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Paving Paradise?
Jan McMillan | 12th Street.

To the right: An ad from the Del Mar Surfcomber, February 8, 1983.  This is the top half of the ad only. The bottom was signed by
200 Del Mar residents.
Click on photo to enlarge.

It’s hard to think of a Del Mar icon that is more treasured today than Powerhouse Park. But this year’s hard-fought election season reminds us that the property that is now Powerhouse Park could easily have been a Restaurant Row instead – and a margin of 238 votes in a hotly-contested 1983 election is all that kept that from happening.

It seems remarkable today that this public acquisition was hugely controversial, and it is worth republishing the story, originally written by Jan McMillan in 1999, as an object lesson in how community vigilance and activism are necessary to keep pro-development forces from overriding our Community Plan.

In the early 80s, the owner of the parcel, Robert King, applied to the Planning Commission to build a large restaurant on the site and a two-story parking structure on property across the street. The Commission’s approval of the project drew many objections, and one critic, Bud Emerson, appealed the project to the City Council. Eventually, Councilmember Rosalind Lorwin led the opposition in Council debate. In the words of Joni Mitchell, Lorwin took no pleasure in paving Paradise to put up a parking lot, and she found strong allies in Councilmember Lou Terrell and Mayor Harvey Shapiro.

During this time, resident Joel Holliday and others suggested that the city try to buy the property. The City Council, which was anything but unified in its opinions of the project, nevertheless started negotiations with the owner that led to a lease-purchase agreement. Because a vocal group opposed these negotiations, Holliday and four other residents—Barbara Shore, Connie Storm, Nancy Hoover, and Al Tarkington—formed the Powerhouse Park Committee to gain support for the City’s purchase. This Committee grew to over 500 people, including 10 former mayors.

Almost 200 residents signed the ad [above], arguing that the purchase was “not what you call a good deal,” and urging voters to “STOP TAX WASTE – Vote NO Feb. 15th!” The proponents argued that buying this land for public parkland was an important step in carrying out the Community Plan, which voters had approved in 1976. It named the Powerhouse property as one that the City aimed to acquire as open space.

The acquisition campaign produced some of the most eloquent debate that Del Mar has known, along with some of the most vitriolic accusations and counteraccusations. The end result: In 1983, the purchase of Powerhouse Park won the public’s endorsement by a vote of 1029 in favor, and 791 opposed.
The Citizen’s lead editorial began: “Like a group at the end of a long forced march, the citizens of Del Mar reach the Feb. 15 vote on the Powerhouse, weary of words and slightly worse for wear.” These words may have described the town’s mood before the vote. Afterwards, the mood turned to elation. Thanks to some farsighted people, Del Mar would have another oceanfront public park.

It would take many years, and another group of dedicated Del Mar volunteers, to turn the Powerhouse building into the community center we all enjoy today, but that’s another story.

 

 

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