Council Charts Future of Pier
By Olin Ericksen
August 17 -- A wave of change may soon wash over the Santa Monica Pier after City officials last week approved guidelines to return boating to the financially struggling tourist destination, bring in more restaurants and, possibly, open a controversial performing arts venue.
If all environmental reviews go well, inside a year, a gangway may be constructed to the west of the pier, eventually bringing back such activities as sport fishing and sightseeing educational and research excursions – which have been absent for more than two decades after storms ravaged the wooden pier.
In other efforts to pump cash into the pier’s bottom line, future pier patrons may find themselves sipping old-fashion floats at a soda fountain after a ride around the carousel, or eating at two new restaurants, one planned for the center of the pier, that would offer a “distinct palette”.
“It’s with great excitement we present these updated guidelines,” Ben Franz-Knight, executive director for the non-profit Pier Restoration Corporation (PRC), told the City Council last week.
But while the council unanimously approved the guidelines -- which have been in the works for three years -- some council members sharply questioned why a performance arts venue would be the best use of space at the struggling pier.
“I think we’d like the pier to generate more revenue towards its operating expenses,” Mayor Bob Holbrook said.
“The pier has operated in the red for a number of years and it’s a cultural institution in the City, and so I don’t think, tolerate is the right word to use, but we understand that it is difficult to hit the break even point,” Council member Richard Bloom said.
“Have we considered changing the criteria for that type of use whereby it might provide some better economic viability than the theater or performing space?” Bloom asked pier officials.
In addition to seeking bids from performance companies, Bloom successfully sponsored a motion directing City officials to seek bids from restaurants for the location at 250 Santa Monica Pier slated for the arts venue.
The space, which is next to the historic carousel, is being used for special events after two different nightclubs failed to pay the rent.
Franz-Knight and others countered that while a performance venue itself may not generate the $120,000 in rent a year that a restaurant might, it could be a regional and local draw and would add a touch of culture to the pier’s commercial ambiance.
“The boards’ desire and grand picture of the pier is to balance all the commercial and the cultural uses,” Franz-Knight said, noting the success of a recent art exhibit near the pier called “Ashes and Snow.”
“As (with) our recent experiences with Ashes and Snow, cultural events tend to draw an audience to the pier in significant amounts of people,” he said.
It is unclear what type of venue -- whether a comedy club or live theater -- the arts space might house.
What is clear is that PRC officials envision extensive commercial development on the gangway, new restaurants on the pier and a café or eatery adjoined to the arts venue to balance any losses incurred by the performance space.
Now that the PRC has council approval, it can move forward with bidding on construction of the gangway, on the condition that any future activities at the site can be sustainable and in accordance with anti-terrorism measures currently being instituted by police.
Franz-Knight said PRC officials have already consulted with fire and police departments and will seek input from environmental groups, such as Heal the Bay. Already, though, there is talk of using bio-diesel fuel for any boats operated off the gangway.
“We believe it is viable to bring back boating 200-plus days a year, with fishing, water taxis and tours of the Bay -- something we think is critical to remain true to the history of the pier, but also make sure we are competitive with other venues around the state,” Franz-Knight said.
If construction of the gangway occurs in a year, Santa Monicans could
see boats marked for tourist dollars bobbing in the bay in two to three
years, he said.
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