Along the 70-mile San Diego coast, from Carlsbad south to the Mexican border, there are only 79 empty oceanfront lots left.
They vary in size and they are all expensive. Some are more than two acres while another is less than one twenty-fifth of an acre. The most expensive are pushing past the price of forty dollars per square foot. That's $600 for a parcel the size of a beach towel. Within a few years that price will double for the more prime locations. If you are in the market, expect to pay around one and one-half million dollars per acre. A half-acre lot that sells today for $300,000 will look like a steal in ten years, perhaps even in five.
These lots are the last remnants of the natural coast. Much like a receding hair line, they have disappeared as the community has grown and matured. They are a headache to neighbors, a pleasure to beach users, and a plum to real estate agents. In the same way that, to many people, a Picasso is now more material wealth than it is art. these lots have become cherished commodities rather than aesthetic treasures.
Some are owned by the lady next door or across the street. Others are owned by couples a continent away or by faceless corporations. Those who bought this kind of property long ago (which in this case can mean as little as five years) are fortuitously lucky, ingenious, or farsighted. Those who buy now are wealthy.
Those lots bought years ago have assessed values far below what they could now actually be sold for. The assessed value figure in the county books is either what the property was last bought for plus a two percent increase per year, or the figure is the property's 1975 assessed value plus two percent per year.
The fact that one lot has an assessed value much higher than a similar lot nearby indicates that it has changed ownership recently. When property is sold, it is usually reassessed at that purchase price plus two percent per year. It is not unusual for one lot to be assessed at ten times or more the value of an adjoining lot. Those who bought before the inflationary boom have done very well.
Just west of the south end of the SDG&E power plant in Carlsbad is the first of three empty ocean front lots in this city. It is wide and shallow and there is a break in the chain-link fence that encloses it. A well worn path indicates that the break has been there for a while and that there is probably no intention to mend it. In fact, this is the way to the beach; the lot is adjacent to Carlsbad State Beach and is "an easement for public recreational purposes" and will probably never be developed.
On the 5000 block of Tierra Del Oro is a one-third-acre lot (60x210 feet) that belongs to a couple in Paramount, California. They own the land out to the mean high tide line, but because much of it is a sloping bluff, barely one-third of it could be built upon. The county's records show an assessed value of $73,000, but this is no indication of what it could be sold for.
Nearby on Shore Drive is a one-sixth-acre lot assessed at nearly $200,000. The owners live next door. Other improved (built-upon) lots in the neighborhood have sold for as much as $450,000 within the last two years.
Along Neptune Street at the foot of Avocado, is a quarter-acre lot owned by an Arcadia, California, couple. Its assessed value is $44,000, which means they must have bought it nearly ten years ago.
On the 1300 block of Neptune is a similar lot assessed at the same value, but this one is for sale. The owner lives next door and is asking $320,000. A comparable lot down the street, with a house on it, sold recently for $450,000.
Sixteen other small lots are on Neptune,hidden by fences and shrubbery. How long the sea will let these lots stand without claiming them is a source of speculation. There are too many former access staircases collapsed to the beach or clinging to the cliffsides below, too many unplanned split-level backyards not to consider the erosion factors.
There are six lots left here. Two of them are owned by the Self-Realization Fellowship Center and are located on Sealane Drive just north of the center's main grounds. The remaining four are just south of the center. What had been a single lot is now neatly subdivided into sections A, B, C and D. A sign proclaims their availability through a realtor in Orange County. They are all assessed at around $93,000 and belong to people in Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, and Orange. One of these one-sixth-acre lots sold in April of last year for $181,000, soon to be considered a very good price.
Cardiff by the Sea
Not a single open lot left.
At the far west end of Via de la Valle is a large fenced lot of just over two and one-half acres. Two years ago there was a house here. Now, even the foundation has been removed. The county records show that it is actually four lots. A woman in Los Angeles bought the whole package in June of last year for $1,750,000. A smaller adjacent lot was bought by a Del Mar couple last January for one million dollars.
Adjacent to this is another empty lot held in trust for a Del Mar woman. Its assessed value is only $112,000, a good example of the fact that assessed value and actual market value can vary tremendously.
