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Malibu Pier poised to recapture its past

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It's one of the leading coastal landmarks of Southern California, but the Malibu Pier has often struggled to get the respect its colorful past would suggest it deserves.

Over the years, the pier has been lashed by a series of winter storms that destroyed pilings and forced costly repairs. It has endured construction delays caused by financially overextended contractors. Its revival has spawned legal or verbal tiffs between contractors, between the state and its concessionaire and between concession partners.

Since 1995, the pier has stood forlornly at the southern end of Malibu Lagoon State Beach as the state Department of Parks and Recreation prodded the pier's concessionaire to install the eateries and other amenities needed to resurrect the once vibrant venue and get revenue flowing again.

A sign in the window of what was once Alice's Restaurant (named for the song, according to the state parks agency) proclaims with unwarranted optimism: "Opening in early spring 2007 . . . a sit-down family-oriented restaurant in the style of a classic 1940s seafood house."

That target, like many others, was not met, but things are finally looking up. A sportfishing operation offers two departures a day. Dozens of people visit the pier regularly to stroll or fish. Concessionaire Malibu Pier Partners has opened the pier to special events, such as surf contests and free outdoor film screenings.

In perhaps the most important development, state parks officials announced in June that Malibu Pier Partners had struck a deal with Ruby Restaurant Group, based in Newport Beach, to open two eateries and a bar. At the start of the pier, in a white, wood-sided building with royal blue trim, will be the Beachcomber bar and restaurant, featuring seafood dishes and a mid-1940s atmosphere. At the seaward end, a building will house Ruby's Shake Shack, offering shakes, burgers and fries to go with the million-dollar view.

The company has for years operated restaurants at piers in Balboa, Seal Beach, Oceanside and Huntington Beach. Assuming the necessary approvals come through for the Malibu project, chairman and chief executive Doug Cavanaugh said he expects the "whole thing would happen probably no later than November."

There are also plans for coastal boat tours, a surf museum, a gift shop, a bait and tackle shop and beach equipment rentals.

Jefferson Wagner, owner of the nearby Zuma Jay surf shop, will handle the rentals of kayaks and boogie boards. But it's a far diminished role from what Wagner, a local surfer who decades ago was a boat-cleaning hand on the pier, had in mind when the state chose him as the pier's concessionaire in 2003. In need of funds, he subsequently agreed to become a partner with Alexander Leff, a San Francisco attorney. Wagner said Leff has kept him in the dark and held up progress on the pier. Leff declined to discuss the disagreement.

Until recently, parks officials have been none too pleased with Leff. In December, the agency notified him that Malibu Pier Partners was in breach of contract for, among other things, failing to pay rent on time or submit timely construction documents and for allowing a shirtless man to collect parking fees from the back of a pickup truck without offering receipts.

But the prospect of relaunching the time-consuming bidding process prompted the state to work out its differences with Leff.

"Yes, it's true this took much longer than we wanted," said Roy Stearns, a state parks spokesman. "If ever there was a project where every pitfall possible emerged, it was this project. We are ecstatic that we will have the pier fully open this year."

Leff said he believed that "the wait will have been worth it and that both the local Malibu community and visitors will be very pleased at the final result." Meanwhile, he continues to defend himself in court in pier-related suits filed by a restaurant company and a consultant.

It's hard to imagine why this classic pier on busy Pacific Coast Highway, in a place that many have likened to the Riviera, has suffered such hard times.

The structure was commissioned in the early 1900s by businessman Frederick Rindge and his wife, May, as a shipping wharf for hides and grains from their 17,000-acre Malibu Rancho. It also served as a dock for unloading materials for building the Rindge family's private 20-mile railroad, which ran from Las Flores Canyon to the Ventura County line.

During the 1920s and '30s, film studios shot sea epics at the pier. In 1929, the Rindges' daughter, Rhoda Rindge Adamson, erected a tower-like home for her son at the highway end of the pier, within view of her tile-bedecked Adamson House. (In 1972, the tower became part of the newly opened Alice's Restaurant.) Protecting the tower was a rubble-studded concrete-block wall.

In 1934, the pier opened to the public, with Cesar Romero and Buster Crabbe among the many Hollywood dignitaries who strode through the rough-hewn gates and fished for halibut and barracuda from a barge anchored offshore.

After the Rindges' land development company, Marblehead Land Co., went bankrupt in 1936, the pier was taken over by bondholders who had helped finance Malibu development. It was extended to its current 780-foot length.

During World War II, the Coast Guard used the pier as a lookout post. After a storm demolished much of the structure in the winter of 1943-44, businessman William Huber bought it for $50,000 and rebuilt it. After the war, Huber constructed the familiar twin buildings at the seaward end for a bait and tackle shop and restaurant. In 1980, the state purchased the somewhat battered property.

A 1983 El Niño storm destroyed many of the pilings, and parks officials closed the pier for 18 months. Soon after it reopened, the state named it a historic point of interest. But big storms in 1993 and 1994 again trashed much of the structure, and it was closed in 1995. The pier has been in limited use for the last few years.

One of those looking forward to having the pier back in action is Jose Amato, 48, a Hollywood Hills resident who was fishing there one recent dazzlingly sunny afternoon.

"It's a beautiful place, but we don't have any facilities," he said. "I've always wondered why all the locations are empty. They can open some restaurants for the tourists walking the pier. It's going to be a very nice place that people can go and enjoy."


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