Sunday, July 15 , 2018, 2:51 pm | Fair 75º


Local News

Isla Vista Apartment Owner Will Demolish 4 Units After Cliff Collapse

Bluff erosion has caused cut backs to many Del Playa oceanside properties over the years

An aerial view shows the damage from Sunday’s cliff collapse behind the 6600 block of Del Playa in Isla Vista. Click to view larger
An aerial view shows the damage from Sunday’s cliff collapse behind the 6600 block of Del Playa in Isla Vista.  (Art Sylvester photo)

The owner of an Isla Vista apartment building where the cliffs fell into the ocean on Sunday, taking along a chunk of the balcony, had been awaiting an emergency permit this month to remove two apartments — but not the two nearest the collapse, county officials said.

The county notified property owner James Gelb last summer that the edge of the bluff was within about 10 feet of the foundation underlying the east wing of his apartments at 6653 Del Playa, triggering a mandatory engineering solution, said Massoud Abolhoda, the Santa Barbara County building and safety manager.

As of last week, he said, the county was preparing to issue an emergency permit to Gelb for the partial demolition, or “cut back,” of part of the two east wing apartments nearest the bluff edge.

But — surprise! — the collapse on Sunday occurred near the west wing of the building, where the bluff edge was more than 10 feet from the foundation, ​Abolhoda said.

As a result, he said, “We may reconsider our limits and thresholds for when we say we would have to cut back.”

No was one injured during the collapse, but 35 students out of the 56 who were living at 6653 Del Playa were evacuated from the property. 

Gelb said he now plans to demolish two west wing and two east wing apartments facing the ocean at 6653 Del Playa, losing a total of four out of nine apartments in the building. All are three-bedroom apartments with two baths. 

“That property historically has been rather safe,” Gelb said. “Nothing’s happened there in 50 years. I had no clue that this would happen. But when you own properties on a bluff, you’re going to take a chance.”

The cliff collapse also undermined the balcony next door at 6663 Del Playa, where the owner is now required to come up with an engineering solution, Abolhoda said.

In the meantime, he said, on county orders, the owner has erected a chain link fence to block access to the balcony.

Del Playa is one of the most densely-populated streets in Isla Vista, the legacy of an era when setbacks were sacrificed for maximum build-out. In recent decades, at least 30 buildings on Del Playa have been cut back because of cliff erosion.

A cliff collapse took out a chunk of an Isla Vista apartment complex balcony during Sunday’s storm and the property owner plans to demolish four of the building’s units. Click to view larger
A cliff collapse took out a chunk of an Isla Vista apartment complex balcony during Sunday’s storm and the property owner plans to demolish four of the building’s units.  (Melinda Burns photo)

Between 1994 and 2006, Gelb said, he cut back 14 apartment buildings on the bluffs, in several cases converting them to houses.

Gelb is one of the top five property owners in Isla Vista, and he owns 29 rental buildings on Del Playa, all but two of them located on the ocean side of the street.

County inspectors walk the Isla Vista beach and take measurements on the bluffs of Del Playa every summer, and they inspect properties after big storms, Abolhoda said.

Since 2004, when the monitoring program began, he said, the county has ordered cutbacks for 15 buildings on Del Playa.

Spencer Brandt, a second-year student at UCSB and a director on the board of the newly-created Isla Vista Community Services District, said most students are aware that the bluffs on Del Playa “are not the safest place on Earth.”

“But the ocean view is worth it to a lot of folks,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

A county inspection this week has revealed that almost all property owners on the ocean side of Del Playa need to move their bluff-top fences back, Abolhoda said.

The fences must be at least 5 feet from the edge of the cliffs, he said. The required buffer is only 5 feet because the county wants to discourage students from sunbathing outside the fence, Abolhoda said.

The Isla Vista cliffs are composed of a top layer of sand and a bottom layer of highly fractured shale. Waves smashing against the cliffs can easily crack the rock, geologists say. According to property line surveys conducted by the county in 1965 and 1984, the bluffs are retreating at an average rate of 6 inches per year.

The actual bluff retreat rate is between 2 and 14 inches per year, and it varies from one address to the next on Del Playa, the surveys show. But it is episodic, meaning that sections of bluff that have not eroded much for years may collapse all at once, as occurred on Sunday.

Some of the apartments on Del Playa are built on caissons, and these, too, have been exposed by wave action. Below one property, a broken-off caisson stands alone in front of the bluff face, holding up nothing but air.

Based on the surveys, the Isla Vista bluffs could be expected to retreat an average 25 feet during the next 50 years, taking out some valuable Del Playa real estate, said Art Sylvester, a UCSB professor emeritus of geology.

But that’s a very conservative estimate, he said, because it is based on snapshots taken decades ago and doesn’t include the effects of sea level rise.

“What are the homeowners’ options?” Sylvester asked. “It’s a really bad problem out there. They can cut back their buildings. They can also pick the whole darn building up and move it closer to Del Playa. But all they’re doing is just buying time.”

There was once a sandy beach at Isla Vista, Sylvester said, but it gradually disappeared in the decades following the construction of the Bradbury Dam at Lake Cachuma in 1953.

Now the waves attack the bluffs directly, especially during big storms and high tides. The sand that once replenished beaches along the coast below the mouth of the Santa Ynez River at Surf is now silting up Lake Cachuma, Sylvester said.

Just down the coast at Campus Beach, Sylvester has taken yearly measurements of bluff retreat since 2000. It averages 5 inches, he said, meaning that in about 35 years, it could undermine Lagoon Road, a major UCSB thoroughfare.

The demolition of four apartments at 6653 Del Playa is expected to begin this summer. In the meantime, seven of the evacuated students have moved into Tropicana Gardens, a residence hall on El Colegio Road owned by the University of California Regents, and seven more of the evacuees are likely to sign leases, said David Wilcox, the executive director of the management company, Tropicana Student Living.

All 35 of the evacuated students have been offered lodging at Tropicana Gardens for the rest of the school year, Wilcox said.

Those who accept would pay the same rent as on Del Playa, and they would receive a free meal plan worth about $2,500, he said, adding, “We want to come together as a community when a tough situation like this happens.”

Noozhawk contributing writer Melinda Burns can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through Stripe below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Enter your email
Select your membership level

Payment Information

You are purchasing:

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >