The redevelopment challenges were made worse by the intermittent closure of the iconic Plunge pool because of repair needs and the ultimate court-appointed receivership of the park by East West Bank after Lochtefeld filed for bankruptcy in 2011.
The tenuous future of San Diego’s beloved seven-acre park — which features an athletic club, amusement rides, retail shops, restaurants and nightlife in the heart of Mission Beach — now rests in the hands of Rancho Santa Fe-based real-estate investment firm Pacifica Enterprises and Pacific Beach-based hospitality management company Eat.Drink.Sleep (EDS), which partnered to purchase the 26-year leasehold of the amusement park for an undisclosed amount.
The ultimate vision, according to developers, is to restore the park to its glory days by making it attractive to tourists and locals alike.
“Our goal is to put it back on the map, not only for people who are coming in from out of town, but as a great place for entertainment both for kids and adults on-premise right here on the water,” said Steve Smith, vice president of operations at EDS. “We will blend a mix of what it was before, in terms of its stately elegance, but it will still be fun, with the whole amusement park aspect of it. It’s going to be a more modern interpretation of what it was in the past.”
Although the overall building structure will not look drastically different, the entire property — from its hardscapes, landscapes, building themes, colors and lighting — will all get a much-needed makeover, said Smith.
“As the property has been developing over the last 10 to 15 years, it was done somewhat haphazardly in terms of how they extended the park, the wave operations, some of the retail and things like that,” he said. “If you were going to rebuild that from the ground up, you would do it with a very different layout than it currently is.”
Changes will focus on addressing concerns like pedestrian and patron flow within the park, revitalizing broken or dated elements of the park — including an estimated $1.2 million in structural repairs to the Plunge — and increasing the relevancy of the park’s businesses for locals during non-peak seasons.
“The future of Belmont Park retailers is going to be the right mix of entertainment and retail for not only the spring and summertime tourist- or beach-oriented businesses, but also the fall and winter business, which, right now, that park doesn’t really speak to,” Smith said. “We really want to make it a place where — when Labor Day passes — locals can breathe a sigh of relief because the parking lots are not as crowded and they can go back to some of their favorite stores.”
Smith said EDS and majority investor Pacifica Enterprises will focus on reprogramming some of the now-vacant or underutilized tenant spaces into viable businesses year round.
“The property, especially lately, has been underutilized,” Smith said. “There are a number of locations that are closed inside of there. They’re not 100 percent occupied in terms of tenancy, so there’s a lot of upside to doing things right.
“The total rentable space in the park is about 100,000 square feet, and the previous owners had 16,000 square feet tied up in what I’d call office space — a good chunk was not really being utilized properly for retail,” he said.
Smith said the remodel will open up as much as 20 to 25 percent more for retail space. He said much of the square footage now is dedicated to beach-oriented summer stores. What is missing, he said, are retailers that draw the local crowds throughout the year.
“We looked at things like putting in a small specialty market where locals have something to go to,” he said. “A Postal Annex, a small dry-cleaning dropoff service, a locally owned or operated coffee shop — those types of things would be relevant to people year round.”
Smith said the developers aim to resurrect Belmont Park into the vibrant icon it once was.
“The goal is to create a property in the tradition of Belmont Park that is a constant recommendation by locals here,” he said. “You would be hard-pressed to find seven acres on the water in San Diego that has more upside than Belmont Park.”
EDS and Pacifica Enterprises are finalizing conceptual plans with architects, interior designers and structural engineers for improvements to various aspects of the park.
Immediate work would include initiating structural repairs to the Plunge building, renovating existing common areas, transforming landscaping and general maintenance of the park and updating and rebranding the space previously occupied by Sound Wave, including the athletic club and bar-and-grill concepts.
Investors hope to unveil some of the long-term plans for the park in the new year and break ground on the first phase of construction as early as February.
HISTORY OF BELMONT PARK
• 1925 — The Giant Dipper roller coaster and the Natatorium swimming pool, later renamed the Plunge, opened as key attractions for the Mission Beach Amusement Center, later re-named Belmont Park.
• 1934 — Upon his death in 1926, developer and philanthropist John D. Spreckels, by way of the Mission Beach Company, deeded the property to the state of California.
• 1939 — The state granted the property to the city for park purposes.
• 1940 — Salt water damaged the Plunge’s filter system. As a result, the world’s largest saltwater pool was turned into Southern California’s largest heated, heated freshwater pool.
• 1976 — The Giant Dipper coaster and park fell into disrepair and were closed.
• 1987 — The Plunge closed because of failed adherence to city earthquake and fire standards. After major renovations, the park reopened in summer 1988 with a new look.
• 1990 — The Giant Dipper was restored to operating conditions and reopened to the public.
• 2000 — Businessman Tom Lochtefeld took over operations at the property with a new vision to attract revenue to the struggling site.
• 2005 — Wave House opened, complete with FlowBarrel and FlowRider simulated surfing attractions (2010). Despite increasing the venue’s annual revenue, Wave House Belmont Park LLC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy because of the termination of the city’s lease subsidies, which increased rent from $70,000 to more than $500,000.
• 2011 — East West Bank became the property’s new leaseholder. The Plunge was shuttered for 10 months and reopened again in March 2012.
• 2012 — Pacifica Enterprises and Eat.Drink.-Sleep acquired the 26-year leasehold for an undisclosed amount in a trustee sale.
— Information compiled from www.belmont-park.com, www.wavehousesandiego.com, City Attorney John W. Witt’s report to the mayor and City Council dated June 18, 1986, and previous staff reports.