Between hedges and wrought-iron gates, chain-link fences stand open to reveal the skeletons of soon-to-be-multimillion-dollar houses.
Israel and Lebanon were at war. England and Argentina were at war. In Hollywood, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were formed. Navy beat Army 24-7, the Chargers beat the Dolphins 41-38 to make it to the AFC Championship, and "The Last 79," a town-by-town analysis of the remaining vacant beachfront properties in San Diego County, appeared in the Reader's January 21 edition alongside ads for $7 haircuts. Written by Stephen Simpson, the article chronicled the histories and speculated on the futures of some of the hottest properties the market could (and did) see at a time when they were worth only a fraction of what they are today. Land, like haircuts and just about everything else, was cheap(er) then; according to Simpson, a buyer in 1982 could purchase a half-acre seaside lot for $300,000 and a modest house for $450,000. The average single-family-home price, beachfront or otherwise, was $100,000, according to the California Association of Realtors. Inheritance tax, something that plagued beneficiaries of estates and trust funds, had just been done away with as Proposition 6 was put into motion.
Solana Beach: Vacant Beach Lots in 1982: 6, Vacant Beach Lots in 2007: 0. Del Mar: Vacant Beach Lots in 1982: 10, Vacant Beach Lots in 2007: 1
Israel and Palestine are at war. We are at war with Iraq. In Hollywood, 17-year-old Jordin Sparks wins American Idol. The Chargers make it to the playoffs but lose, and only 16 vacant lots remain along the coastline. And they are expensive, worth $2 million at the very least. Real estate is at about the highest it's ever been. A modest two-bedroom beachfront house can be purchased for just shy of $900,000, while the average beachfront home price, though it fluctuates depending on the area, is in the mid-$3 millions.
With all those amazing ocean views, 16 empty lots may seem like a surprisingly large number. Who wouldn't want a house on the beach? There is a tax incentive to keeping the property vacant -- true in the '80s, even truer now. Those who have held property for years pay low taxes. The property tax bill, which can include special local taxes, amounts to approximately 1.25 percent of the property's assessed value, says Scott Travasos of Swell Property in Leucadia, and Proposition 13 ensures that the assessed value may be increased by only 2 percent per year. But add a house on the property, and the county can update the assessment.
Some lot owners may not be able to sell their lots, as they are keeping them as collateral against loans taken out to build their current homes.
The cost of building alone can be a deterrent; without ecological survey costs or any sort of land preparation, it takes about $300 a square foot, according to Travasos and his partner Erik Gilmer, to construct a beachfront home.
A prevalent problem for sea bluff landowners is that of cliffside erosion. The bluffs that line San Diego's coast are made mostly of sedimentary rock and are prone to shifting and sliding. Drilling done for construction or irrigation lines has been a problem, as it can cause the cliffs to crack. The biggest threat to the cliffs is the effect of water, either from manmade sources -- like the thousands of sprinklers employed by area homeowners -- or from natural ones -- like the ocean waves. Overwatering causes water to, over time, carve channels in the bluff. Waves do their damage slowly as well; they crash against and crack or eat away at and degrade the cliff base, causing it to shift and, eventually, parts of the cliff to crumble. Rain and wind are also factors; storms in the 1940s, 1970s, and 1980s wiped out seaside structures all along the coast, the most famous of which was the Encinitas Self-Realization Fellowship Temple in early 1940. Pictures from the time show the temple pitched dramatically toward the ocean, cracks extending all along its façade, half of it a pile of wood and rubble.
But for the very enterprising (and wealthy) lot owner, all is not lost. Those with the wherewithal can have their property shored before it's built on. There are two shoring methods most commonly used to secure beach bluffs: one is called "underpinning," where holes are augured horizontally into the cliffside and filled with mesh and concrete, and the other "beam and lagging," in which long I-beams are sunk vertically into the ground and covered with gravel or cement. Both processes are expensive, even more so if the I-beams are left in as opposed to removed once the concrete cures. Sometimes they're left in for added stability, called "permanent shoring."
