Jim Grant restores public benches at Sunset Cliffs

"Neglected property becomes a target for vandalism”

City officials claim that the tropical ipe wood doesn’t require refinishing and sealing.  Jim Grant, who has been restoring decks “for 20 years,” disagrees.
  • City officials claim that the tropical ipe wood doesn’t require refinishing and sealing. Jim Grant, who has been restoring decks “for 20 years,” disagrees.

Jim Grant lies low as a white City truck drives north on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. Once it’s out of sight, he picks up a hand broom and sweeps the dust from a park bench made of ipe wood that sits on the dirt trail atop Sunset Cliffs. The bench bears a 3.5-by-5-inch plaque that reads “Soli’s Bench — ‘This...is America!’”

Grant dips a brush into a small white bucket filled with natural wood cleaner and scrubs the bench, which has turned a dull gray from constant exposure to the sun. Then he moves to the edge of the cliffs and talks on his phone as he waits for the bench to dry. He removes his cap and wipes the sweat from his head. Fifteen minutes later he returns with an applicator pad to rub a small amount of wood oil over the bench.

Jim Grant took it upon himself to restore and maintain the public benches at Sunset Cliffs.

Jim Grant took it upon himself to restore and maintain the public benches at Sunset Cliffs.

Grant has never met Soli, nor has he made the acquaintance of any of Soli’s friends or family. He has no idea who Soli is.

No one asked the 56-year-old to restore Soli’s bench. Nobody hired Grant for his woodworking and decking expertise. Grant is here of his own accord. He cleans and seals the benches on his own dime and on his own time. He is here because the City refuses to maintain the benches, refuses to coat them with wood sealant to preserve their natural color and prevent the wood from cracking, splintering, and decaying.

Fifteen ipe wood benches sit above Sunset Cliffs. Seven were paid for with donations made to memorialize a loved one who passed away.

The benches cost approximately $45,000 in September 2010. Of that amount, the nonprofit Friends of Sunset Cliffs paid $15,492 for six memorial benches. An additional memorial bench was donated directly. The City paid $27,765 for eight other benches, with Councilmember Kevin Faulconer’s office chipping in $13,000.

In a City document entitled “Donation Procedure for Sunset Cliffs Natural Park Benches” is a sentence that reads, “Prospective donors should be aware that the Park and Recreation Department policy is that a bench will not be replaced by the department if it is vandalized or deteriorates.”

Private donors paid between $2500 and $3000 to sponsor the benches as memorials.

Private donors paid between $2500 and $3000 to sponsor the benches as memorials.

“It’s no mystery that neglected property becomes a target for vandalism,” says Grant. “It’s a shame that the City and the local community groups are neglecting these benches made from this beautiful wood. And, it’s a shame that the families of these people who bought these benches for their loved ones have to see the benches turn gray and deteriorate. These benches, these memorials, will not last without the necessary upkeep. It’s ridiculous to think otherwise.”

Some families who purchased the benches assumed that the City would perform basic maintenance on them.

Joelle Vazquez’s brother, Johnny Machado, who fished at Sunset Cliffs, passed away in 2004 at the age of 25 while spearfishing in Mexico. His mother and godmother were among the first on the waiting list to purchase a bench. They paid approximately $2750 for the bench and for a plaque that reads “In our hearts — John S. Machado 04.” Vazquez says that she doesn’t remember the City telling her family that the benches would be left to decay.

“I think, well, I think it sucks,” says Vazquez in an October 10 phone call. “It’s sad. I’ve already seen graffiti on it. I think this nice man already removed that. A lot of people use these benches, and my family paid for it so people could watch the ocean just like Johnny did. He loved the ocean. I understand it is on public property. I just don’t agree that there shouldn’t be any maintenance. It’s just sad.”

Johnny Machado’s bench was the first one Grant restored. He’d been asked by a friend of his if anything could be done to make the bench look nicer for Machado’s family. Shortly after Grant restored Johnny’s bench, he decided to restore them all.

During that time he sent emails to councilmembers and the Park and Recreation Department.

In an August 22 email to Grant, Scott Reese, assistant director of Park and Rec, explained the reason the benches were not maintained. “We purchased the wood for the benches precisely for the reason that it does not need to be sealed. Ipe wood has its own natural decay defenses, so sealing is not necessary. Ipe’s natural density will prevent water absorption, cupping, splintering, and twisting issues common with wood materials.”

Grant disagrees. “I’ve been restoring decks and working with wood for 20 years,” he says during a phone call while on a job restoring a deck in Solana Beach that will be featured in Fine Homebuilding magazine.

“The wood will age slower with the finish,” says Grant.

“It has aged enough out here in the elements. The grain has started to open up and splinter. This is typical City reasoning: let’s not maintain anything.”

