway between Newport Avenue and the jetty of the San Diego River at Dog Beach.
The nine-block-long beach, which is largely unimproved, is popular with beachgoers and surfers, drawing more than 2.5 million visitors annually, according to city estimates.
At issue is whether Ocean Beach Park, a city park that is maintained by taxpayer dollars, should be made more accessible despite possible adverse impacts on the local community.
"Should we not build parks because they may attract crime? Do we penalize everyone for the actions of a few?" said Kevin Oliver, a project manager with the San Diego Park and Recreation Department. He is overseeing Ocean Beach's Beachfront Improvement Project, which will include a boardwalk, a sea wall in some areas to prevent flooding, boardwalk lighting and improvements at three beachside parking lots.
The challenge, Oliver says, is to design a boardwalk and sea wall that will not lend themselves to loitering, drinking and "other activities not conducive to family enjoyment of the park."
"I think we've found that in the majority of parks in the city that the more programs and improvements we have that can attract the families and other types of average law-abiding citizens, the more likely we are to discourage and drive out those who aren't law abiding, or who are interested in other activities," Oliver said.
Denise Knox, owner of Cabrillo Art Center in Ocean Beach and an Ocean Beach Merchants Assn. member who supports a boardwalk, said residents banded together three years ago to improve the beachfront because many felt it was unsafe to walk there.
"The general consensus was 'isn't it a shame about the beach,' "she said. "The lighting was poor, the access was poor and the parking lots were in terrible shape. We had a real transient problem. The people who have worked on this (boardwalk and lighting improvements) have wanted to make our beachfront comfortable for everyone to be at.
"We can't be stupid and say our beachfront is ours and for nobody else."
Dewey Schwartzenburg, a spokesman for the state Coastal Conservancy, said public access for the local community as well as tourists was a primary factor in the conservancy's decision to award a $300,000 grant to Ocean Beach for the boardwalk and lighting.
Schwartzenburg said the conservancy insists that the design stage for such improvements, which is where the Ocean Beach project is now, be open to the public.
But boardwalk opponents say they don't want to discuss the boardwalk's design; they simply want the project stopped.
As the opposition to a boardwalk grows, the issue threatens to divide a community that has begun to jell in opposition to another perceived threat: a city plan to construct a sewage outfall pipe that would jut out of the San Diego River, off Dog Beach.
"The sewage outfall pipe gets all of our attention right now, but this boardwalk issue is heating up," says Steve Elbogen, an 18-year "OB" resident and president of the Ocean Beach Merchants Assn.
It's heating up mostly because of one man, 49-year-old David Diehl. He's a 25-year OB resident and an attorney who works out of his beachfront home. The proposed boardwalk would run along the backside of his house.
Diehl attended initial community workshops on a boardwalk three years ago and he raised a stink. But then, he says, he just assumed "it would just disappear, like a lot of other bad ideas in this city."
"I never dreamed they could get state funding for this," he said, referring to about $450,000 in Coastal Conservancy and state park grants. He learned of the grants while attending a meeting of the Beachfront Improvement Project steering committee in August. The citizens' group was formed years ago by the Ocean Beach Planning Board, merchants association and Town Council.