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A ‘Bigger Picture’ is coming into focus in Imperial Beach

If it’s been awhile since you visited Imperial Beach, you might not recognize it.

The town’s gritty surfer vibe is still there. But now there’s a fancy hotel right on the beach and a bunch of new shops, restaurants and breweries.

While Imperial Beach’s gentrification came later than most places in San Diego County, it didn’t come out of nowhere. It actually started back in the year 2000, with a vision that city leaders dubbed “The Big Picture.”

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Nearly a quarter century later, the city is ready for a sequel. It has embarked on “The Bigger Picture,” which includes infrastructure projects, new municipal services, and transforming the Palm Avenue and 13th Street corridors into pedestrian-friendly commercial destinations.

“The Bigger Picture really has a lot to do with having the nature of Imperial Beach change from trying to be just a bedroom community to being something more,” said City Manager Andy Hall.

Elected officials, city staff and members of the public spent months drafting the new plan. It was important to have Imperial Beach residents be a part of the process, especially those who live in the eastern part of the city, said newly elected Mayor Paloma Aguirre.

Aguirre remembers hearing residents say they didn’t feel seen or heard as much as the people who live near the coast.

“They haven’t had the same amount of investment as other areas like Seacoast Drive,” she said.

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Aguirre said people weren’t shy during last year’s election campaign — they told her they want to see more lighting, more amenities and more businesses within walking distance of their homes.

She said The Bigger Picture meets those needs with proposals to make Palm Avenue and 13th Street more pedestrian and business friendly. This means increased lighting, widening sidewalks and planting more trees.

It also means more inclusivity, Aguirre said. The vision calls for a bilingual city website and the creation of a Parks and Recreation Department, something the city hasn’t had in 20 years.

“Our staff has done an amazing job at creating an entire slate of programs to address the diversity of our residents from senior programs to youth programs and cultural activities,” she said.

Each project identified in the plan comes with a funding option. Some of them include grants from the state or organizations like the Port of San Diego or the California Coastal Commission. Other funding sources include a recent hotel and sales tax increases, general fund allocations and fees.

“It is about things we are actually going to get done,” he said. “It holds our feet to the fire a little bit.”

Some of the projects are already underway.

The city and the port began cosmetic renovations to Imperial Beach Pier last Fall. The ultimate goal is to extend the pier, bring in more businesses and public amenities.

“It’ll be great for all of the tourists that come to see the city, it’s a very iconic pier and we definitely want to make it the best pier in San Diego,” said Jennifer Crumley, the owner of Cow-A-Bunga Ice Cream shop, which has operated by the pier for 20 years.