Ten vacant parcels remain; the northernmost lies adjacent to the empty lots in Solana Beach and has been set aside for public use. It faces south and west and commands a breathtaking view, especially at dusk, with the lights down the coast sparkling.
Farther south, the lot at the end of Twenty-ninth Street belongs to a man in Los Angeles. A very small lot near Twenty-fifth Street belongs to a couple in Sumner, Maryland. The tiny sandy lot between Twenty-third and Twenty-fourth streets belongs to the Del Mar Civic Association.
There are five small lots at the south end of Del Mar that face south over the ocean and toward La Jolla. They are only ocean front in that nothing comes between them and the ocean, although the cliff and the railroad tracks eliminates easy beach access for hundreds of yards in either direction. The view is fabulous. They were sold a year and a half ago for $985,000 to Edward F. O`Garra, whose address, according to county records is Westlake Village, northwest of Los Angeles.
Of the eleven lots left in La Jolla, most are located at the southern end, near Pacific Beach. But there are three parcels still available along La Jolla Farms Road, far above and behind Black's Beach. Two are on the market now for $850,000 and $1,260,000 respectively, "which is actually a very reasonable price," a realtor said, "for such a property next to a desirable major population center. This same type of property would cost substantially more in Malibu."
A La Jolla woman, Margot Marsh, owns the third lot. Beach access is arduous - but again, the view is unmatched. She obviously bought it before prices shot up; it is assessed at only $79,000 (1.63 acres). She purchased it with the intention of building on it but now reluctantly is looking for a buyer because "building seems like such a lot of work." She prefers not to discuss the price.
From La Jolla Farms Road south, no vacant lots exist until the area of Windansea beach. (Eight years ago there were perhaps six lots at the north end of La Jolla Shores, south of the Scripps pier. The last of them is now going under - the architect, contractors, and developer all proudly displaying their names on signs attached to a fence surrounding the property.)
At the foot of Gravilla, near Windansea, is a lot covered with ice plant. The county says it is really two lots, each assessed at $32,000. This is the most surprisingly undeveloped lot yet, an empty acre just houses away from where architects and developers are putting more and more living space into less and less square footage. The owners, who live nearby, could ask about anything they want for it; if they are willing to wait, they will get it.
Farther south, where Camino de la Costa jogs east at a panoramic outcropping known as Sun Gold Point, there is a lot of approximately 100x250 feet, owned by Harold and Alice Johnson, whose mailing address is the De Anza Hotel in Calexico. A chain-link fence went up around it three weeks ago. The property is assessed at $112,000, no more than a tenth of actual market value.
At the north end of Chelsea Avenue in the Birdrock area is a shallow lot that has been posted as "Future Park Site" for at least ten years. It is nearly seventy feet wide, has a magnificent view, two benches, a low fence to sit on, no grass, and there is usually someone there.
There is a prime secluded lot on Dolphin Place, assessed at more than $200,000. On Calumet Avenue, just south of Birdrock, is a grassy ocean-front park (owned by the City of San Diego) that could easily have been four or five lots. It has no beach access.
Along the 5300 block of Calumet is a lot with a low fence that can easily be stepped over. The owners live next door; they paid $275,000 for one-fifth acre in July of 1979. An improved lot next door sold in November of 1980 for $735,000.
The lot at the junction of Calumet and Sea Ridge Drive gives direct access to the heavily surfed PB Point area. There are homes on either side of it (one of which sold for $535,000 in April, 1981) and there is a gaping tear in the chain-link fence that will never heal so long as the lot is empty. The owner, Bill Lee, always hoped he might have an ocean-front home, but he thought he would have to choose between his two preferences, either a hillside view of city lights or an ocean view, Facing south to Point Loma, his lot provides both. "I bought it about four years ago," he said. "Scraped together $25,000 for a down payment. Paid $125,000 for it. At the time I thought I was being sinful; I wouldn't even till my friends. But I feel lucky that I did it at the time. I do plan to build there, but I'm not in a hurry. I have no family, so I need a house like a hole in the head."
