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Boathouse Tries to Stay Afloat

By Jorge Casuso

For the crowd of supporters planning to march from the Boathouse to City Hall Tuesday night, the termination of the City's lease with the 50-year-old restaurant and bar on the pier is a glaring example of how faceless chains are threatening to erase Santa Monica's unique past.

"All the people in Santa Monica want the Boathouse to remain," said Naia Sheffield, whose family has run the establishment for three generations. "I have thousands of letters, most of them from residents. It's a community thing. It's not just me."

For city officials -- who have eliminated the Boathouse from the list of potential tenants for the prime oceanfront site - bringing in a new restaurant is the result of a fair process expected to draw either "family dining" or "fine dining" to the two-story building on the pier.

"What we're obligated to do, and very carefully, was follow the process," said Jan Palchikoff, the executive director of the Pier Restoration Corporation (PRC), which runs the pier. "We have an obligation to perform according to the standards that have been set forth for us."

On Tuesday night, the City Council will be caught in the middle of an emotional feud that is threatening to escalate just months before three incumbents seek re-election in November. Sheffield, backed by perhaps hundreds of supporters, will march from the Boathouse to ask the council to reconsider its decision to terminate her month-to-month lease.

The council is expected to stay out of a bidding process that two months ago eliminated the Boathouse from contention when City staff, along with the PRC leasing committee and the full board, winnowed eight proposals down to three finalists. The finalists were two national franchises -- Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and Landry's Seafood Restaurants -- and the Lobster LLC, which runs the upscale restaurant at the entrance to the pier and which has since yanked its proposal for a family restaurant at the Boathouse site.

City staff has requested that the two remaining respondents make presentations to the PRC board at its meeting on September 6. The board could make a final choice as early as October 4, with the final lease returned for final PRC approval as early as November 11.

"I don't see anything to have us stop the process," Mayor Ken Genser said.

City officials say they were taken aback by Sheffield's proposal to turn the Boathouse into a motorcycle-themed restaurant that will be run under a new name in partnership with a Canadian restaurant company and a motorcycle manufacturer.

"It just didn't fit," Palchikoff said. "It didn't meet the expectations. It didn't fit what we were looking for."

"They had no desire to continue the Boathouse," said Jeff Mathieu, the city's director of Resource Management, who as Harbor Master is in charge of the pier. "This is not continuing a third generation of fish being sold at the table and hand carved.... It's divorced from the past."

Sources close to the bidding process said that of the eight proposals submitted, the Boathouse's finished a distant seventh. Officials were concerned not only that the proposed theme was not family oriented, but that the Boathouse relied on liquor sales to a greater extent than its competitors, according to sources.

City officials also contend that the Boathouse has become a magnet for crime. They point to calls for police service, which show that the Boathouse received 152 calls between Jan. 1, 1998 and July 31, 2000. That compares with 102 at Rusty's, a restaurant that also serves liquor and has live music just across from the Boathouse.

Of the total calls for service from the Boathouse, 59 reported fights and assaults and 32 reported public intoxication and transients, according to police statistics obtained by The Lookout. That compares with 26 reports of fights and assaults from Rusty's and 13 for public intoxication and transients.

Police officials caution against drawing a direct correlation between calls for service from a particular establishment and incidents occurring on site. But during a PRC meeting to discuss the Boathouse lease, Sgt. Cathy Keane, who oversees the pier, reported that the incidents at the Boathouse gave reason for concern.

The safety issue has been "certainly raised frequently by Santa Monica police," said Mark Richter, the City staff member who works with the PRC. "They cited an unusually disproportionate number of calls as far as fights and disorderly conduct."

Sheffield questions the statistics, contending that many of the calls for service from her establishment are to report crimes that have nothing to do with the Boathouse.

"Because we're at the (front) end of the pier near the parking lot, we call the police a lot," Sheffield said. "They're getting calls, but not because there's an incident here."

City officials say they also are concerned that the Boathouse is turning into a venue for special events the City has no control over. Because the events are sponsored by different promoters, they don't require a Conditional Use Permit.

"They're skirting the issue and calling it a special event or non-recurring use," said Mathieu, who added that the Planning Commission is scheduled to clarify the City's policy this fall. "When there are different sponsors, it falls into different actions.

"Normally, the restaurant operator isn't held accountable," Mathieu said. "It (the Boathouse) is not taking responsibility for what's happening in that space. They're failing to inform the City continually."

Sheffield counters that she doesn't work with promoters and that the so-called "events" are private parties or the weekend Salsa dances and lessons that take place in the downstairs room.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with renting to a party for a private dinner," Sheffield said. "I do a lot of charity things, but I don't work with promoters."

Sheffield said that when one event threatened to get out of hand when it drew 400 people, instead of the expected 50, she called police. "Basically, I couldn't deal with those people," she said.

Although not a factor in the initial proposal, City officials also have expressed concerns 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 recently had been upgraded to an "A" after the Boathouse scored a 93 during a recent inspection.

Sheffield believes that the City is blowing out of proportion her proposal for a motorcycle-themed restaurant and its ties to outside companies in order to drive her from the Santa Monica establishment her grandfather started in 1950.

"I listed a whole bunch of possibilities," Sheffield said. "I said, 'I'm open to anything.' Basically what they said is I'm not qualified to run a restaurant."

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.

"We wanted to negotiate a long-term lease," Sheffield said. "We have been an excellent tenant for so long. Most of the businesses, they just renew the lease. There's some serious things going on."

Sheffield wants to ask the council to take the decision out of the hands of the PRC and let the residents of Santa Monica choose whether they want to keep the Boathouse or bring in an outside operator.

"I want the people to make the decision," Sheffield said. "I think that's the fairest way to do it.

Councilman Paul Rosenstein, a critic of the PRC, agrees that the public has had no say in choosing a new tenant for the Boathouse site.

"The public and the council has no idea to this day what the board is trying to accomplish with the Boathouse site, what the vision is," Rosenstein said. "The biggest failure has been the lack of public outreach.

"The PRC should have been holding public meetings, public workshops," Rosenstein said. "The council will not have a clue as to what is the vision of the PRC in regards to the Boathouse lease."

City officials counter that the PRC board, which is appointed by the City Council, represents the people of Santa Monica.

"The PRC is the community," Palchikoff said. "I don't know how much more community involvement there can be. If people had strong feelings, they certainly can voice them."

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