Renovations give local’s beach a swanky new boardwalk and some curb appeal.
The nearly $2 million dollar renovation project at Hendry’s Beach Park is transforming the traditionally grubby, local’s beach into a well-appointed tourist destination. The planned improvements, funded by federal, county, municipal, and private dollars, have resulted in new public restrooms, a raised boardwalk, and expanded parking, “with more upgrades to come,” county officials say.
First funded in 2004 and delayed several times, the beach park renovations have been over twelve years in the making. But with the new state-of-the-art and eco-friendly facilities now operable and finished with the artisan flare for which Santa Barbara has become known, beach-goers seem pleased.
“Santa Barbara does things right,” remarked Karen Neilson, a native of Santa Barbara, who often walks the sand at Hendry’s to watch the sunrise. “They do everything beautiful here!” She beams, pointing out a series of six inch metal starfish embellishing a cement barrier near the new women’s restroom, “Gorgeous down to the detail!”
“The upgrades are big change,” surfer and local resident Matt Barnett said about the beach park’s new look. “When I was kid, in the sixties,” he recalls, “this was kind-of the dive beach. It was a secluded ‘locals only’ beach where surf bums would lay in the sun and drink beer. And where teenagers could kill a lazy Saturday and smoke cigarettes without getting caught by their parents. It was dirty. It was ugly! Not the place to bring [out-of-town] visitors. Hence, it’s nickname: ‘The Pit‘.”
These days, “The Pit“- whose official title is Arroyo Burro Beach Park, is most commonly referred to as ‘Hendry’s Beach’. It hosts more than 1.4 million visitors per year. With the recent improvements, Santa Barbara County officials project that number will increase. “It’s crazy to see this place; it’s a full-yuppie upperclass hangout, now!” proclaims Barnett.
Despite an infusion of “upper-class” at “The Pit,” on most mid-mornings you can still find a group of sixty-something men, “old-timers,” lying in the sun and drinking beer on the sand, as they have been for nearly forty years. These guys laugh with satisfaction at being called ‘leftover from the Sixties’ and say that they are unimpressed by recent changes. “Doesn’t change anything for us,” one of them said, sitting near a large rock, that has been affectionately tagged with the beach’s moniker.
The Boathouse Restaurant, with its blue and white cabana-striped umbrellas and unobstructed view of an ocean, sits nestled against the bluffs which connect Hendry’s Beach to Hope Ranch Beach. Opened in 2005, and formerly home to a less successful “The Brown Pelican,” this always-bustling eatery is the latest incarnation of another tradition left over from the sixties at “The Pitt”: Food. According to Barnett and other locals, a greasy ‘walk-up only’ snack shack once stood on the same spot as The Boathouse. It is remembered for being the first place in Santa Barbara to serve a certain kind of “greasy and dripping tortilla strips,” which were all the rage with kids and surfers.” You would never eat them now,“ Barnett laughed, “but back then, after a hard surf, they were delicious!” The snack shack also served sodas in a bottle and hamburgers for 25 cents.
Still beloved by dog-lovers for being the only “off-leash” public beach in Santa Barbara, ‘The Pit’ has always been pet-friendly. “This beach has always been fun for dogs and for their people,” said Terri Harper who regularly walks her dachshunds here. Harper feels that the recent upgrades have “fostered and preserved” the beach as great place for pet-lovers. She cites the recently installed water-bowl style drinking faucets and other new pet amenities, along with new ‘pet-welcoming’ signage throughout the park as pleasing examples. “There is still an entire side of the beach where dogs can just run freely and be dogs. It’s great!”
Also a favorite feature of the beach park for pet owners is the on-site Dog Wash. It has been freshly painted and re-landscaped as part of reconstruction plan. Installed by a private vendor in 2008, the pay-per-use wash facility was reopened by the Santa Barbara Parks Department in 2014, and is widely used.
One unusual feature of the beach park is a bright blue, 1950’s-style house which now sits in even greater contrast to the surrounding landscape and the modern new facilities. Once a live-in ranger station – and home to “a very grumpy full-time ranger” named George, whose disposition was, reportedly, not conducive to good public relations – the colorful former-residence currently has multiple roles. It serves as working headquarters and storage for the Park Rangers, an equipment base for summer life-guarding staff, and as the home to Santa Barbara’s the South Coast Watershed Resource Center.
Operated since 2009 by Explore Ecology under conditional use agreements with the County, the WRC is a community access site for various environmental education, conservation, and seasonal youth activism programs. It is also open to the public and available as a venue for conservation-based community programs and events.The center’s website claims that the building is a model for environmentally friendly building materials and practices. Remodeled by Explore Ecology (formerly Art From Scrap), whose conservation efforts are well respected in Santa Barbara, this would seem consistent with their mission. But, Barnett says that this structure has “always been there…always been the same, and always been bright blue.”
According to Santa Barbara County Supervisor Janet Wolf, changes are coming. A new Ranger Station will be built on site and is “next” on the construction list, she said at ribbon cutting ceremony for the new boardwalk in April.
Beach park visitors, though generally pleased with the upgrades, have some concern the nuisance of more construction. “Beginning last Fall, it was pretty frustrating,” one restaurant-goer remarked, parking his car and headed for a Boathouse breakfast. “We’ve had enough of the parking problems, for sure!”
Others think the parking problems at the beach will continue with or without construction, due to the growing popularity of the beach. “It was surprising” on man said, “that even with construction finished, finding a parking spot at low tide or sunset still isn’t easy. But, it just is what it is.”
Also surprising to some, like long-time neighbor of the beach park, Scott Evers, is that the beach park improvement plan did not include a “straight through” bicycle lane or any better bike accessibility for the area. “As they have designed it,” Evers comments, “bicyclists have to go up onto the sidewalk and then back down into the bike lane to continue up the hill on cliff drive. Not very bicycle friendly.”
Neither The City of Santa Barbara’s controversial Bicycle Master Plan (BMP), which received over 7 million dollars in state funding, nor any of the other, separately funded, local bicycle infrastructure projects, have included plans for an uninterrupted bike law or bike-friendly improvements at “The Pit” and adjacent areas.