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San Francisco’s decrepit China Beach to get a long-overdue facelift

The 1950s bathhouse at China Beach will be restored during a two-year project. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

It’s finally time to say goodbye to the rusting hulk of a bathhouse overlooking China Beach. 

A two-year project to rehabilitate the facilities at the gorgeous cove tucked into the tony Sea Cliff neighborhood of San Francisco kicked off Thursday at a ceremony overlooking the beach, Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate Bridge.

The picturesque and popular spot is one of the sites in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The rehabilitation will be led by the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the park’s nonprofit partner.

“I’ve had the biggest smile on my face all morning,” said Claire Mooney, vice president of park places and innovation at the Parks Conservancy and leader of the China Beach project for the past six years. “There have been so many incredible people involved, and it is such a great opportunity for this site."

San Francisco District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan speaks at the China Beach project kickoff on May 4, 2023. | Courtesy Parks Conservancy

A crowd of approximately 60 officials, neighbors and supporters of the park attended the ceremony, including District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan.

“In 1982, Chinese Americans erected this monument that commemorates the Chinese fishermen who have worked in and around the San Francisco Bay,” said Christine Lehnertz, president and CEO of the Parks Conservancy, speaking to the crowd gathered near the top of the stairs down to the cove. “The investment in this site that we celebrate today allows us to write the next chapter for China Beach with visitor amenities to make this a welcoming site for all.”

Claire Mooney and Christine Lehnertz of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy stand with Thomas Odgers and David Smith of the National Park Service at the kickoff ceremony for China Beach's rehabilitation on May 4, 2023. | Courtesy Parks Conservancy

Officials say the project will cost almost $25 million and take two years to complete. A total of $10 million was provided by the conservancy in the form of donations from private parties, many of whom live near China Beach or use it often.

“We talked to 1,000 users of this beach about what they love about this place and what they do here,” said Mooney, who coordinated years of community meetings and outreach to neighbors and stakeholders. Their message? Just clean it up; don’t change it too much.  

Locals enjoy China Beach on a clear day in 2021. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

Visitors who mainly head for China Beach on sunny, warm days will be happy to know the beach will remain open during the rehabilitation project, but parts of the parking area might be closed during the work.

Tom Odgers, project manager for the National Park Service, says the facilities at China Beach haven't been updated since the bathhouse opened in 1954.

In 1954, a new beach house was dedicated at James D. Phelan State Beach, now known as China Beach. | Joe Rosenthal/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Odgers said the first phase will focus on the infrastructure of the beach area, which will include work by the Public Utilities Commission to upgrade sewer facilities at the site. Fixing the crumbling retaining wall that holds up the parking lot is another priority. It will be done with a new technique that enables the wall to be supported in place and updated without tearing it out.

Restoring the aging retaining wall at China Beach will be one of the rehabilitation project's first priorities. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

One particularly challenging part of the site is its steep descent to the sand from the street and parking area. Planners will alleviate the situation by raising the level of the parking lot and creating a visitor plaza on that level. The plaza will offer visitors excellent vistas, seating and interpretive signs without requiring a big hike.

A poster of the China Beach rehabilitation project shared at the kickoff ceremony shows a new visitor plaza at street level. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

The second phase focuses on the fun stuff. The design includes the rehabilitation of the rusted bathhouse and its roof deck. There will be a new picnic terrace and a zhushed-up lower plaza area to take in the views. Oh, and there will be restrooms! And changing rooms! And all-new facilities for the national park's Ocean Rescue team that saves swimmers and boaters from the treacherous waters at the mouth of the bay and at Ocean and Baker beaches.

The sundeck will be rebuilt as part of the second phase of the China Beach rehabilitation project. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard

China Beach is one of the areas of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area that became even more popular during the pandemic, according to David Smith, superindendent of the national park. During the hour ceremony, surfers, swimmers, bikers, hikers, walkers and tourists all came and went from the beach.

Smith was appointed to the post in February after serving in Joshua Tree National Park. After working and studying in the city years ago, Smith enjoys being back in San Francisco and exploring the nation’s first urban national park again.

“It is great to see how the park has grown over the years—and how well it is used,” said Smith. “The pandemic was a catalyst for getting people outside to enjoy nature and the Golden Gate National Parks ring the city with opportunities to safely recreate outside.”

Picnickers head down the path to China Beach on a sunny day in 2021. | Maryann Jones Thompson/The Standard