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.
Destruction-by-sea should be on the mind of all oceanfront dwellers, however, and Bender believes the bluffs are the best bet.
“Environmentalists think all of Mission Beach is going to be underwater in 50 years,” she says. “So on top of a bluff is probably where you want to be, with a few added precautions. Still, being able to hop off your deck and be walking on the beach is the ultimate lifestyle. Going 50 stairs down a bluff isn’t as much fun, never mind having to walk three houses down the street to get to those stairs.”
The pesky problem of descending (and later climbing) stairs aside, blufftop owners are prevented from protecting their properties by the California Coastal Commission, the state agency with authority over all coastal construction. In the interest of preserving beaches and their public enjoyment, the Commission is reluctant to allow for the erection of seawalls and is slowly eliminating non-public access points, meaning anyone who wants their own private cliffside staircase is out of luck.
“You’re not allowed to build a seawall unless you have a bluff failure. From that standpoint, when you look at the prices of oceanfront property, not all blufftop property is created equal, and the public doesn’t understand that,” Bender continues. “They don’t take into consideration the cost of a double seawall, or a foundation with caissons [deep anchors securing the house to earth well below the grade level] that makes it so that if if the entire bluff literally disappears, the property is still standing on stilts.”
That cost can be overwhelming.
“Take two properties with the same fixtures and finishes. If one has an upper and lower seawall along with caissons, that can add between $750,000 to $1,200,000 in engineering. It’s something you can’t see, touch, or feel the way you can with beautiful paint and granite and marble, but it’s critically important.”
Back to our list: the third and final lot, overgrown so as to be barely visible from the street, sits at 444 Neptune. The Martin family, with a mailing address in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, bought the lot in 1998 for $325,000. A fading notice of development dating back to 2014 is tacked to a gate at the property’s south end.
From six lots decades ago, the count has dwindled to two. One, a ten-acre parcel owned by the Self-Realization Fellowship Church, is unlikely to see construction.
Another lies several blocks north — tax rolls describe the property as 838 4th Street, which is also the address of a single-family home to the south. Purchased by a developer in 2013 for $2,325,000, the half-acre site is being advertised using the address 814 4th, and it now carries an asking price of $5,850,000. According to a promotional website, the lot could house “your dream beach home or multiple units.” Across the street, another parcel one lot removed from the ocean plays host to a field of dead brush and a boarded-up old house — another builder sign promises more development is coming here as well.
As you’ve almost certainly figured out, everything on the coast costs more, even planting some ground cover.
“There’s a property in Encinitas a client wanted to buy off-market and asked me for advice on,” Bender recalls. “I pulled up the Coastal Commission paperwork and the owner was being mandated to do significant landscaping along the bluff for erosion control. He’d told our client the cost was about 30 grand; it ended up being $250,000. That might sound absurd, but getting the trucks and equipment down there on the sand to do the work is about the most expensive and laborious process you can imagine.”
The available oceanfront land remaining in Cardiff appears to be the same as it was years ago: zero. One large parcel on San Elijo has been divided into four slivers that would offer direct ocean views, but with a large median and two busy streets separating the properties from the water. it’s a stretch to call them oceanfront.
To be fair, there’s little in the way of development opportunity that’s directly ocean-adjacent here, and much of the limited available space has long since been claimed by commercial activity.
There’s a fifth-acre vacant lot along the 500 block of Pacific Avenue near the north end of town. It’s held by the owner of an adjacent 3400-square-foot house who’s using it as a $1.9 million extension of his private yard.
Six lots southwest of the intersection of Border and South Sierra Avenues still sit unused. Four of them, bundled into a 5.5-acre plot, sold for $21 million in 2013 to a developer. That party flipped the lots to another developer in 2017 for an undisclosed sale price.
Another 1.9-acre parcel immediately south is held by a different investor and valued at just under $7.7 million. The 3.5 acres adjacent are held by the same party and valued at $15 million. The pair, reportedly ready to be split into a total of five residential lots, have been offered for sale for $49 million since 2007. They’ve reportedly been in escrow since March of last year but the new buyer has yet to close on the sale.
