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February 2009 | This article did not appear in the print edition.

 

Del Mar Grand Avenue Bridge: a history.

The Del Mar Airport
The Second World War
Post-War Airport Uses
Saving the San Dieguito Lagoon
The San Dieguito River Park and Lagoon Restoration
Restoration of the Grand Avenue Bridge

A Bridge to Somewhere

            In January our community celebrated the completion of the Grand Avenue Bridge transformation into a viewing platform. The Grand Avenue Bridge is a 67 year old structure dating back to the Second World War. It’s history was documented by Judy Berryman and Craig Woodman in a report that was art of the San Dieguito Wetland Restoration Project Environmental Impact Report.

The Del Mar Airport
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            During the 1920s the Navy established an emergency landing field in the area between the Grand Avenue Bridge and the San Dieguito River. It was called the San Dieguito Field. In 1938 the property was developed as a municipal airport to serve the racing patrons at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

The Second World War
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            In 1941 the navy acquired 80 acres of land north of the Grand Avenue Bridge to use as a landing field. As the field could not accommodate modern aircraft, the U.S. Naval Auxiliary Air facility established a base there for lighter-than-air aircraft known as “Blimps." The facility could accommodate only two blimps and you can see the concrete wheel-circles that anchored the mooring masts on an old photograph shown at the bridge site. The blimps refueled at Del Mar and then continued anti-submarine patrols along the coast up to 100 miles offshore. The blimps were part of an airship fleet based in Santa Ana and Moffett Field (near Santa Clara). The blimps measured 252 feet, could lift 7,770 pounds of equipment and had a maximum speed of 67.5 knots (approximately 70 miles an hour). Their cruising range was 1910 miles at 50 knots.
            The Grand Avenue Bridge was built in 1942 or 1943 to provide access to the blimp airport. The bridge is located in Del Mar and belongs to the city. Although the bridge is not registered on the National Register of Historic Places, it is an example of  structures built during the war with local materials; it is very simple in its design. The bridge is 152 feet long, 100 feet shorter than the blimps. Outside the northern railing 25 wood hangers support a 24-inch metal sewer pipe.
            During WWII the 22d District Agricultural Association fairgrounds buildings became barracks, galleys and mess halls, officers’ recreational facilities and classrooms.
            In September 1945, the Naval Auxiliary facility was dis-established and the fairgrounds and racetrack were returned to their earlier use. The Navy retained ownership of the airfield until 1947 when the 80 acres were quitclaimed to San Diego County for only one dollar. The San Diego County Fair resumed in 1946.

Post-war airport uses
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            A municipal airport continued to operate until it was closed on October 8, 1959 in anticipation of the construction of the I-5 freeway. Various businesses later occupied the old airport buildings; a motel with 12 rooms, Tony’s Jacal, a worm castings business, a duck shooting club.                                                
            In 1953, the western part of the airfield was leased by Non-Linear Systems the company started by Andrew Kay. He converted the buildings into a manufacturing plant for his digital voltmeter, an invention which presented voltage measurements in numerical form for the first time. This company produced the “Kaypro” one of the first personal computers. Ultimately Kaypro moved to Solana Beach in 1968 leaving the site vacant.

Saving the San Dieguito Lagoon
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             Attempts, first to save the San Dieguito Lagoon, and later to restore it, date back to the 1970s when more and more people chose to come and live in the coastal area.
            In Del Mar some environmentally minded local residents saw that, unless efforts were made to protect specific habitats, this valley would end up looking like the San Diego River Valley with its big shopping centers and immense parking lots. These residents formed a Lagoon Committee and with the support of the Del Mar City Council, a Lagoon Enhancement Plan was created and adopted in 1979 as part of the City’s General Plan. The plan was later endorsed by the City of San Diego, which owns part of the lagoon, and was certified by the California Coastal Commission.
            In 1987, Bircher-Pacific, a Laguna Niguel based developer, bought 109 acres of the area encompassing the old airport, some acreage north of the River and east of I- 5. Birtcher sought to amend the Lagoon Enhancement Plan to permit commercial development on 30 acres north of the newly restored lagoon. Bircher wanted to build two 300-room hotels, a shopping center, an access interchange from I-5 and a 200 seat restaurant. Seventy-five friends attended a SD City Council meeting hearing and helped convince the City Council NOT to remove that part of the valley from the protections of the enhancement plan . Another 500 people attended a hearing in Del Mar organized by the California Coastal Conservancy and spoke against the Bircher plan which was then abandoned.
            In 1989 the California Coastal Conservancy provided a 2.8 Million grant for the purchase of 70 acres east of the Grand Avenue Bridge. Some of this acreage was dredged as a tidal basin and the property is now owned and maintained by the California Department of Fish and Game as an ecological reserve. An old name for that wetland is the Fishhook Basin.

The San Dieguito River Park and Lagoon Restoration
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            With the acquisition of the Bircher property, the newly formed San Dieguito River Park Joint Powers Authority (SDRP JPA) made its first major land purchase. This was the beginning of what has become the San Dieguito River Park extending  for 55 miles along the river east to Julian.
            The open space surrounding the San Dieguito Lagoon is a patchwork of protected lands under various jurisdictions: the City of Del Mar, the State owned Ecological Reserve, Del Mar and San Diego owned Crest Canyon Reserve, several properties along San Dieguito drive and the SDRP JPA properties.  
            In 1991, the SDRP JPA entered into an agreement with Southern California Edison (SCE) to proceed with the design and planning of the wetland restoration. SCE was at that time planning to modify units 2 and 3 of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. The Coastal Commission set various conditions for permits, one of which was to restore 150 acres of wetlands somewhere in the County and thus compensate for the loss of fish stock destroyed by the cooling system of the power plant. San Dieguito was the winner among 8 San Diego County lagoons which sought the mitigation project.
            Approved by the California Coastal Commission October 2003, The San Dieguito Lagoon Restoration Project began in earnest. SCE retained the engineering firm of Marathon Construction for the implementation of the project. The old Del Mar airport and its access road completely disappeared in the process to be replaced by a 40 acre tidal basin which was opened to tidal flux in February 2008.
                                                                                                                       
Restoration of the Grand Avenue Bridge
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            Although first fated for demolition by the San Dieguito Wetland Restoration Project Environmental Impact Report (2000), the Friends of the San Dieguito River Valley spoke about its charm and elegance and convinced the San Dieguito River Valley JPA to retain 2/3 of the bridge as viewing platform.            .
            In 2001 Supervisor Pam Slater-Price generously provided a county funded grant of  $ 35,000 to prepare plans for the transformation of the bridge into a viewing platform and for improvements to the approaches. A committee involving the JPA, the Friends of the San Dieguito River Valley, the Del Mar Lagoon Committee and a neighborhood representative developed guidelines for the project. Don Coordt, a Del Mar architect, drew the plans for the bridge modification as well as a site plan for the approaches. These plans were adopted by the Design Review Board and the Del Mar City Council in 2002.
            SCE completed the bridge modifications: shortening its length, raising the side rails to meet county safety standards and repairing badly damaged pilings. To maintain its weathered appearance Del Mar Rotary Club members stained new wood boards needed for the restoration.
            Plans to improve the entrance to the bridge are completed and construction will start soon.    

   
By Jacqueline Winterer
President, Friends of the San Dieguito River Valley

 

   
 

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