Grant adds that a fresh finish on the benches “sure makes them more appealing and easier to remove graffiti.”

As Grant gives a final wipe-down with a clean cloth, two women walk past.

“It’s great that private citizens are taking care of things on their own, especially something like this,” says Chula Vista resident Fran Petty. “It seems like cities are doing less and less these days, while we continue paying taxes for the services.”

Grant says thank you. “I hear that a lot while I am here doing this.”

The women thank Grant once again and continue on their walk.

Grant pulls a clean rag from his pocket and some polish and wipes the small plaque on the front of the bench. “Well, there you go, Soli.”

According to his chief of staff, Councilmember Kevin Faulconer “has not received calls for additional maintenance for the benches.” ■

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The "do nothing" city government in its usual inaction. A host of reasons not to do something, and none to do it. Typical.

The greying of ipe IS a natural process, not deterioration, similar to cedar or teak. However, ipe is extremely dense and very hard. It is actually about 250 times harder than teak, which, as many know , has been used in boat building for hundreds of years. Because of ipe's density and hardness, it will last many years with virtually no maintenance. If you want to keep the rich finish, it does need to be refinished periodically to maintain it, but again, greying is NOT deterioration.

If you want to keep the rich finish, it does need to be refinished periodically to maintain it, Periodically = ????????

Depends on the usage and the conditions, surfpuppy619. If it's an oiled finish,exposed to UV, it could be once or twice a year, maybe even more frequently in that spot. If it's a poly, then it would last longer, but poly's will yellow under UV. Or possibly an acrylic varnish because they resist yellowing and hold up fairly well under UV exposure. Bottom line is any wood will deteriorate in time. Exposure to UV and salt will hasten that deterioration, but the simple greying itself is natural. Don't get me wrong. I think what Jim Grant is doing is a good thing and he should be commended for it. And I'm not bagging on the people who who put out the money for the benches. But if someone is going to do something like that, perhaps they should look into what kind of maintenance is required to keep the bench looking that way. Maybe it's just that I tend to be more cynical about some things, but I would NEVER have assumed that the city would take care of it. I mean most cities don't even take care of their streets, so why would I think they would take care of a wooden bench? Just my opinion. Opinions vary

Actually Tom according to the Janka hardness scale which is the Industry standard they state this ...." With a Janka hardness rating of 3680, compared to a little over 1100, Ipe is three times harder than teak decking. This advantage means that an Ipe wood deck can handle a lot more traffic and abuse" . And you are correct the greying factor is natural in most woods , deterioration comes from other things like not using end sealer or butting boards together without a 1/16" air dry gap which is what the City workers did and in the case of the end sealer did not do. Hopefully my efforts will counteract the neglect of City workers. In any case I think it is a unanimous decision people would much rather see beautiful benching then grey discolored weathered benching. Ipe, Mangaris and the Tropicals are stunning when properly maintained. Glad you appreciate the Tropicals they are beautiful .

Jim Grant= ONE AWESOME DUDE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

@ Surfpuppy: Yes to maintain a rich wood look the Ipe will need periodic maintenance, most lumber in this environment will require re-treatment every 14-18 months. The City determined the wood " does not need to be sealed" That may be the case Ipe and all the hardwoods in that family line are very durable no doubt. The issue with the benches is they become unsightly , dirty , grungy and people treat them as such. When people see a piece of ill-maintained property they have little respect for it. So the refinishing makes the benches much more attractive. In addition despite the City claiming to know a lot about the Ipe , they made a couple critical mistakes: 1. They did not use a end sealer such as Anchor Seal. This sealer MUST be used on all end cuts and end grain that keeps or at least slows down the end grain splitting. 2. They built the benching with NO gaps between the boards. Both of these are critical mistakes according to all the information available when dealing with hardwood NEVER sandwich boards together. It was my intent to make the benching more appealing and as an added benefit slow down the aging process. It is beautiful lumber and I hated seeing it neglected. I was not trying to put the City on the spot or calling them out and will be filing out all the City paperwork to continue with the work. if anyone would like to spend a few hours in the sun enjoying the views they are more then welcome to join me in completing the last 4 benches. Thank you for appreciating the benching.

Jim, one pic = 1,000 words.

You are doing a fantastic job, i wish the city employees would take pride in their jobs and perform them like you are (doing this work pro bono no less).

The refinished benches are beautiful, keep up the good work.

Jim Grant rocks!Tho I no longer live in OB, it's guys like him that make me proud to be a fellow San Diegan --

Thanks I go to The Cliffs often and the neglect of the benching really bugged me . The City's reasoning of " it is durable wood and does not need to be sealed" well that's like buying a new car and saying I am never going to wash it it's fine it will last, and in reality it will but it will look like crap in the meantime ...Thanks for appreciating the benching.

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