Either way, "It ain't cheap," says Chris Maize of San Diego Shoring. He estimates that an average two-story beach house costs over $130,000 to shore, an amount that does not include the cost of equipment or the soil removal involved in the process. "You have to be a multimillionaire," he adds. The cost of one $8.5 million house in Carlsbad, Travasos and Gilmer say, was partially due to the expense of shoring.
There is some land that cannot be built on at all. It may be prone to slipping or publicly owned. On Fourth Avenue in Encinitas, there are two such lots, their cliffside edges both blocked from pedestrians by a fence studded with large, diamond-shaped reflectors. "Unstable cliffs," brown signs posted by the city warn, "No beach access." The first lot, which is at the foot of W. F Street, stands next to a dilapidated apartment complex that is slated for demolition. A duplex will go in its place, according to notices posted on its boarded-up windows.
All but 2 lot owners of the 16 vacant beachside lots have unlisted phone numbers. This is understandable, according to Travasos. "If you have an empty lot, you probably get a call a week -- a realtor trying to list it or a mortgage broker trying to find a client, just passersby saying, 'I like the lot...' You would just be hounded," he says. "And the owners know that if they want to sell it, they just have to put it up, and it'll go pretty quickly."
Vacant Beach Lots in 1982: 3
Vacant Beach Lots in 2007: 1
Though according to Travasos and Gilmer, Carlsbad prices are in the midrange for San Diego beachfront properties, there have recently been a few hefty sales in the area. Not too long ago, says Gilmer, a bluffside house sold for $8.5 million, and at the moment, a mansion that is under construction along the cliffs is receiving some astronomically high, unsolicited offers. "I've heard that someone offered $26 million for that house and they didn't take it," says Gilmer, who recalls that the owner is a Las Vegas man. "You find a lot of wealthy people from around the world buying homes here," he says, "and many of them don't even live in those homes. They just vacation there."
There is one vacant lot in Carlsbad, next to 5008 Tierra del Oro Street, a short half-circle of a road that parallels Carlsbad Boulevard (Coast Highway 101). It belongs to the Riley Family Trust of Cathedral City, California. While empty at the time of this writing, the lot will ultimately be occupied by a single-family home, complete with basement. A large sign bearing the words "Project Notice" is staked into the ice plant that's interspersed with tall grasses. The property sold in 2004 for $2,550,000.
Vacant Beach Lots in 1982: 24
Vacant Beach Lots in 2007: 4
Despite the influx of million-dollar homes lining the Encinitas coast, "Encinitas still looks like a beach town," says Wilma Romero, owner of Thrifty Threads, a secondhand store just off the 101. She's lived in Encinitas for almost 30 years and doesn't deny it's become increasingly expensive. "Since the '70s, it's been harder to live here," she says. "Families move here and they move out."
But some have managed to hang on to their properties, some for decades. Amy McQuillan is one of these; she owns two adjacent parcels on Neptune Avenue, one with a house on it at 138 Neptune and the other vacant. According to the gentleman next door, McQuillan is 104 years old and is saving the lot for her nephews. The vacant land is assessed at just over $1000, indicating it was purchased decades ago. The lot rises to just above street level and is covered in drying ice plant. Along the street, a small and slightly haphazard garden grows. The gentleman next door planted it, tending to the tomato vines and marigolds in his spare time. He says that McQuillan is leaving the land to her nephews instead of giving them "just money." He hopes that they never build on it.
There are three other vacant lots on Neptune Avenue, which stretches the length of Leucadia. In the 200 block, north of Roseta Street, is a second vacant lot whose owners live next door. Lined by a rail fence and blanketed by a close-clipped, drying lawn, the lot is owned by Anthony E. Simms and Mary A. Hynan.
At North El Portal Street is a lot blocked from view by a white fence. It has a locked gate and boasts a large No Trespassing sign. In the lawn in front of the fence is a For Sale sign, listing Gary Martin as the realtor. Turns out he owns the property and, as the sign announces, is the "oceanfront specialist." According to his website, where he is pictured smiling and wearing a Hawaiian shirt, his asking price is $3.5 million. Martin declined to comment for this story.
