The long-awaited upgrades include new play areas, a perched beach and what would be the first splash pad at any park along the San Diego Bay
NATIONAL CITY —
Pepper Park, National City’s only recreational link to the San Diego Bay, is one step closer to getting the facelift hundreds of residents have spent years advocating for.
On Tuesday, the Board of Port Commissioners approved a coastal development permit that will allow them to hire a construction contractor to transform a portion of the 5-acre park into a more desirable waterfront destination.
“We have been working so hard to get to this day,” Port Vice Chair Sandy Naranjo, National City’s appointee on the board, said in a statement. “Pepper Park is where National City residents and visitors go to enjoy San Diego Bay and this project will enhance the park and give us even more to see, do, and experience.”
The park is located on Tidelands Avenue, next to Pier 32 Marina in the city’s southwest corner. It currently offers a playground, boat launch ramp, small fishing pier, floating boat dock, restrooms, a few picnic tables and an aquatic center.
The project centers on a two-acre area on the park’s west side. Two pirate-themed play structures will replace an existing playground, and the surrounding area will have rubber surfacing instead of the current sand and rubber mixture. A 1,160 square-foot splash pad will be installed nearby, the first in any park along the San Diego Bay, according to the port.
Plans also include a 1,450-square-foot perched beach with umbrellas and lawn chairs along the southern edge of the park. A retaining wall will keep sand from blowing into the Sweetwater Channel, according to the permit.
The park is also getting two more picnic areas, an entry plaza, new landscaping and a 760-square-foot terrace with seating that will give visitors an elevated view of the channel and bay. A hillside playground with climbers and a slide is also planned.
The new features will give residents the type of recreation options they’ve spent about a decade asking for. Vice Mayor Luz Molina, whose District 1 includes Pepper Park, said National City has had “unequal use of our port lands for so long.”
“When my kids were younger, for example, we would go to parks with splash pads in nearby cities,” she said. “I am so excited that families in National City won’t have to go outside of our city to cool off, and our children will be able to create beautiful memories of their hometown for generations to come.”
The Port of San Diego is a special district that is a landowner, regulator and law enforcement agency. It controls 3,500 acres of water along the bay and 2,400 acres of land in Chula Vista, Coronado, Imperial Beach, National City and San Diego.
National City’s bayfront, consisting of 273 acres of land and 167 acres of water, is among them. Along with Pepper Park, the area is also home to Pier 32 Marina and the Marine Terminal, which serves as the nation’s main entryway for importing cars.
The bayfront has long served as an economic driver for the port. For years, however, National City has pushed for the port to make amends for decades of environmental injustices caused by its polluting industrial operations. Residents have long spearheaded efforts to transform Pepper Park into a more appealing and cleaner green space.
Between May 2021 and June 2022, the port heard from hundreds of residents who enthusiastically shared their ideas about the changes they wanted to see. One thing was clear: the community wished for plentiful green open space.
“Parks are the lungs for communities providing a breath of fresh air away from the bustling urban environment,” said Naranjo while recognizing years of community advocacy.
The agency is funding the $6.1 million project with $3.85 million in federal stimulus dollars, $2 million from its Balanced Capital Program and a $250,000 contribution from Austal USA, which operates a ship repair facility on the bayfront.
Port officials said the district plans to award a construction contract in January and start work in March. The project is expected to be completed in May 2025.
A larger effort, dubbed the National City Balanced Plan, aims to rework the city’s bayfront. Under this plan, Pepper Park would grow by an additional 2.5 acres to accommodate a nature play area and more lawn and picnic spaces.
Late last year, port commissioners approved the long-awaited project, which also calls for building the city’s segment of the Bayshore bikeway along Marina Way and McKinley Avenue, reworking streets to better separate industrial work from park goers, and bringing hotels and a thriving commercial zone.
The plan still needs approval from the California Coastal Commission before the port and city can implement it.