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After Nearly 50 Years, Carlsbad’s Iconic Landmark Coming Down

A family sits in the shade at Cannon Park in Carlsbad with the demolition of ...

Photo by Alexander Nguyen

Above: A family sits in the shade at Cannon Park in Carlsbad with the demolition of the Encina Power Plant's smokestack in the background, April 1, 2021.

To some it was an eyesore, others it was a part of home. Surfers used it to orient themselves in the water and pilots used it to navigate.

After nearly 50 years, a part of Carlsbad’s history is starting to come down. Demolition started at the end of March on the Encina Power Station’s smokestack.

Listen to this story by Alexander Nguyen.

“Anytime you lose part of your history, it's kind of like you're losing part of the community,” Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall said. “And the smokestack, I mean, has been a center point or a focal of our community.”

There is a lot of history with the power plant, Hall said. It played a small role in the city’s incorporation.

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“I believe the number was less than 10 (votes) for us to incorporate,” he said. “So we're going way back in history now and that's becoming a little fuzzy with me, but that was a turning point for the city.”

In the 1940s, Carlsbad was still a small village and the construction of the power plant enable the town to become a city, historian and Carlsbad Historical Society President Susan Gutierrez said.

In 1952, residents of Carlsbad wanted to incorporate the town into a city so that they weren’t dependent on the county to provide certain services, she said.

“The fact that this power plant was there would provide a stable tax base in order for them to fund certain activities of the city,” she said.

Such an indelible part of Carlsbad’s history, the plant and its smokestack was the cover photo for Gutierrez’s book, “Windows on the Past,” published in 2002 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the city’s incorporation.

“To me, there was no story without talking about the power plant’s construction,” she said.

When the plant was built in 1954, it originally had four smokestacks. In the 1970s, the 400-foot smokestack that most Carlsbad residents are familiar with was built to replace the four short stacks. At that time, it was one of the tallest structures on the West Coast.

“When you think of what makes a community, obviously there's infrastructure: water, roads and power,” Mayor Hall said. “And this has played a key role in the development of our community.”

The plant was originally a fossil fuel plant, so the smokestack had to be high to reduce the impact of the soot and pollutants on the area, Hall said. By the time the plant was decommissioned in 2018, it had transitioned to burning natural gas to generate electricity.

The tall smokestack, however, had an added bonus — it provided a reference point for people in the city.

“A lot of the guys and girls, who grew up surfing in Carlsbad, they look and they could tell, 'Oh, we're in this position or in that position,' you know, in the water,” Gutierrez said.

It’s also an identifier for pilots flying into the nearby McClellan–Palomar Airport.

“It is a big landmark. On a clear day, you can see the smokestack all the way from Long Beach when you're in the air and you just pointed at the smokestack and that's how you get home,” said Jeff White, a flight instructor and president of the Pacific Coast Flyers, a flying club that operates out of Palomar.

It’s a famous landmark for new pilots because it could be seen both during the day and at night because it is lit up, he said. His wife, Carole, used it as a landmark during her first solo cross-country flight when she was a student pilot in the 1980s.

“Of course you're nervous, the first time by yourself and you're making this long-run, cross-country flight,” she said. “But one thing that made it really easy was that I basically I knew that I wouldn't get lost if I just followed the coast, continued down south and then basically looked for the smokestack for the power plant, and ... headed inland from them, I knew I'd be able to find the airport.”

Encina Power Station was officially retired Dec. 11, 2018, and the new more efficient Carlsbad Energy Center went online. Under a 2014 agreement with the city and San Diego Gas & Electric, NRG Energy, the plant’s owner, agreed to completely demolish the old plant within three years of retirement.

Some Carlsbad residents wanted NRG to save the smokestack and turn it into a museum such as the Tate Modern museum in London or a shopping center. The Whites among them, but they weren’t part of the group that officially petition the city to save the smokestack.

“Yes, it's a landmark that … just reminds us of Carlsbad too,” Carole White said. “It kinda always had has a place in our heart.”

“I think the powers that be kind of missed an opportunity,” Jeff White said. “That's such an iconic landmark here. That could have been repurposed into a building. That could have been a busy visitors’ kind of mall with shops and all those kinds of things.”

“Some people thought it was an eyesore,” Carole said. “And I thought well if they just painted it and made it kind of nice people would be proud of it.”

NRG, however, does recognize the significance the smokestack plays in the identity of Carlsbad, but Mark Rohrlick, NRG’s senior director of real estate, said the agreement with the city prevents the company from saving the smokestack.

“We recognize that that smokestack is meaningful to a lot of people in the community,” said Rohrlick, who up until last year, was a 25-year resident of Carlsbad. “In fact, myself, a private pilot living in North County for many years and flying, I use that smokestack to kind of help guide me to the coast, and down the coast and up.”

The smokestack’s demolition is expected to be completed by July. Crews are demolishing the stack at a rate of roughly 10 feet a day with the help of a Spydercrane, designed to work in small, confined areas, that is attached to the top of the stack. As it knocks concrete into the center of the stack, the concrete is then removed.

As far as the future of the site is concerned, nothing specific has been planned.

“We have studied a lot of the desires and will of the people and what they would like to see here,” Rohrlick said. “Ultimately, when the final story is told and the demolition is complete and the planning is done and the development goes through a very robust community engagement process, we think this property will be a crown jewel for the city of Carlsbad."

NRG has paused demolition work after it found Peregrin falcon's eggs in a nest on the site Easter Sunday, about 100 feet from the smokestack. The company is waiting on the state to see if work could continue.

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