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As Pacifica's Cliffside Residents Lose Their Homes, S.F. Plans to Surrender Parts of Ocean Beach to the Sea

Ocean Beach is disappearing—just not as photogenically as our Peninsula neighbor.

One section of embankment on Great Highway has deteriorated so much that the city will bring in sandbags to protect the road—for now.


Ever since that drone footage captured the bluffs below a row of Pacifica apartments falling into the sea, the many guardrails and steep hillside drops closer to home have begun to seem less, well, solid than usual. After a third apartment building was declared uninhabitable last month, it became hard not to wonder: Are there parts of San Francisco that are at risk of breaking off and falling into the ocean? 

In a word, yes. It’s just that we’re losing ground at a pace so slow that any drone hobbyist has long since given up. If you’ve been to Ocean Beach lately, you know that Great Highway south of Sloat has all but disappeared. The old guardrail between the road and the cliffside is now teetering on the last few inches of the bluff. By the looks of it, it won’t be there much longer. The parking lots are cracked and being undermined daily by erosion. And the beach: What beach? You can hardly stroll along the coastline safely because, well, there isn’t much to walk on.

All this is a slow-motion, less-headline-grabby version of what’s happening in Pacifica. It’s not nearly as dramatic, says Benjamin Grant, urban design program manager at the urban-policy think tank SPUR. But, he explains, the erosion that has been taking place at Ocean Beach is “by far the most severe” in the city. (Fear not, residents of Sea Cliff: You’re sitting on bluffs primarily made of serpentine—sterner stuff than what's beneath the cliffside dwellers of Pacifica.) At Ocean Beach, says Grant, “We’re lucky that we don’t have apartment buildings on top of cliffs like in Pacifica.” Waterfront NIMBYs, here’s your moment to feel superior.

If none of this rings a bell, it may be because the erosion at Ocean Beach nearly slowed to a halt during the drought, when we were busy taking sides in the nut wars and droughtshaming celebrity water hogs. “The drought has given us a break,” says Grant. “When we get a stormy year, all of these issues come back. All of these conditions get more severe and happen more frequently.” Thanks, El Niño.  

In 2010, San Francisco’s last El Niño season, the bluffs at Ocean Beach receded 40 feet, according to Grant. He says that it’s impossible to predict how much the coast will recede this year—it all depends on the intensity of the storms. 

But, unlike the unlucky renters of Pacifica, we did see this coming. In 2012, SPUR released its Ocean Beach Master Plan, a multiyear effort to mitigate the effects of erosion and climate-related sea-level rise. Sand from the north end of Ocean Beach is being brought in to replenish the eroded sections. 

With the near certainty of even more storms before the rainy season is over, one heavily eaten-away section of Great Highway’s embankment is particularly vulnerable to further land loss. For now, the city will protect the road by placing sandbags in a hollowed-out notch that is developing by Oceanside Wastewater Treatment Plant. But by 2020, the stretch of Great Highway between the San Francisco Zoo and Lake Merced will be impassable, and traffic will be rerouted away from the water, behind the zoo. The city is also giving up on the parking lots between Sloat and Skyline and will no longer protect them from erosion—our latest concession to the encroachment of the sea.

“Right now we are facing our first El Nino season with the master plan,” says Grant. “It’s being put to the test.” 


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