In February 2019, a tourist from Seattle wrote on the Trip Advisor website after visiting Point Dume Nature Preserve and Beach: “Beautiful, but watch out for the ‘death stairs’: The stairs that lead down to the beach are dangerous and scary!! Many missing or loose planks, so be careful as you go down.”
The 1970s-era stairway leading the way down the 100-foot tall cliffs was removed last year, but the replacement stairway has not yet been built.
Visitors and residents continue to use the path where the old stairway once stood to get to the beach, and it’s a very dangerous path with a steep descent on loose sand and gravel, studded with old metal poles, pieces of concrete, boards, and torn fencing.
The path is dangerous to the point that some constituents are complaining to their elected officials about it. A couple of weeks ago, State Senator Henry Stern and Malibu City Councilmember Mikke Pierson personally went to look at it, guided by State Parks Supt. Jerry West. Both Pierson and council member Karen Farrer brought up the issue at the Feb. 14 City Council meeting.
California State Parks, which has jurisdiction over the stairs, as well as the Nature Preserve at the top of the stairs and the beach at the bottom of the stairs, has been trying to fix the problem since about 2015.
Located near the intersection of Cliffside Drive and Birdview Avenue, the park project was approved at the state level at an initial cost of approximately $2.9 million, but now, seven years later, costs are estimated to be closer to $3.3 million. The project was approved by Malibu.
After some initial delays due to the Woolsey Fire, the pandemic, and a Point Dume neighborhood opposition group, the project began construction in 2020 and 2021. The old stairway was removed, and a path was laid for the new stairway in a slightly downcoast location.
However, there have been ongoing delays caused by material shortages, West said in a phone interview, referring to supply chain issues resulting from the pandemic.
“There have been some specific materials that became unavailable, and then the contractors had to change the design in order to use different materials, and then get the new designs approved,” he said.
At the current time, West said the contractors are still waiting on some small components that go on the handrails. In addition, the site of the new stairway was significantly eroded during the torrential rains in December and required remedial work. If all goes well, he hopes construction on the new stairs can start next month.
West addressed the safety issues of people still using the old stair site to get to the beach.
“We regularly put up signs to close off areas, and people regularly move them, vandalize them, or toss them off the cliff,” he said. “Some people have respect for the parks, and some don’t care — they bring their dogs, ride their mountain bikes, etc. — which aren’t allowed.”
And, he said, the way it works with contractors is that they “own and control” the site during the project. If State Parks goes into the construction zone and changes anything, they could be held liable; therefore, some of what’s happening is in the hands of the contractor. In addition, State Parks doesn’t want to prevent public beach access.
According to CEQA documents filed in December 2016, the Point Dume Staircase Replacement Project includes replacing the old steel staircase, which will be rebuilt slightly downcoast to address issues of bluff erosion and vegetation trampling caused by off-trail visitors. The project also includes redoing access trails, creating a haul path along the beach, and replanting impacted areas with native plants.
The old stairway was described as “Deteriorated and functionally substandard … and in serious disrepair, creating hazardous conditions for visitors … Staircase treads, stringers, and rails are badly corroded from long-term exposure to the harsh coastal environment … A network of unsanctioned trails is negatively affecting the [natural areas] the Preserve was established to protect, and contribute to bluff erosion and depletion of giant coreopsis (a native wildflower).”
State Parks pointed out that the old staircase angle and tread didn’t meet current building standards, making it impossible to reconstruct the same as before. The new stairway will be re-sited with a different configuration, taking sea-level rise and other factors into account, avoiding unnecessary cuts to the bluff face, and using materials that can withstand a marine environment.
“Because of the fragile coastal bluffs, most work will be performed from crane delivered platforms extended over the bluff edge,” the report continued. “The new staircase alignment is 240 feet in length with up to 10 landings.”