Park: After years of complaints about vagrancy, Chess Park will lose its tables and chairs. Emily Sawicki

The park will become ‘flexible, nonprogrammed beach front open space’ due to budget constraints.

Four months after announcing plans to close Chess Park following years of health and safety complaints, the City of Santa Monica announced on Thursday that it would begin removing benches and tables from the park on next Monday, Feb. 28.

In an information item posted to the City’s website, city staff wrote the park would not be closed, but would instead “become flexible, nonprogrammed beach front open space which could be activated by diverse users.”

Work to create the “uniform, flat surface” at the park was estimated to cost the City $6,500.

The plan was developed during an October 2021 Recreation and Parks Commission meeting, when commissioners voted to recommend closing the park following years of public drug sales, violent incidents, disruptive mental health crises and sexual activities reported there.

The .29-acre park, located just south of the Santa Monica Pier at Ocean Front Walk at Seaside Terrace, includes 14 large tables, each with four chess boards — though several have been removed — and 10 small tables with one chess board per table. In addition, there is a large chess board set into the ground (though the accompanying oversized chess pieces have spent their days locked in a chain link cage since 2016).

“They’ve already had stabbings, they’ve already had serious injuries, there is active prostitution going on right now,” Commission Vice Chair Maryanne LaGuardia said at the time of the October meeting. “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.”

The City’s Feb. 17 information item stated that, although general opinion was that the park had been rendered unusable due to criminal activity, there was no formal data collected on how often it was utilized for its intended purpose.

“A formal study of the park’s use has not been conducted; however, staff have anecdotally observed a handful of individuals regularly playing chess, but rarely observe multiple chess boards in use,” the report said. Elsewhere in the item, staff acknowledged consistent public safety calls for service due to activities witnessed at Chess Park.

“SMPD call log shows that concerns about Chess Park have been consistently raised and documented,” staff wrote. “Reports include incidents of both antisocial and criminal behavior. When criminal behavior is reported or witnessed, enforcement activity follows, including arrests.”

On Thursday afternoon, the same day the City released the information item announcing the removal of the park’s tables, benches and chess boards, two men sat playing chess at the park, a few tables over from someone who appeared to be unhoused, who was lying on a long bench.

One of the chess players, who said he was a local, described his experience playing at Chess Park as “hit or miss,” and didn’t seem surprised when he was told the tables would soon be removed. He said that although he didn’t come to the park often, he enjoyed having a place to play chess while enjoying the view.

Rather than close off the park, the City has opted instead to remove the tables and chairs in the hope of making it less welcoming to unhoused people or criminal activity.

The information document pointed out that, because Chess Park is located near the beach within California’s Coastal Zone, it falls under the jurisdiction of the California Coastal Commission. Staff believe a closure of the park — even a partial closure — would require a Coastal Development Permit, or CDP, from the Commission.

“Issuance of a CDP would require that the City provide evidence of public safety issues or other issues necessitating the closure,” staff wrote in the information item. “Alternatively, if data demonstrates that Chess Park is a public nuisance at all times of the day, it could be temporarily closed without a CDP (by being declared a public nuisance) but this would still require consultation with Coastal Commission staff particularly in understanding the basis for closure and whether the closure is temporary or permanent.”

So rather than closing off the park, the City is embarking on furniture removal as a “first step,” before beginning the task of reimagining what to do with the open space.

How long will the park be a “uniform, flat surface,” is anyone’s guess, according to the information item, since the City does not have funding to focus on revitalizing the 20-year-old park.

“General Fund resources remain extremely limited, and the park system has many urgent needs including partially closed playgrounds, unusable basketball courts, and parking lots in very poor condition,” the information item stated. “As a result, prioritizing a capital project at Chess Park could jeopardize other necessary infrastructure projects. To date, Council has not directed staff to prioritize Chess Park over other park projects. Once the park’s new purpose is identified, staff can better assess costs, possible funding models, and the level of impact to other park projects.”

For now, city staff will monitor the park to determine whether the removal of the chess boards, benches and tables has any effect on the safety or usability of the public space.