This pier is the longest in SLO County — but what’s it for?

You may have wondered about it while playing with your pooch on the Avila dog beach, but unlike its neighboring pier, you can’t walk to the end for oyster shooters and cocktails with a view.

The Cal Poly Pier in Avila Beach has been a prominent landmark on the Central Coast for more than a century, yet some San Luis Obispo County residents may not know its rich history.

Today, the 3,000-foot-long pier is used for education and research through the university’s Center for Coastal Marine Sciences.

But the longest pier in San Luis Obispo County served a larger purpose after it was first constructed in 1914 by the Pacific Coast Railway Co.

In 1922, San Luis Bay was the world’s largest crude oil shipping port. Union Oil — later renamed Unocal — bought the pier in 1941, two weeks before the United States entered World War II and started using the facility to supply the Pacific Fleet with fuel.

The pier remained a major oil shipping port until it was destroyed by ferocious storms in 1983.

“We don’t want to forget about why the pier is here to begin with and what was here before this pier,” said Tom Moylan, marine operations manager for the Center for Coastal Marine Sciences. “It’s a fascinating story with a lot of not just local lore, but as far as the economy of the U.S., and especially the West Coast economy.”

Cal Poly Pier02967
Tom Moylan serves as the marine operations manager for the Center for Coastal Marine Sciences at the Cal Poly Pier in Avila Beach, California. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Cal Poly takes over

Unocal spent $27 million in 1984 to replace the structure and continued using it until the mid-1990s when the company began phasing out its operations in California.

In 2001, Unocal donated the pier to Cal Poly.

The pier was valued at $18.5 million, and Unocal gave the university a $3.5 million endowment to pay for maintenance and operation costs.

Now 17 years later, the endowment is used to pay for utilities and to cover an approximately $80,000-per-year lease through the Port San Luis Harbor District, Moylan said.

Though there is some “superficial rust” built up along the pilings on shore, Moylan said the structure is sound and there are no immediate plans for a significant maintenance project.

The university conducts yearly surveys using ultrasound to ensure the steel remains strong, Cal Poly spokesman Matt Lazier said.

“That’s something we’re tracking and certainly rust abatement and painting are right up there on the top of our deferred maintenance list,” Moylan said. “A painting job on a structure like this over water, in today’s regulatory world, is just a major, major undertaking for anybody.”

Cal Poly Pier01771
The pilings closest to shore have the most rust due to frequent spray from breaking waves. The Cal Poly Pier began life as an oil transportation pier for Unocal. The steel pier was built in 1984 after a major storm destroyed the previous wooden pier the year before. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Future renovations

There are several hurdles to clear before a repainting project could begin, Moylan said.

First is a lack of funding for what could be a multiyear, multimillion-dollar renovation. The Pismo Beach Pier is currently undergoing an $8.7 million makeover, and a $3.5 million renovation of the Cayucos Pier was completed in 2015.

Specialized equipment also would have to be brought in, Moylan said, and nobody in the local area is qualified to perform that type of operation.

Additionally, during a repainting operation, there would likely be no vehicle access and perhaps no pedestrian access onto the pier, meaning all the research and course work being done would be put on hold.

Cal Poly’s website also says there are future plans to expand the facility to include more classrooms, additional research space and public educational facilities.

It will take a significant financial boost to get there, Moylan said.

“Those are still numbers we’re coming up with and researching,” Moylan said. “The main reason that we’re not farther along is that all of our focus has just been literally to keeping the utilities running.”

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune