A new vision emerges on the horizon 

For nearly a decade, Buffy Maquire has spent her days near Ocean Beach, a place she calls "a neglected jewel."

The beach is frequently filled with litter, lacks appropriate lighting, needs emergency call boxes andfeatures ill-groomed walking paths, said Maquire, who owns the Java Beach Café on La Playa Street.

"It’s actually kind of gross," Maquire said. "Ocean Beach is sort of like a neglected jewel. A little beautification would benefit the entire city."

The largest urban beach in the country, city officials said, Ocean Beach stretches for five miles and forms San Francisco’s western border. It is the home turf for San Francisco’s surf culture, as well as the site of nighttime bonfires and parties. Frequent fog, numerous homeless people, graffiti and a lack of amenities — the beach has no public bathrooms, for example — can deter daytime visitors.

Mayor Gavin Newsom also characterized Ocean Beach as in a state of neglect in March when he announced the formation of a "vision council" to transform the beach and encourage environmentally sustainable public access and recreation uses. No funding has been announced for the makeover.

"Ocean Beach is a natural treasure, which unfortunately over the years has slid into neglect," Newsom said.

Kishore Hari, a member of the Ocean Beach Foundation, a community organization, said the beach has many positive features, including ornate fire pits and a welcoming atmosphere for dog walkers. Nonetheless, he said he hoped the council would address the trash problems that are a pressing concern for residents.

An open-minded approach should be used when determining future possibilities for Ocean Beach, said Gabriel Metcalf, a member of the Vision Council and director of the San Francisco Urban Planning and Research Association, a local think tank.

"I know there are some people who think the surfers need more showers, and some people would like to have more places to get a hot dog and lemonade," he said.

Makeover possibilities addressed by the panel will range from the placement of bathrooms and more garbage cans to possible commercialdevelopment, said Jared Blumenthal, director of The City’s Department of the Environment and a Vision Council member.

Each community matter will be carefully considered within a scope of preserving Ocean Beach’s ecological and environmental identity, Blumenthal said.

Ocean Beach’s unique jurisdictional makeup has long posed a problem for city administrators who wish to see beach, access and public-safety improvements. The National Park Service owns the beach property, yet The City has domain over the beach’s parking lot.

Currently, the Golden Gate National Recreational Area — a division of the NPS that oversees Ocean Beach — is formulating a long-term plan for all of its San Francisco properties. GGNRA Superintendent Brian O’Neill is also a member of the Ocean Beach council, which will help the organization mold its plan in conjunction with the needs of The City, GGNRA spokesman Rich Weideman said.

Joe D’Alessandro, director of the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, said while he has no interest in seeing Ocean Beach becoming a Staten Island-type tourism destination, improving public amenities at Ocean Beach would help increase the number of tourists who visit the urban beach.

"One of our goals is to get people to visit all of San Francisco, including spots like Ocean Beach," D’Alessandro said. "If there is more of The City for them to see, the longer they are to stay, and the better the economic impact."

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

Get involved

» Residents will get a chance to air their feelings about the beach Thursday, when the newly formed Ocean Beach Vision Council holds its first formal town-hall meeting. Hosting the meeting are Supervisors Carmen Chu and Jake McGoldrick, whose districts include Ocean Beach. The meeting is the first of 12 scheduled for the upcomingyear. The meeting will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Osher Great Hall in the San Francisco Zoo.

Ocean Beach by the numbers

5 miles length of shoreline

8,000-10,000 daily visitors on weekends*

1,000-2,000 daily visitors on weekdays*

16-18 fire pits during summer

6 fire pits during non-summer months

0 public restrooms

*estimates

Source: Golden Gate National Recreational Area, Ocean Beach Foundation

Basins contain strife caused by popular bonfires

Like the seagulls, surfers and finely combed sand, bonfires are a hallmark of Ocean Beach. Dating back to the fishing heyday of the early 1900s, blazes on Ocean Beach have been used for family picnics, late-night parties and the occasional source of warmth for homeless wanderers.

Problems, however, also have long been attached to the bonfires. Residents of the Richmond and Sunset neighborhoods complain that smoke billows into homes, surfers campaigned against the dirty and dangerous refuse left among the ashes, and local law enforcement officials said the fires were a drawing point for criminal elements.

In 2006, with tensions at a peak and public opinion split evenly, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the agency overseeing operations at the beach, considered banning the bonfires.

By April 2007, a compromise was reached to erect fire pits on the beach, but within a limited stretch — between Lincoln and Fulton streets — and with the stipulation that only wood is burned. Neighborhood activists volunteered to build, clean and maintain the pits with the help of the GGNRA’s park police, who provide enforcement.

"I think the fire pits have been a great way to centralize the damage, so to speak," said Wes Womack of the Surfrider Foundation, one of several neighborhood organizations that helps clean up the beach. "We don’t want to see the bonfires banned completely, so this is the best way to mitigate what goes on at the beach."

— Will Reisman

Locals speak out

"I don’t want to see this place become some big destination point. I like it the way it is."

Daniel Lobanovsky, San Francisco resident and Ocean Beach surfer

"The beach could definitely use more garbage cans. ... We don’t need a bathroom, that will just attract more people."

Chris Johnson, who lives on Moraga Street and comes to the beach three or four days each week

"The bonfires are fabulous, although people could do a better job of cleaning up after themselves."

— Longtime Ocean Beach neighbor Julie Jay, who now lives in Hayes Valley

"There are a lot of smashed car windows in the parking lots. ... There could be better efforts to protect our safety."

Lauraine Edir, who lives near Ocean Beach

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Will Reisman

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