Near Amy McQuillan's lot are two parcels that sold this year, both on the face of the cliff. The first belongs to the Channel Islands Trust of Laguna Niguel, which bought the property in early August from Neptune Family Investments for $2.5 million. The lot immediately adjacent is owned by Shera and Cathleen Reza, who made their purchase in April from Dale and Marjorie Meyers. This lot sold for $3,550,000. Both buyers also purchased the adjacent property above the cliff.
Farther south, a long stretch of unused land at the intersection of J Street and Third Street belongs to the Self-Realization Fellowship. Travasos and Gilmer remember hearing stories about how the land came to belong to the fellowship, which has operations in Los Angeles as well as Encinitas. "A businessman donated it all to [the man who] started the huge yoga compound," says Gilmer. "I forget what year they bought it, because [Paramahansa Yogananda] had come over from India and said there was some special power there. He hooked up with the businessman here, and the businessman bought it and gave it to him as a gift to start his compound." The businessman, a millionaire named James Lynn, bought Yogananda the 17 acres of land in 1937, building him an ashram as well.
Also in Encinitas are two city-owned lots, both on Fourth Avenue, one at the end of West F Street and the other at the end of West G. Probably neither will ever be built on as they are being retained by the city for safety measures. Each is staked with an Unstable Cliffs sign.
There were no vacant lots in 1982, and there are none now.
Vacant Beach Lots in 1982: 6
Vacant Beach Lots in 2007: 0
Vacant Beach Lots in 1982: 10
Vacant Beach Lots in 2007: 1
At the northwest corner of Del Mar, where Via de la Valle runs into Border Avenue, is a huge piece of vacant land. Actually five parcels, two of which edge the beach, it stretches from Coast Highway 101 to the bluff and is covered in red sandy soil from which scrubby weeds poke up. The county assessor's office lists the owner as Pacific View Estates LLC of Del Mar, but no estates -- or signs of estates, for that matter -- can be seen.
Del Mar is home to some of the highest-priced real estate in San Diego. Even small parcels and properties go for astronomically high prices. A local bookseller, Richard Schneblin, remembers directing a home-seeking Danish couple to an extremely small $350,000 house he'd seen advertised nearby. "Needless to say, they thought they'd found the perfect place, even with no backyard," Schneblin says. But the couple returned to his shop disappointed; the house turned out to be a timeshare, and much more money than they expected. "When they went to check on it, the sign said it was $350,000 times ten," says Schneblin, who has worked at Earth Song Bookstore in downtown Del Mar for two years. "The house was, like, $3.4 million to $3.5 million."
And that's considered low; two-bedroom homes go for the lower three millions, luxury four-bedroom single-family homes go up to the mid-$8 millions. Some are even more expensive, selling for tens and twenties of millions of dollars. In May, a Del Mar house sold for $35 million, the highest price ever paid for a house in San Diego County. The buyer, Madeleine Pickens, is the wife of hedge fund manager T. Boone Pickens. The home, incidentally, is on the ocean.
Vacant Beach Lots in 1982: 11
Vacant Beach Lots in 2007: 1
La Jolla has some of the most expensive real estate along San Diego's coastline. "You've got to have a lot of money to support a million-dollar mortgage," says Maureen Murphy, co-owner of the La Jolla Village Lodge. Though Murphy has lived in La Jolla only seven years, numerous visitors, both vacationers and locals, come through her doors. "A lot of people come here looking for a house to buy," she says.
"An oceanfront lot in La Jolla is far more than an oceanfront lot in Encinitas or Oceanside," says Gilmer. "You can move down the coast, pretty much."
La Jolla Farms Road is full up with houses, perhaps recently so, as construction abounds here. Between hedges and wrought-iron fences, chain-link gates stand open to reveal the skeletons of soon-to-be-multimillion-dollar houses. Houses on La Jolla Farms Road have sold for amounts in the $20 million range.