Instead, Encinitas-based developer Zephyr Partners envisions something bigger, a project they’re calling the Del Mar Resort, a hotel property with 251 rooms, 76 “branded villas,” four restaurants, a spa, and “a scenic fitness trail connecting Camino Del Mar, North Beach, and North Bluff Preserve.”
During a late August visit to the site’s earth-moving, I saw equipment parked atop recently-graded dirt, while thousands of tiny pennant flags flapped from strings tied between poles, giving observers some idea as to the eventual outline of what’s to come.
A property at the end of 29th Street on Ocean Front Avenue has been vacant since our last assessment — a friendly couple tells me the property has remained in the same hands for generations, but the owner, Sandra Naftzger, has been blocked from building a home by her neighbor to the north. Several stories published this summer detail the battle between Naftzger and Rick Thompson, said to own “one of the city’s biggest beach houses.” Thompson is spearheading a local ballot initiative, Measure R, that would change local law to block Naftzger from building her home as planned. It would be 1700 square feet smaller than his own.
The house on Sandy Lane that Bender sold for $16 million used to sit just north of the Naftzger property. It turns out those dollars were really just for the lot — the new owners have demolished the original home, built in 1950, and are now building a new 3000-square-foot residence.
“Del Mar’s Beach Colony has probably the most expensive price per square foot in San Diego,” Bender notes. Considering her listing size of just over a half-acre, the $808-per-foot price seems an apt testament to that assertion.
An irregularly-shaped parcel at the end of 10th Street was purchased just after our January 1982 publication date. It carries an assessed value of $287,000 and its Utah-based owner seems to be in no hurry to make use of the land.
A 1.5-acre lot at the southern tip of Torrey Pines State Reserve on La Jolla Farms Road still lies vacant, but the $12.4 million lot was sold in 2014 at the same time as an adjacent $10 million mansion on its own 2.4-acre site. Back in 1982, parcels on the same street were available for between $850,000 and $1,260,000, then described as “actually a very reasonable price for such a property next to a desirable major population center.” Retrospectively, that assessment seems astute.
There used to be a house at 5220 Chelsea Street at the southern tip of La Jolla, but it’s long since been razed, for years the only remnant of development was an abandoned swimming pool near the edge of a bluff. Green algae blooms in a deep end puddle visible on satellite maps. That’s changing, however, as a visit to the site showed yet another construction crew busy framing a new building that pushes right up to the lot’s edges on all sides.
With all this ongoing construction, Bender notes that building to withstand the elements is a costly yet necessary concern.
“I was at dinner with a friend who lives a few blocks from the coast, and she told me, ‘We would never live on the ocean because of all the wear and tear on the property: the corrosion, the salt air, the wind.’
“You have to be willing to upgrade and replace things more frequently, and to invest in higher-quality hardware for the windows, the doors, pretty much everything, even compared to being just one home away on the other side of the street,” she tells me. “To most wealthy clients, that’s not going to be that big of a deal, to be honest.”
Nothing to see here, folks.
A 2630-square-foot parcel, barely 1/20 of an acre, has been owned by Ivanhoe Ranch Partners in El Cajon since 1995. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2013. Still, a search turns up no evidence of recent efforts to market the property for sale. It’s currently valued by the county assessor at just over $79,000 and sits undeveloped along a prime stretch of lucrative short-term vacation rentals along the boardwalk where buildings routinely fetch $3 million or more when they change hands.
The coastline along San Diego’s oldest beach community has long been built out to capacity — houses have even wormed their way onto sites previously thought to be unbuildable. Lots are sometimes temporarily vacant, but only in the brief period between the leveling of older units and the construction of expensive housing and vacation rentals.
“You’ll often want to keep one wall of the existing home,” Bender suggests. This will allow the project to be considered a remodel rather than a new construction, allowing the builder to skirt some of the time-consuming review process and new building rules that might, for example, prevent an owner from building a home as close to a cliff as he’d like.
