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Slip-Sliding Away : Environment: Cliffs at Palisades Park are slowly crumbling from erosion. Santa Monica officials are seeking ways to stabilize the beloved bluffs.

March 23, 1995|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A hundred years or so ago U.S. Sen. John Percival Jones, a co-founder of Santa Monica, liked to sit on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific and watch the sunset.

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Smart man. The panoramic views from the edge of the continent are postcard perfect; sea breezes offer a soothing balm for the soul.

Since Jones' day, millions of visitors have followed him to the skinny, 14-block-long strip of land called Palisades Park. But if he were alive today, Jones could not get near his favorite viewing spot.

The special place where he contemplated nature's grandeur, marked by a circular stone-bench monument, is now behind a chain-link fence. Like many areas along the park precipice, it is in danger of breaking loose and tumbling down onto Pacific Coast Highway.

The latest rain storms have cost the park dearly: a 50-by-10-foot chunk was lost on Valentine's Day. Another five-foot-deep piece broke away March 15. Inch by inch, Santa Monica's most beloved park is slip-sliding away.

Erosion along the bluffs is not a new problem. Geologically speaking, the palisades were never the ideal place for a park.

USC geology professor Bernard W. Pipkin describes the brown sea cliffs as unstable, consisting of erosion-prone sandy and gravelly material. Moreover, the sedimentary layers that formed the bluffs are weakly cemented.

"They tend to slough off," Pipkin said. "The culprit is water."

A study of the bluffs done for the city shows that at various points 25 to 33 feet of land slid away between the turn of the century and 1988. The toll since then has not been tabulated.

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Since the city started keeping track in 1930, there have been more than 30 landslides in Palisades Park. Among the most notable occurred in the late 1950s when, according to various accounts, three or four Los Angeles women were picnicking on the bluffs. The ground gave way, sending them--bench and all--on an unexpected E-ticket ride to the highway below.

Miraculously, none was badly hurt, although a 1958 news story reported that they won $35,000 in a lawsuit against the city. After that, the city's lawyer recommended closing the park, saying the verdict implied that the park was a menace to visitors.

That did not happen. Although the park now has signs warning visitors to use it at their own risk, thousands each year are willing to chance a landslide in exchange for a sweeping view at the continent's edge.

Visit the park on a sunny Sunday and it is easy to understand the allure. Although the 1.6-mile park is narrow, the view seems endless. Joggers, walkers, strollers and hand-holding lovers of all ages create a sense of perpetual motion as they move along the paths.

Some of the grassy areas are staked out by groups of friends and family who have moved here from far-off places. They bring aluminum lawn chairs and card tables, where they pass the day playing games and conversing in their native Russian, Armenian or Farsi.

During the week, tour buses carrying visitors from other countries are a frequent sight. Along with the Santa Monica Pier, the park is the biggest tourist attraction in town, officials say.

To longtime residents of Santa Monica, the park has deeper meaning.

"It has a lot to do with our sense of place," said former Mayor Christine Reed. "It's restorative. It makes things better."

But Reed said she is ever mindful of the park's geological fate.

"Those of us who have lived here a long time are resigned to the fact the park is getting smaller and smaller over time," she said. "It's destiny is to migrate back to the ocean."

The Palisades Park acreage, part of a Spanish land grant, was purchased by Col. Robert S. Baker in the early 1870s for a sheep ranch. But after buying what is now all of Santa Monica and part of Marina del Rey, Baker changed his mind.

Instead, he sold 75% of his land to Sen. Jones, a multimillionaire from Nevada, for $162,500, and the two of them set out to build a town called Santa Monica.

In the summer of 1875, the partners auctioned off the lots. Prime spots across from the park on what is now Ocean Avenue sold for $300, but the strip of land along the bluffs, barren and bleak at the time, was not for sale, the history books say.

After Baker died, his widow donated the south end of the bluffs to the city on the understanding that it would always be a park. The north end was later donated to the city by a company owned by Baker and Jones.

By the early 1900s, the rugged bluffs had become a park, originally named Linda Vista, Spanish for beautiful view. Photos from that era show women in long dresses and bonnets strolling along walkways; a fence made of twisted eucalyptus branches lining the bluffs, a pergola (an arbor with a trellis-work roof) offering visitors a shady spot, as it still does today.

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