"I put the fence in to please the neighbors. Unfortunately, the land is really not equipped for people to use it. The foot traffic does erode the cliffs - that's my only objection. I'm kind of disappointed that they don't use the public access provided just 200 feet away."
Only three open lots remain, the first being the irregular grassy area at the foot of Law Street in Pacific Beach, formally known as Palisades Park and owned by the city. An imaginative builder could put up four homes here, given the chance. (Of course, the view enjoyed by those across the street would be destroyed.)
There is a gravely lot between Breakers and the Drifters hotels to the south. It is 100x140 feet, owned by a man in Santa Monica, and assessed at $160,000. Just north of the Surfer Motel, a mile south, is a big sandbox of a lot owned by the City of San Diego.
At the end of Queenstown Court is a large lot with a contractor's sign on the fence, a sure sign that the only remaining lot will soon be built upon.
The last two vacant lots here may never be developed because of the unstable condition of the nearby cliff. One of the lots is located near the foot of Santa Cruz Avenue; the other is two short blocks south, near the foot of Del Mar Avenue.
In the 1100 block of Sunset Cliffs Boulevard there is a half-acre going for $295,000. Mysteriously, three blocks south there is quarter-acre lot going for $325,000. There is no appreciable differences in the lots - just the imaginations and hopes of the sellers. The Maidhoff brothers, dealers in nautical hardware, owns that smaller, more expensive lot. They bought it five years ago with the vague intent of building on it. They wanted a house full of the hardware they sell - brass portholes for windows, for instance - but the high cost of money has shelved that plan. The lot is now for sale or exchange. (An exchange avoids capital gains taxes.) They have had offers of land in Hawaii, Lake Tahoe, and even the Virgin Islands. "If there is any appreciation left in the market." said Paul Maidhoff, "it's in ocean-front land; they're not building land and they're not building anything in the ocean. As to real estate speculation, a lot of it's just dumb luck. And until you liquidate it, you don't know what it's worth. Until then it's just the same old dirt."
Paul and Hazel Wedgewood also owns a lot along this section of Sunset Cliffs Drive. "We didn't buy it for the investment," said Mrs. Wedgewood, "but for our view. We enjoy seeing out and others seeing through it. Until we pass on, it's sitting there." She was reluctant to talk, especially about the price. They bought it before World War II and it is assessed at just under $40,000.
Madeline Wisner owns another lot on Sunset Cliffs, assessed at $36,000. She has no plans for it for now; in fact, she intends to leave it to her daughters. She bought it to protect her house from what she called the "junk" being built on other nearby lots. "This is a beautiful property." she said, "and you shouldn't put a shack on it. Besides, they look nice empty, don't you think?"
"A man came to my door once," she added, "and offered me $350,000 cash for the lot. I told him I'd have to talk to my lawyer. That spooked him and he never came back."
There are five other lots along Sunset Cliffs with assessed values ranging from $37,000 to $190,000, bringing the total to nine.
A bonanza: twelve lots remain here, though their prices are escalating rapidly. An upland, California, couple owns two 30x100-foot lots assessed at $90,000 each. That is approximately $1,300,000 per acre. A comparable improved lot next door sold in August of 1979 for $486,000.
A one-eight-acre lot in south Imperial Beach is for sale at $225,000 ($1,800,000 per acre). The owners are husband and wife and former teachers who have gone into real estate. "These lots are unique," she said. "There are so few available. We bought ours long ago, mostly as investments. We see the boom yet to come. Ocean-front real estate generally appreciates thirty to thirty-five percent per year, while real estate overall in Imperial Beach appreciates fourteen percent."
"I appreciate public access to the beach as much as anyone, but people ought to be able to live there as well as have public access. There is simply a need for higher density in the beach areas."
A very old Coronado woman owns three of the twelve lots here. She's waiting for interest rates to come down before she does any building. Local resident Roscoe Stotter has a small lot in joint tenancy with his daughter but has no plans for it. "How do I know?" he said. "She might move onto it tomorrow."
The remaining five lots, like most ocean-front lots in Imperial Beach, are small - 25x96, 25x118, and 30x100 feet, for example. Most are assessed at less than $20,000; obviously they were purchased long before the San Diego coast became the domain of the wealthy.