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Oceanside Surfs the Boom

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The scrolling numbers on John Benfield’s computer screen go on and on. House after house after house: SOLD. After 20 years in Oceanside real estate, Benfield knows a boom when it happens. And it’s happening. In spades.

The numbers: 1,622 single-family homes between January and mid-October in Oceanside. Average price: $234,874, up 12 percent from a year ago. Average time on the market: 37 days. Three years ago, sales were a quarter of what they are now, and houses stayed on the market about six months—at average prices way under $200,000.

The Century 21 office where Benfield works looks out over Mission Avenue and Pacific Highway, in the heart of old Oceanside. Even though the view is the same as it’s been for decades, Benfield is optimistic the promises will be met for a new, grand panorama. “If you can see past that tweaker [drug addict] coughing up a syringe, you can see the ocean and it’s great,” he says. “Seriously, they [the city] have stuff going up here that’s big-time. I would say there is no street, no intersection, no alleyway that hasn’t shown signs of real improvement.”

Benfield’s comments reflect the sort of defensive reflex you notice when the locals talk about their town, now the third largest in San Diego County. It’s an attitude that says, “Yeah, we’ve had a bad rap, some of it deserved, for years. But that is O-V-E-R.” Oceanside is practically using fire hoses to wash off its muddy image, which got so bad Camp Pendleton troops were being warned by Marine Corps brass to steer clear.

There is, of course, the much-discussed $120 million resort developer Doug Manchester has been planning along some of Oceanside’s scruffy but prime real estate on the bluffs overlooking Oceanside Pier—land that’s been vacant for 20 years. Some saw Manchester’s proposal as a land grab of beach-side public property. His revised plan for a downsized 450-room hotel gets some opponents off his back. The compromise in the redevelopment plan—forged because the Coastal Commission staff had made loud noises about turning Manchester down—also puts construction of 150 nearby condominiums into the hands of local developer Jim Watkins.

Manchester Resorts senior vice president Pete Litrenta says his boss is anxious to build something much different than the convention-oriented hotels he’s built along San Diego Bay. He says Manchester plans to be intimately involved in building a five-star resort to take advantage of Oceanside’s beaches and new transit center, already open where the old train station used to be.

But the battle is not over. Opponents say Manchester’s revisions aren’t enough. “Everyone here wants a hotel east of Pacific Street, which means east of Pacific, not on it,” says Shari Mackin of Citizens for the Preservation of Parks and Beaches, complaining about a proposed street closure. More legal battles are ahead for this one.

Mackin says Oceanside’s economic boom can continue with or without Manchester. The city, she says, has “seemed to find a balance for families and tourism and the military. We welcome with open arms development that’s going to be good for the city and for the people who live here.”

She cites the new restaurants and stores that are opening, and thriving, in a downtown that’s been crawling along the comeback trail. But Mackin is one of those who worries that the best parts of old Oceanside will be wiped out along with the worst. And she promises to remain vigilant.

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