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.
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.
After DeSimone died in 1989, the Boathouse, which he had put in a family trust, was taken over by his children. His daughter Patricia DeSimone ran the restaurant until 1996, when she turned it over to her daughter Naia Sheffield. ”Santa Monica history was built on family businesses,“ Sheffield said. ”We’re here to make friends and to be a part of the community. It‘s not often you can go somewhere and go back in 20 years and it’s still the same people.“
When the current 20-year lease expired in 1998, Sheffield said, the city should have given her the courtesy of first refusal before putting out a proposal for bids. The lease proposal she submitted to former PRC director John Gilchrist in 1993 was ignored when Palchikoff took over the post, Sheffield said. Since 1998 the Boathouse has been operating on a month-to-month lease. But several members of the pier board City Council were taken aback a by Sheffield‘s proposal to turn the Boathouse into a motorcycle-themed restaurant that would be run under a new name in partnership with a Canadian restaurant company and a motorcycle manufacturer. They also were concerned that Sheffield’s proposal relied on liquor sales to a greater extent than her competitors.
At a council meeting last fall, officials also questioned the Boathouse‘s track record, contending that the restaurant had become a magnet for crime and that Sheffield had turned it into a venue for special events the city has no control over. City officials also noted that the Boathouse scored an 82 from the County Health Department — among the two dozen lowest ratings of the 673 establishments that serve food in the city. (Sheffield said that the ”B“ rating had been upgraded to an ”A“ after the Boathouse scored a 93 during a subsequent inspection.)
If the Boathouse’s proposal raised concerns, Bubba Gump‘s offered something no local operator could afford — more than $3 million to upgrade the structure and install a required elevator from the beach level. ”Had we not gone with someone with the financial strength of Bubba Gump, the City would have to invest $3 million to $4 million of its money to upgrade the site,“ said Councilman Ken Genser, a council liaison to the pier board and a longtime SMRR leader. ”I think we have better places to spend that money than to build a commercial restaurant.“
The Boathouse is not the only site on the pier whose future has recently been up for grabs.
The old site next to the historic carousel building has been sitting empty since May, when the Arcadia, like its predecessor, the laid-back folk club Ash Grove, went belly up. City officials are currently entertaining proposals for a new operator.
Plans for Club Route 66, a nearly 700-seat nightclub approved by the council in the mid-1990s, seem to have been jettisoned in the midst of an uncertain economy. City officials say that developer Russell Barnard, who owns Rusty’s Surf Ranch on the pier, recently informed them that he was having second thoughts.
”He‘s contemplating not pursuing the permits,“ said Jeff Mathieu, the city’s resource manager, who as harbor master is in charge of the pier. ”He‘s exploring options. It’s unclear what his target is, but he has been considering a variety of things. He wants to be sure that it‘s a viable operation that could work year-round.“
While plans for the nightclub are up in the air, pier officials are set to approve a lease with Pacific Park, which could give the fun zone up to 30 more years on the pier, Mathieu said. Since opening in 1996, the park has seen more downs than ups. Like the Ash Grove, the park has not paid a dime of rent, although operators contend that they have pumped close to $2.5 million in lieu of rent into improving the pier’s substructure, city officials said.
Pacific Park — with its nine-story-tall Ferris wheel glowing with more than 6,000 incandescent, multicolored light bulbs — perhaps best symbolizes the pier‘s restless 18-year search for a vision and a soul. It was the brainchild of SMRR’s old guard, who viewed it as a beacon that could be seen up and down the coast.
To drive the derelicts off the wooden structure, with its rusty rides and scattered fishermen, the pier board appointed by an SMRR-dominated council shut down the old low-tech fun zone, where for a few quarters teenagers could throw pingpong balls in cups or upend plastic frogs from plastic lily pads and win stuffed animals for their dates.
Instead, pier officials opened a shiny new fun zone near the edge of the water and geared it to families. There would be no plummeting Magic Mountain — style roller coaster to draw teenage daredevils but a gently undulating ride to lure the tots. Even the proposed height of the Ferris wheel was lowered. The rides were sanitized, fairly expensive and safe, and they lured throngs of families to the pier, though not necessarily to the park, whose request for longer hours was scaled back by a wary council three years ago.
”You have to bring people back to the pier. You have to give them something to come to,“ said SMRR co-chair Nancy Greenstein, who served on the pier board for a decade before being replaced last year. ”When we started, it was perceived as a place for derelicts. People didn‘t bring their families. It had this perception that the pier was unsafe. Now it’s an icon for all of Southern California.“
But the pier‘s detractors note that the structure is not carrying its financial weight, and that there is no overarching vision crafted after the kind of exhaustive community process Santa Monicans are accustomed to expect. ”There’s never been any movement forward on mapping out a master plan or strategic vision,“ said Paul Rosenstein, a former councilman and mayor who has long called for a make-over of the 11-member pier board and more public process before leasing the Boathouse site. ”There‘s a lot of unfinished business on the pier. What bothers me is how long things drag on.“
Mayor Feinstein, too, is bothered. For years the council has been told to wait to fill vacancies on the pier board that expired more than a decade ago. There is unfinished business, the council was told; a lease needs to be crafted, the bottom line needs to be signed. Now that Bubba Gump seems a done deal, the council is set to make three appointments to replace board members who have served 14, 16 and 18 years.
Feinstein says it is time to rethink where the pier is headed, to perhaps change priorities and treat the pier that has withstood the storms of nature and politics not as a self-sustaining business venture but as part of the public trust, a park the city subsidizes so its residents can walk to its edge without the distraction of twirling lights and screaming carnival riders, and, after a meal at an old family-owned restaurant, stare at the moon reflected in a silent ocean.
”Bubba is scamming our public location without giving us soul. They wouldn’t change their name,“ said Feinstein, noting that Paramount officials denied requests by the city to use a different name. ”We‘re the ones who control this asset, we have a $360 million (annual city) budget, and to go away whimpering like a small company town is pathetic. This is a selling of our soul.“