Thirty-six years ago, the Reader surveyed the San Diego County coastline in search of any remaining vacant, buildable land along the coast. In January of 1982, we found a scant 79 parcels of land remaining, the most expensive commanding as much as $600 for a single square foot of bare dirt. One prediction, made decades ago, proved true: seemingly outlandish prices of the era, including $300,000 for a single half-acre beachfront plot, would come to look like downright steals in the years to come.
Replicating the original story’s format, we’ll start at the northern edge of the county and work our way south. For our purposes, government-owned land — including military installations such as Camp Pendleton at the county’s northern tip — developed public parkland, and nature preserves like Torrey Pines won’t be included. And while technological advancement (i.e., satellite mapping, available on just about any computer) will make things considerably easier, the task promises to be daunting.
Joy Bender, a luxury real estate specialist at the Compass California brokerage in La Jolla, spoke with me about some of the perks and challenges that come with building along the coast. Her perspective will add some background as to the kinds of people who would own this land and their motivations.
The county’s northernmost city was left off the original 1982 list, but I find a pair of lots along the 100 block of North Pacific Street, totaling 2/3 of an acre, separated from the water only by a public parking lot. Surrounded by ongoing construction and development, including a new Marriott hotel directly to the east, the entire city block sits nearly vacant and wrapped in a chain-link fence. At the corner of one lot sits the Top Gun House, an 1880s-era baby blue Queen Anne where scenes from the 1986 film were shot. The house is weather-beaten and in poor repair; a faded movie poster covers one of the boarded-up windows. The fence’s privacy screen has been partially ripped down at its front, and a pair of middle-aged women in Midwestern tourist attire take turns posing for photos. Elsewhere along the fence, a sign promises “Oceanside Beach Front Resort – Coming Soon.”
Along the 200 block of South Pacific, a house is being torn down to make way for condos, one more instance of the shift from one dominant architectural form to another along this stretch of coast. (Multi-unit monstrosities already occupy nearly the entire lot footprint on either side.) A few doors down from the demolition site, a two-bedroom condo is available for $850,000.
Moving along: a 3317-square-foot lot along the 800 block of South Pacific last sold in 2007 and carries an assessed tax value of just over $200,000 — California’s Proposition 13 caps tax increases at two percent annually based on the last sale price, even though beach property appreciates much faster. The owner, Beach Walk LLC, also acquired a five-unit apartment complex next door at the same time, and the vacant lot serves as an outdoor entertainment space. Both the vacant lot and the cottage-style apartments have redevelopment notices posted. The owner plans to demolish the existing buildings and put up six condos.
Further south, 1707 South Pacific sold a little more recently, in 2012. Owner Chestnut Pacific LLC, a Lakeside-based developer, doesn’t appear to have done much aside from erecting a chain-link fence restricting access to the 5500-square-foot parcel. Given the assessed value of more than $1.3 million, one wonders how long they’ll wait to build a beachfront McMansion and cash in.
It’s possible that they’re already trying to do just that. Bender says the process can take years.
“My client just went through the development process for a property on Sandy Lane in Del Mar that I sold back in 2014 for $16 million. It took three years to get past not just the Coastal Commission, but also the city. It’s a very onerous process, requiring a skilled architect who knows how to work with the Commission,” she explains.
A roughly three-mile stretch of land without an inch undeveloped follows, until we cross the southern border into…
From three open lots in 1982, the city is down to its last two empty seaside parcels.
The first vacant parcel to be found is at 5025 Tierra Del Oro, just south of the city’s gas-fired power plant and desalination facility. Just shy of a third-acre, the lot last sold for $2.7 million in 2009, a $200,000 jump from another sale five years earlier and an order of magnitude higher than the $73,000 assessed value reported at last check-in. Development is underway here; earth-moving equipment sits behind a chain-link fence.
Down the coast, a property on the 5400 block of Carlsbad Boulevard isn’t exactly ocean-adjacent. Still, the only thing between the lot and the water are two lanes of heavy-traffic blacktop and public beach access. Maybe you could count this as oceanfront? The sixth-acre plot has been held by a family trust since at least 2000 (likely longer) and carries an assessed value of $34,216.
While there were a whopping 18 available lots in Leucadia in 1982, the count is now down to three. All lie along the southern end of Neptune Avenue; the total space shared by the parcels between the 200 and 400 blocks is just under a half-acre. There are technically a handful of other “vacant” parcels in town, but all comprise of the last few feet of a lot already containing a residence, and are too small and too close to the receding bluffs to support development.
By the time we get around to looking back, Leucadia will likely be fully built out — two of the remaining lots sold earlier this year with matching $2 million price tags, indicating development is imminent — perhaps with enough time for the mega-rich to enjoy a few decades before rising tides eat away at the unprotected bluffs, where neighboring houses sit close to the edge.