SM BEACH — “Start your engines” could take on a whole new meaning at the beach this summer.
The Community & Cultural Services Department plans to purchase two new motorized wheelchairs capable of traversing the rolling sands of the Santa Monica Beach, providing greater access to those who normally can’t make it out to the water.
The wheelchairs cost roughly $10,000 each, twice as much as a manually-powered model, but allow the user independence as they cruise to the water’s edge.
City Hall has provided manual beach-ready wheelchairs for years at Perry’s Cafe and Rentals, but the new models, with their big wheels and motors, work better, said Judith Meister, beach manager with City Hall.
“It takes a few people on the soft sand to push them,” Meister said of the non-motorized versions. “We had been researching the availability of motorized ones.”
Meister struck paydirt when she found Hotshot Products, a company that makes wheelchairs and strollers for “all terrain” situations.
The company’s owner, Hank Weseman, incorporates the needs of the disabled into each of his designs. Weseman himself is a quadriplegic, injured in a boat racing accident in the early 1990s.
He can now walk with some assistance, but the beach itself was closed to him until he created what he then called the “Beachcomber,” a wheelchair that has some of the rough-and-ready characteristics of a go-kart but with nice touches like cupholders.
The wheels are very thick, and make crossing the sand a relatively painless experience, said Alan Toy, a Recreation and Parks commissioner and a person who has struggled with the barrier that the beach presents between himself and the ocean.
“They’re great,” Toy said. “They’re light years’ advancement over the previous beach chairs.”
Toy once tried to use one of the manually powered beach wheelchairs, but his wife could not propel him across the sand. It took three young men to push the chair to the water’s edge.
That’s a big deal if you’re trying to watch your son surf without binoculars, Toy said.
“I can get to the end of the wooden boardwalks now, and I might be able to get to the top of the high water mark with the new beach path they’re creating out of recycled tires, but I can’t get to the beach without crawling,” Toy said. “Why should I be crawling on all fours so I can get to the water in a public beach?”
Although City Hall only purchased two of the chairs for this summer, they will continue to buy more as budgets allow, Meister said. She believes that Santa Monica will be the first city in Los Angeles County with the machines.
The two that have already been ordered will arrive in July or August, and will likely be split between Perry’s locations to the north and south of the Santa Monica Pier, although which shops will have a unit hasn’t been decided.
That’s not all
The new chairs are one of a number of projects that are funded and under way to improve access to the beach.
City Hall also plans to extend walkways at the south end of the beach closer to the water using recycled tire material that can be removed if necessary, and break ground on the new universally accessible playground soon.
The playground has play elements for children of all abilities, and will be modeled after a clipper ship.
It faced opposition from residents of the nearby Sea Colony apartment complex, who complained that the playground would attract a criminal element, even speaking out in a public meeting about the biohazard of homeless people having sex in the ships’ hulls.
Work also continues on bathrooms near the beach, with bidding open on at least one project for beach restroom facility replacement until June 13.
City Hall originally set about improving the beach restrooms in response to a 2006 settlement agreement between the California Department of Parks and Recreation and parties in a class action lawsuit that claimed the condition and design of the facilities violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.