By Terry Rodgers
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
March 2, 2007
MISSION BEACH – Avid surfer and businessman Tom Lochtefeld wants to make waves in Mission Beach – literally and figuratively.
He recently generated the first ripples by unveiling his outside-the-box ideas for further revitalizing Belmont Park, the 18-acre oceanfront retail and amusement center anchored by an 81-year-old roller coaster, the Giant Dipper.
Since buying the master lease to the city-owned property in 2002, Lochtefeld has spent more than $8 million on everything from fresh paint and roofing to new rides and restaurants. The finishing touch was the $5 million Wave House, a tiki-style outdoor bar and grill featuring the Bruticus Maximus, a 10-foot wave on an elevated stage that surfers ride with special hybrid boards.
The previously dreary commercial center dominated by souvenir shops and raucous nightclubs was transformed into a beach-themed venue that attracted more upscale visitors.
As a result, gross revenue since 2002 has jumped from $9.6 million to $19 million, Lochtefeld said.
But in his mind, the metamorphosis of Belmont Park is less than half-finished.
Under the terms of his city lease, Lochtefeld is required to invest anadditional $9 million in improvements by 2010. He's willing to pump in a lot more, perhaps as much as $60 million.
For Lochtefeld, who grew up in nearby Pacific Beach and made his fortune developing water parks and inventing wave machines, returning Belmont Park to its former glory is a vision quest.
“This is my Moby-Dick,” he said. “I'm chasing a white whale.”
Lochtefeld's conceptual plan for Belmont Park includes more razzle-dazzle than the typical redevelopment project.
He wants to build underground parking, hundreds of new spaces in a community starving for them.
But he doesn't want to waste the sand excavated for the parking structure. Instead, the golden grains would be used to create a surfing reef just offshore.
A wave-making machine called the Flying Reef would be installed on the roof of the parking structure, providing a cutting-edge recreational venue for on-land surfers.
And there's more.
Lochtefeld envisions turning the Plunge, a community swimming pool built in the 1920s, into an indoor-outdoor water park. Finally – the project's financial linchpin – there would be a new 250-to 350-room hotel.
Lochtefeld unveiled his vision before a community meeting last month. Reviews were mixed.
Getting his plan approved won't be easy, even though City Hall is eager to for the property to generate more revenue.
Among the most formidable hurdles is Proposition G, a ballot initiative approved by voters in 1987 that restricts development at the site to “public park and recreation” and “historic preservation” projects.
Commercial uses are allowed only if they serve to preserve the Plunge. The pool has been listed on the city's Register of Historic Resources since 1973.
From Lochtefeld's viewpoint, the Plunge is aptly named because its annual operating deficit approaches $200,000. However, since voters have made it sacrosanct, he has little choice but to design around it.
Lochtefeld, who is also a lawyer, believes the wording of Proposition G allows for different interpretations.
“We may have to go out for another vote,” he said.
Lochtefeld would also like to exceed the 30-foot building height restriction in the city's coastal zone. He'd like to build up to 49 feet, the original height of the building that housed the Plunge. That, too, would require voter approval.
The regulatory gantlet would finally conclude at the state Coastal Commission, which has retained authority over any major changes at Belmont Park.
Gary Glover, a Mission Beach activist and resident since 1985, said he's sour on the proposal because it probably will result in beachgoers' having to pay for parking.
“I've fought to keep free parking down here for more than 10 years,” Glover said. “Going to the beach is one of the last free things a family can do.”
But Susan Thorning, president of the Mission Beach Precise Planning Board, said she admires Lochtefeld's efforts to create something fresh and exciting that's also suitable for the community.
Councilman Kevin Faulconer, whose district includes Belmont Park, said he can't comment on the proposal until he clears up a potential conflict of interest. Faulconer said his wife's firm, Restaurant Events, does business with Wave House.
Beth Murray, who oversees land use and economic development for Mayor Jerry Sanders, said her staff has met with Lochtefeld and outlined the regulatory maze he must traverse.
“We do want this to be successful, but not at all costs,” Murray said. “We want to balance it with the community's desires.”