Last Saturday Ben Adair and Jenny Price had a party to celebrate the launch of their new app, Our Malibu Beaches. Fittingly, it was on the beach in Malibu — a nice canopy to sit under, kids building sand castles, Doritos and Coke for everyone. But it was kind of hard to chat because Mudvayne’s The New Game was blasting from speakers in the adjacent mansion. Not in a fun mosh pit kind of way — more like a “get off my lawn” kind of way, even though the public has been guaranteed access to all 1,100 miles of California coast since 1976.
“When we started setting up the canopy, four security guards immediately came out,” Adair recounts. But they weren’t doing anything wrong. Much of the sand in Malibu is private property — usually anything above the high-tide line — but in many cases, the dry sand is legal for anyone to chillax on. “Anytime anyone gets a zoning variance to remodel — add a pool, add a deck, combine properties and build a giant mansion — the Coastal Commission says ‘Okay, you can do that, but we’re gonna include an easement to let the public use all the dry sand in front of your property.’ Or, all of your sand, with a 10-foot privacy barrier.” On the morning of the party, Adair spotted Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison (who owns nearly two dozen beachfront homes in Malibu) taking his breakfast on the porch next door behind one of those normally unmarked 10-foot barriers.
Historically it’s been almost impossible for the public to respond to a threatening security squad because each property has a different set of rules — often tucked away in hand-drawn maps at City Hall, the actual public / private boundaries invisible to the untrained eye. But developer Adair and urban explorer Price spent two years collating all that information into Our Malibu Beaches so that beachgoers can respond to idle threats with publicly available (if not readily accessible) information. “You just wanna go out and have a great day at the beach. The last thing you wanna do is turn that into civil disobedience.”
In addition to misleading intimidation tactics, fabulously wealthy Malibu homeowners have been using more subtle forms of discouragement for decades.
Those garage doors have no fancy vehicles behind them: they’re false fronts
Media mogul David Geffen, for example, has a highly secured five-parcel affair that once belonged to Doris Day at Carbon Beach. The back of the plot faces the Pacific Coast Highway, the primary artery connecting Californians to the Pacific. Directly adjacent to Geffen’s property is a public path to the ocean that he fought for years to block off, knowing that such an entrance would make the west side of his house a thoroughfare for the sun-worshipping public. To combat the crush of cars that would inevitably end up parked in front of his property (parking is difficult to say the least), Geffen built four garage doors, complete with curb cut-outs, into the PCH-facing side of his house. A kind of nasty move, but one that could possibly be offset by his other contributions to society, like putting out Nevermind. But those garage doors have no fancy vehicles behind them: they’re false fronts, completely sealed off on all sides.
View Malibu Beach in a larger map
If this parking scare tactic sounds illegal, that’s because it is. But the California Coastal Commission, which is responsible for defining public access to beaches, has no effective enforcement arm — it can’t come out and write David Geffen a ticket, for example. So if you park in front of one his illegal curb cut-outs because you know it’s a farce, someone will probably have your car towed, which is a much bigger problem than not finding a space in the first place: just try explaining false garage fronts to a tow-yard foreman while you wait for a lawyer to show up and explain the technicalities of why you shouldn’t have been towed.
It’s this kind of soft abuse of power that has kept Malibu beaches out of reach for many, and it’s just the sort of thing that Adair’s company Escape Apps aims to eliminate. An in-app tool allows users to report illegal curb cuts or false “no parking” signs directly to the proper agencies. On the spot, users can generate an email to a predefined list of appropriate authorities — “The Coastal Commission, the City of Malibu, Caltrans, whoever’s in charge of that,” says Adair. While one angry call or email probably won’t elevate the priority of addressing David Geffen’s curb-tampering trickery, Our Malibu Beaches dramatically increases the convenience of officially addressing the issue, and hopefully, one day, getting actual results. “Hundreds of people have used these tools to generate hundreds of emails.”
Adair, a longtime public radio producer, sees his apps as the democratized logical extension of journalism into a product that emphasizes action over consumption — something that’s almost unprecedented in the current app market. “You’re not just opening The Wall Street Journal, reading a story, and thinking, ‘interesting!’ You’re going out and it becomes relevant to your real life. It’s where journalism is going: giving people tools to act.”
Walking down the beach, referencing the app’s house-by-house breakdown of exactly where (and where not) you’re allowed to tread, is actually a lot of fun
Walking down the beach, referencing the app’s house-by-house breakdown of exactly where (and where not) you’re allowed to tread, is actually a lot of fun — sort of like a sandy version of Google’s phone-based MMORPG Ingress. The fact that it doesn’t really feel revolutionary is one of Our Malibu Beaches’ greatest strengths — a small step for an iPhone user, but quite possibly a giant leap towards narrowing the yawning gap between the extremely wealthy and everybody else. Does the universe contain a possible future where Mel Gibson uses an evolved version of the app to invite us up to his Malibu porch for a coffee? It’s a longshot, but one that seems a little more possible than it did yesterday.
Our Malibu Beaches is free for iOS. An Android version is in the works.