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Soul at Sea 

Santa Monica’s lust for dollars may cost it dearly in charm and character

Wednesday, Jul 18 2001
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In a city that‘s looking more and more like a faceless, upscale suburb lined with brand-name chain stores and restaurants, the Boathouse on the Santa Monica Pier is not just another victim of rising rents. In recent weeks, with city officials poised to boot it from the worn-out wooden structure it has occupied for half a century, the family-owned restaurant became ground zero for a heated political battle over the soul of the landmark pier.

Last week, the Boathouse and its nearly 9,000 supporters who sent letters to City Hall lost the battle. The governing board of the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corp. (PRC), established by the city after the devastating winter storms of 1983 left the pier’s future strewn in splinters along the beach, voted 7-3 to lease the coveted 4,500-square-foot city-owned site with sweeping bay views to Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Under the 25-year lease, the Paramount-owned chain of family restaurants based on the blockbuster movie Forrest Gump will pay a base rent of $10,500 a month (plus 4 percent of food revenues and 5 percent of beverage revenues) and pump $3 million into upgrading the sagging structure. By contrast, the Boathouse rent was $5,017, plus 8 percent of all revenue. The restaurant chain will have a marquee spot on the massive, glowing pier that has become a common backdrop on The Jay Leno Show and on the weather segment of local television newscasts and draws an estimated 3 million visitors a year.

With the Bubba Gump lease awaiting only the signature of the city manager, Boathouse owner Naia Sheffield on Monday filed for a temporary restraining order in U.S. District Court in a last-ditch effort to save the business her grandfather started at the dawn of the Cold War. But if the fate of the Boathouse seems all but sealed, the lease has spurred a debate over the pier‘s future that has divided the leadership of Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR), which has dominated local politics for most of the past two decades.

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Last fall, pier officials nixed Sheffield‘s proposal for a motorcycle-themed restaurant. They contend that Bubba Gump presented what was far and away the most impressive of the eight proposals to operate the site at the bottom of the entrance ramp. The entire pier, they say, will reap business that is sure to spill over to the small struggling establishments along the long wooden structure that stretches the length of five football fields from the bottom of the ramp into the Pacific.

”They have the capital to market themselves, and [according to the contract] they’ll market themselves [as being] on the Santa Monica Pier,“ said Jan Palchikoff, executive director of the PRC. ”That brings visitors to the pier without the smaller entities having to do anything. There‘s a spillover benefit,“ Palchikoff said. ”It’s a competitive world. These are businesses. They‘ve got to be successful economically. Bringing an entity like Bubba Gump is really healthy for the pier, for the community and for existing businesses.“

Not so, counters Santa Monica Mayor Michael Feinstein, who intensely lobbied his City Council colleagues in a failed attempt to derail the Gump lease by making three long-overdue appointments to the pier board before the final vote was cast. Feinstein chided city officials for following in the footsteps of private landlords denounced for turning the Third Street Promenade into a row of faceless chain stores. ”It’s clearly about the direction of the pier and whether the pier is treated as a commodity to generate revenue or as a social space for all classes of people,“ said Feinstein, who along with fellow SMRR member and Green Party Councilman Kevin McKeown waged the losing battle to make the pier appointments. ”Taking a business that had been in the family for 50 years and replacing it with a commercial advertisement masquerading as a restaurant is an unavoidable statement that profit at any cost is more important than promoting community,“ Feinstein said. ”They‘ve allowed commercialization to rule at all costs, and that’s not what I thought our so-called liberal leadership was all about.“

For half a century, the Boathouse has been a testament to the Mayberry side of Santa Monica, a place where neighbors frequented the local watering holes and business was conducted among friends. It was this small-town atmosphere, Sheffield said, that lured her grandfather Benjamin J. DeSimone from Boston, where the MIT-trained engineer had worked on the Manhattan Project that beat the Germans to the atomic bomb. ”He came to Santa Monica and loved it, and traveled back and forth to Boston,“ Sheffield said.

But before there was the Boathouse, there was the Seafood Grotto, which DeSimone and a business partner started in 1931 in the same building, only a few feet away (the structure was apparently moved about 10 feet, Sheffield said). When DeSimone bought out his partner sometime in the 1950s -- the paperless history is murky on the exact year -- he changed the restaurant‘s name to the Boathouse.

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