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Council Debates Boathouse Fate

By Jorge Casuso

For Naia Sheffield, whose grandfather opened the Boathouse 50 years ago, the two-story wooden structure on the pier is more than a restaurant.

"To me it's a treasure," Sheffied told the City Council, which will ultimately decide which of two national chains will open a "family dining" restaurant on the beach.

"This is about more than just an old building that sits on the pier," said the third generation owner, reading rapid-fire from a two-page speech that didn't fit into the three allotted minutes. "It is about family. It is about tradition. It is about maintaining something that has meaning and history to the residents of Santa Monica."

After more than a dozen customers and employees pleaded with the council to save a Santa Monica institution from the faceless corporate chains invading the city, the council members gave the first public glimpse of where they stand on a potentially volatile issue.

By the time the hearing ended at around 1:30 a.m., the council had made it clear with a unanimous vote that it wanted to make the ultimate decision on the lease after it approves a new services agreement with the Pier Restoration Corporation that spells out the council's authority.

But it was the questions, comments and personal stories that indicated where the council stood on the new lease: Although the process did not include enough public input, it has been fair and there is reason not to renew the Boathouse lease.

"I don't think it's appropriate for someone to be able to inherit public property," said Councilman Paul Rosenstein. "I don't think it's appropriate for the PRC to make a lease agreement. That should be done by the City Council.

"It would have saved a lot of aggravation if there was widespread public discussion," Rosenstein said. "If there had been widespread discussion there would have been understanding of what the PRC was doing. Instead the PRC did a lot of the discussion in private. The public doesn't have much of a clue of what the PRC wants."

According to the PRC's Request for Qualification - which received eight responses - the council-appointed board that runs the pier wants a "family" or "fine dining" establishment. After rating the respondents, the field was winnowed down to three: A family version of The Lobster (which has dropped out of the running) and two national chains - Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. (a Paramount-owned chain inspired by the movie "Forrest Gump") and Landry's Seafood Restaurants.

It is clear that the council - which has championed defending local establishments from faceless corporations - is not happy with the choices and has made it clear it has the right to reject both bids.

"I don't think we should have a cookie cutter chain restaurant on the pier," said Mayor Ken Genser. "We shouldn't assume that we're going to end up with a typical Bubba Gump or Landry's.

"We can always correct or undo what the PRC does," Genser said. "I don't see a reason to stop the process now."

Bloom, who recently visited a Bubba Gump restaurant in Monterraey, said he is not "terribly pleased" with the two choices.

"It's a very plastic representation of a movie theme," Bloom said. "Some of the stuff I was honestly offended by. Do we want to see that on the pier? I don't think so.

"In Santa Monica we need to resist the chains as much as possible," Bloom said. "The Boathouse doesn't fit, but the Gumps and Landrys are not what we're looking for either."

Council member Pam O'Conner, a historic preservationist, said she wanted "something distinctive and not a corporate chain. O'Connor added that she doesn't think the Boathouse (or any other business) should have a sense of entitlement to public property.

But if council members aren't pleased with the two finalists, they also made it clear that they don't like the prospect of the Boathouse staying either. Several shared anecdotes about their dining experiences there.

"We walked in. A horrible reeking smell of beer permeated the place," said Rosenstein, who went there on a Saturday night with his wife. "The entertainment was so loud, we couldn't communicate with each other. The lyrics of the singer were totally obscene.... I'm not surprised that the Boathouse was not selected."

Genser said he hasn't been pleased with the business lunches he's had there with guests who want the spectacular view.

"While we certainly love the view, we've had certainly disappointing lunch experiences there," Genser said. "This is one we can't responsibly save."

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