It’s endgame for chess enthusiasts at longtime player haunt Chess Park. After five years of unsavory behavior and issues around homelessness, Recreation and Parks Commissioners have voted to remove all benches and tables and temporarily close the park.
Problems have been brewing at the park for years. Between the waning popularity of chess and spiking rates of homelessness, the area has become a den for drug sales, violent incidents, mental health crises and sexual activities.
“They’ve already had stabbings, they’ve already had serious injuries, there is active prostitution going on right now,” said Commission Vice Chair Maryanne LaGuardia. “I think the best first step is to close it. I say that with great reluctance, but I don’t know what else we can do.”
According to Chair Lori Brown, Chess Park has been a longstanding subject of discussion at the Recreation and Parks Commission. Brown said commissioners have requested more police patrols, increased engagement from the Homeless Liaison Program and the installation of a blue light emergency call box. None of these changes materialized in an impactful manner.
The .29 acre park is located at Ocean Front Walk at Seaside Terrace, directly behind Santa Monica’s Original Muscle Beach. It includes 14 large tables with four chess boards per table, 10 small tables with one chess board per table and a large chess board with large chess pieces set on the ground. It is open sunrise to sunset with the tables available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
These tables are frequently occupied by unhoused individuals and covered in their belongings, leading to low rates of chess play.
“I am calling in because well frankly Chess Park isn’t safe anymore. It used to be one of my favorite places to go, but the last time I did try to go there someone threatened me with physical harm, threatened to kill me,” said 13-year-old resident Lucky Bisary during the Oct. 21 Commission meeting.
Residents in the two adjacent apartment buildings have also been negatively impacted by the deteriorating conditions in the park. According to Brown, The Purser Apartment building has been broken into numerous times in recent months.
“I’ve been here for 30 years with this balcony, 25 of them were heaven, the last five have been pure hell,” said Tom Lackey, a Purser resident whose unit directly faces the park. “It’s gross; It’s filled with drugs, prostitution, danger, mentally ill everywhere everyday.”
Upon reviewing residents’ complaints and video evidence of the park conditions, commissioners voted unanimously to take action. They recommended removing all of the benches and tables and temporarily closing the park with a fence.
The park is earmarked to be activated for a new use. Commissioners discussed several potential ideas such as the addition of more Muscle Beach sports equipment or the installation of new sports courts. There is a strong desire to transform the park in advance of the 2028 Olympics, when the Beach Volleyball games will be played on the nearby sand.
The new use of the park will be decided at a later time in a process involving public input. Their recommendations will be passed on to City Councilmembers for final approval at an upcoming Council meeting.