Contemplating the prospect that Avila Beach could or should aspire to something greater borders on a fool’s errand for all kinds of reasons.
Yet that is the spot we find ourselves in now, these dozen or so years since much of Front Street was razed to scoop out all the oil and tainted sand.
In the wake of the Unocal cleanup, Avila has come back stronger and better than ever — no longer funky but eminently more visitable with features and resources that never would have been realized otherwise.
Still, many businesspeople there seem unsatisfied and wring their hands over the difficulties they have making a living year-round, saying, in effect, that aside from the beach, there’s no “there” there.
That is as it is and probably should be. Here’s why:
Space limitations: Avila is probably too small a town to accommodate any kind of transcending tourist draw, the kind that would turn the area into something more than a three-month destination and, as local businessman Michael Kidd put it, give people a reason to visit on a Tuesday in January.
The fact is, the “Tuesday in January” crowd would only come for something utterly unique and dramatic.
Think Hearst Castle or the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the kind of indoor-outdoor, one-of-a-kind experience that would compel people to plan vacations around it. Or at least think elite hotel and conference center, to possibly lure business crowds in the off-season.
The downside of such an attraction is that whatever crowds it might draw in the winter you could multiply by 10 in the summer, a prospect that is impossible with Avila’s limited physical space, lodging and amenities.
Probably with Avila, we’d be better off just hoping to draw in the “Saturday in January” crowd. Forget Tuesdays.
Access and traffic: There are only so many cars little two-lane Avila Beach Road can handle, only so many parking spots in this diminutive town.
As it is on warm summer weekends now, you might find yourself hoofing it to the beach from several blocks away, Boogie Boards, beach bags and coolers in tow.
In addition, by the very nature of its removed location, Avila already asks visitors for a certain level of commitment, meaning there are a particular number who just won’t want to travel that far off Highway 101 unless the side trip is truly compelling.
Even if they did have a reason to come, would it create unbearable traffic and clogged, unpassable streets?
Available land: Say we could somehow solve the traffic and parking issue, maybe add a few hotels and whatnot. If we could create the infrastructure to support a major tourist draw, where would it go?
There just isn’t much available, with the exception of one notable spot: Fossil Point, the expansive and stunning blufftop property that was formerly home to Unocal’s tank farm.
This is a knock-’em-dead location, to be sure, with all kinds of marketable potential.
Its perch atop the hill overlooking the curve of the bay and its seaside panorama is unlike anywhere else on our county’s coast, looking out over steep cliffs at a south-facing beach with a pretty harbor, sailboats and hills in the distance.
It is not hard to imagine what a luxury hotel might look like on this property.
It’s not even that hard to imagine what a Chumash cultural center might look like.
Or even an amphitheater carved into the hillside. Imagine all those musical events moving from the grass at the Avila Beach Golf Resort to the hill above town with its sunset views?
All would be interesting options that could add a level of desirability above what’s in Avila now without reaching theme park levels.
The problem is, I see very little chance for anything overly ambitious happening on this property because the way the discussions are going now, there are simply too many cooks in the kitchen and one of them is the Emeril Lagasse of California planning: the Coastal Commission.
The only difference is, when Coastal Commmissioners say “Bam!” it’s usually in the form of a hammer to the head of any private property owner hoping to do something productive with his land.
You want to sell the plot to Marriott to build a five-star hotel? Bam! Not on our coastline, you won’t!
Not that I’m against the Coastal Commission. It’s a hugely valuable agency that has protected our shoreline from commercial abuses, but it also presents a huge hurdle for legitimate landowners looking to develop their property in a reasonable way.
Would the Ritz-Carlton at Fossil Point be a legitimate use? Maybe, maybe not.
I think it’s worth discussing, but I bet the chatter won’t even get close to that idea with surveys showing open space leading the way as the No. 1 public desire for the land.
The problem, of course, is open space won’t bring in the “Tuesday in January” tourist dollars.
And who will step forward to pay current owner Chevron for non-revenue-generating open space?
In the real world, I don’t see anything productive happening to that property for years — maybe decades — into the future, if ever.
Which leaves us back not entirely where we started, with pretty little Avila Beach, better than it ever was but maybe not as good as it ever could be.
What do you think? Share your thoughts here.
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