There is one seemingly-vacant plot of land at the north end of Del Monte Avenue that seems like an odd place to put a parking lot. It’s owned by the California Coastal Commission and is part of a lot that also contains four cottages.
Just two homes from the southern tip of the Point Loma peninsula’s buildable land lies a quarter-acre oceanfront lot, the last one untouched in the neighborhood. No development occurred following consecutive sales in 2013 for $1.5 million and 2014 for $1,825,000; the current owner has been trying since 2016 to flip it for as much as $2.9 million without luck — a flyer box zip-tied to the front fence has only the sun-baked remains of what were once marketing materials.
In 1982, the self-styled Crown City was devoid of waterfront land on which to build. That hasn’t changed.
Once touted as a veritable bonanza of beachfront building opportunity, San Diego’s southernmost city is running short on supply. Still, there are eight vacant parcels.
The first lot in town is along Ocean Lane, just north of Palm Avenue. Just west of Ye Olde Plank Inn, IB’s oldest dive bar, sits 5800 square feet of sand and not much else. It last sold for $709,000 in 2013.
A pair of commercial lots totaling 6000 square feet are still open just north of Dahlia Avenue. Corian Cross Holdings, a San Juan Capistrano-based partnership has been on title since 2012. Current assessed value: $371,362 for both. The zoning seems odd, given the dominant residential use of surrounding properties.
Several blocks south, between Elm and Date, another Ocean Boulevard property, this one a 3900-square-foot residential lot, last sold for $1.6 million in 2015 to an out-of-state investor. The previous owner, a Texas-based holding company, made a tidy profit from its $324,000 investment 15 years prior.
Just across Elm, looking out nearly directly at the IB Pier, three lots are owned by a family trust. One houses a cottage built in 1941, the other two are vacant and commercially zoned.
Another curiously-zoned commercial lot on Beverly Avenue is wedged between residential units; it last sold in 2002 and carries a current assessment of $731,908.
At the intersection of Imperial Beach and Ocean Boulevards, a three-quarter-acre lot has been scraped of everything but a lone duplex and iron-barred fencing. The name of the city block’s 2014 buyer, Imperial Beach Resort LLC of Henderson, Nevada, indicates what’s in store for the $5.5 million parcel.
A tenth-acre plot further south along Seacoast Drive sits just west of the Tijuana Slough. The Coronado-based owners bought it in 2013 for $695,000 and tried unsuccessfully to flip it for nearly double that in 2015, touting the potential to build as many as three units housed in a three-story building. Three dozen or so parcels from the southernmost piece of privately-held land in the county, a lone palm tree and steel ropes bearing signs admonishing against trespass mark the last undeveloped piece of private land before the border.
In 1982, there were 79 pieces of oceanfront property left undeveloped in the county. Thirty-six years later, the number has been more than halved, to 32. Half of those are somewhere in the process of being built out, still more are just waiting for a buyer with pockets deep enough to finance a project.
“You don’t buy oceanfront real estate without your eyes wide open and a healthy rainy-day fund to prepare for the unexpected,” Bender explains. “The high-net-worth clients that are buying these properties... for the majority of them if something happens to their homes it’s just going to inconvenience them. But for properties that were inherited, or purchased many years ago, owners might not have as many resources if they need to make repairs.”
Given the apparent ongoing construction plans and the ever-increasing demand for land that they’re just not making any more of, one would expect the lot count will dwindle even further in the decade to come – if there’s anything left to buy when that time comes, today’s values will no doubt seem like downright steals. “One piece of advice I always give is to take the address you’re looking to buy, say 123 Neptune Avenue, and Google it along with the term ‘coastal commission,’” Bender concludes. “You’ll often find an entire record, going back 15 or 20 years, of citations, fights the owner has had with the Coastal Commission or the city. With the naked eye, you just think oceanfront beauty equals wonderful, valuable, and that’s the end of your thought process. But there’s a much more technical aspect to it that I’ve learned about from going through coastal engineering inspections with my clients.
“It’s a fair statement to say that a lot of people buying these properties aren't aware of the risk."