On October 3, escrow closed on the second-to-last vacant lot in La Jolla, on Calumet Avenue at the end of Midway Street. Within two weeks a basement had been dug, and a four-bedroom, three-bath house was about to go up.
La Jolla's last vacant lot is next to 5850 Camino de la Costa, a road lined with expensive homes, impeccably landscaped yards, and staggeringly beautiful -- one would imagine -- ocean views. The vacant lot appears out of place here, as Camino de la Costa seems a hotbed of construction; cement trucks detour traffic, and hard-hatted workers tend to new window treatments and freshly cemented façades. The lot is owned by Star Pine Investments, whose offices are on Turquoise Street in Pacific Beach. They are not listed in the phone book.
Vacant Beach Lots in 1982: 2
Vacant Beach Lots in 2007: 0
The last lot in Pacific Beach that Stephen Simpson's 1982 article mentioned was "a big sandbox of a lot owned by the City of San Diego." The sandbox is still there.
Vacant Beach Lots in 1982: 1
Vacant Beach Lots in 2007: 1
The same large lot (actually two parcels) on the 700 block of Queenstown Court that was open in the '80s is still vacant. It's listed by the assessor's office as being owned by the Bank of America.
Vacant Beach Lots in 1982: 2
Vacant Beach Lots in 2007: 1
Though Simpson speculates that the last two lots in Ocean Beach would never be built on, one of them has been. According to Simpson's description, the lot was "near the foot of Santa Cruz Avenue." Now it's occupied largely by an L-shaped condo complex.
The other vacant lot that Simpson mentioned is at the end of Del Mar Avenue and isn't so much a lot as an overlook. Succulents separate the lot from the house next door and a slippery slope of sand leads down to a cement trail built into the bluff below.
Vacant Beach Lots in 1982: 9
Vacant Beach Lots in 2007: 2
On winding, twisting Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, two vacant lots are left. One, near Monaco Street, is owned by David A. Stevens of San Diego and is for sale through Coldwell Banker Real Estate Corporation for $2.25 million. The property was listed at $2.5 million when it was put on the market two years ago. The land is assessed at $44,784.
The second lot is near Ladera Street -- not far from the first -- and is owned by a retired engineer who lives just up the hill from the property. Originally from Ohio, he came to San Diego over 50 years ago and settled in Point Loma. He purchased his vacant lot within the past 15 years and kept it after finding a house in the Cuyamaca Mountains, where he lived until the Cedar Fire raged through. His house ruined, he returned to Point Loma, where he lives today. The lot remains empty, though the gentleman has entertained the idea of setting up a mobile home, running in water lines, and hooking up a generator.
He likes his current home, though -- "I've seen Catalina Island from up there on a very clear day," he says -- but is in no rush to sell the lot. "I've had some offers that are significantly more than I paid for it," he says, "but my son said, 'Well, there's only two left,' and with Prop 13, the taxes aren't all that much. I'm not pushing to sell it." It's assessed at $59,160.
None in 1982 and none now
Vacant Beach Lots in 1982: 12
Vacant Beach Lots in 2007: 5
On Ocean Lane in Imperial Beach, five vacant lots remain, one between Palm and Citrus, one at the end of Dahlia, one between Elm and Evergreen, one between Date and Elm, and one between Elder and Elkwood.
The Palm and Citrus lot is sand-filled and sandwiched between houses on the 600 block and is owned by Edwin Johnson and Rose Gravino, who live in Imperial Beach.
The Dahlia Street land (actually two parcels) is located behind Imperial Beach Coffee and Books, a funky little shop a block from the beach. The parcels are both owned by Robert Shoepe Revocable Trust of Laguna Beach. Shop owner Katie Fallon hopes the owner, a man she knows by sight, decides to keep the land empty.
The lot between Elm and Evergreen is zoned commericial and is owned by William Lindley.
Just beyond a newly built suite of condos between Date and Elm is a lot owned by a limited partnership, Westport Holding Texas LP of Stratford, Texas.
The owners of the last lot are Chen Kuan Cheng and Le Chau Chang Family Trust of Hemet, California. They've had the land since 2002, and its assessed value is $634,015.