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Aquarium’s Tourist Appeal Puts Strain on Cannery Row

Times Staff Writer

John Steinbeck described Cannery Row 40 years ago as a “poem, stink, a grating noise” and said it was an amalgamation of “splintered wood, chipped pavement, weedy lots, junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky-tonks and whorehouses.”

Steinbeck would have a difficult time recognizing his old haunts if he and his drinking partner, Ed (Doc) Ricketts, whom he used as a character in a number of books, wandered about the Row today.

Instead of honky-tonks and whorehouses, there are gift shops and antique stores. Instead of junk heaps and weedy lots, there are hotels and restaurants. And on the site of the last fish cannery to operate in the area, there is the biggest attraction on the Row, the lodestone that is bringing tourists in record numbers to Monterey--the $40-million Monterey Bay Aquarium, which opened in October.

Steinbeck, a former marine biology student, would appreciate the aquarium, said Alicia Harby-De Noon, who used to pal around with Steinbeck and Ricketts and now lives on Cannery Row above her antique store. But if Steinbeck saw the traffic and parking problems caused by the aquarium, she said, he’d “turn tail and run.”

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Many Monterey residents have the same ambivalence. The aquarium is a tremendous educational resource for the community, they say, and attracts millions of dollars in tourist revenue. The traffic and parking problems near the aquarium, however, are bedeviling some local merchants by driving away regular customers and disturbing many residents who fear that their quiet, scenic city may never be the same again.

On Tuesday, voters are to decide whether more hotels should be built to accommodate the horde of out-of-town visitors attracted to the aquarium and other tourist sites in this historic city. The vote will determine whether to extend for one more year a hotel moratorium imposed by the City Council. If the moratorium is extended, developers’ plans to construct four new hotels in the city, totaling about 1,200 rooms, would be put on hold.

In 1980, there were about 3,000 hotel rooms in the city. By the end of the decade, if the moratorium is lifted, there will be more than double that number. On Cannery Row alone, two hotels were built in 1984, six hotels are to open within the next few years and the fate of two others depends on Tuesday’s vote.

“My concern is what rampant hotel building is doing to our city,” Mayor Clyde Roberson said. “We don’t want to see Monterey covered in concrete. . . . We’re all happy the aquarium is here, but it has accelerated the problem.”

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The aquarium, some residents say, has been too successful. The facility’s administrators estimated that attendance there during the first year would be about a million people, and the city agreed to provide parking for the extra visitors.

The aquarium, however, drew a million visitors in only five months and the city moved too slowly to provide enough parking for even the original estimate.

The aquarium is the most technically sophisticated and the largest in the country. The concept is ambitious, the design is magnificent and some exhibits--such as a three-story-high tank that contains a living kelp forest--give visitors a glimpse into a world previously accessible only to scuba divers.

Without any advertising, the aquarium began attracting huge crowds from the day it opened--up to 14,000 a day on weekends. The visitors jammed the streets and took up all the available parking slots within blocks of the aquarium.

Since the aquarium opened, inquiries to the Monterey Peninsula Visitors & Convention Bureau about accommodations and other tourist-related matters have tripled. Restaurateurs have been delighted: Business has increased by about 40% on Fisherman’s Wharf, according to the bureau.

But many merchants in the neighborhood near the aquarium suffered a dramatic drop-off in business. Many of their regular customers were scared off by the traffic and absence of parking and so shopped elsewhere.

Harby-De Noon, whose antique store was once a market that Steinbeck used as a model for Lee Chong’s grocery in the book “Cannery Row,” said her business is off about 25%. Her store, like Lee Chong’s, is “not a model of neatness” but a “miracle of supply.” If the traffic problems do not abate by summer, she said, she has little hope of selling much from her vast supply of bric-a-brac and antiques.

“The city simply left the merchants floundering,” said Harby-De Noon, a voluble, flamboyant woman who was invited to the premiere of the 1982 movie “Cannery Row” but walked out in the middle because it was not true to the book.

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“I have to make appointments with customers early in the morning because they won’t dare come by here later. I dread to think what the summer will be like.”

Dr. Joseph Kehoe, a chiropractor who had been in the same location for 21 years, moved his office to another part of town because many of his clients refused to honor appointments on Fridays and Saturdays, when the traffic problems are the worst. Kehoe is now paying three times as much rent.

The majority of the business at Peninsula Sports hunting and fishing store used to be on Saturdays, said owner John Gibbs. But many customers refuse to fight the traffic and compete with tourists for parking spaces, he said. Business is slow on Saturdays, and weekdays have not made up the loss.

The city has taken several steps to alleviate the problem, and the traffic and parking problems have lessened somewhat, he said.

“But it’s kind of like closing the barn door after the horse ran out,” he said. “It’s hard to lure these customers back to the area.”

Merchants and residents blame city officials for not providing for the crush of people. City officials blame the previous administration, which was in office when the aquarium was planned. The previous administration blames the unexpected success of the aquarium.

“Nobody figured this many people would be visiting the aquarium,” said former Mayor Jerry Fry. “Before the aquarium, you could shoot a cannon down Cannery Row and it wouldn’t hit anyone. It was strictly a nighttime spot. There was plenty of parking.”

The current administration is designing a parking structure that will accommodate almost 1,000 vehicles, has instituted a shuttle bus system so visitors can park in city lots away from the congestion and plans to enlarge and landscape walking paths so that visitors will be encouraged to walk the mile from downtown to Cannery Row. And the aquarium has limited attendance to 10,000 a day and no longer sells tickets at the door on weekends. Visitors must buy tickets in advance at the aquarium or at Ticketron.

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Frank Crispo, who is known as the unofficial mayor of Cannery Row, calls critics of the aquarium and development in the city “whiners” and “ingrates.” Crispo, 75, a produce broker and antique store owner, said he recalls the days in the mid-1940s when the sardines disappeared from Monterey Bay and Cannery Row devolved into a dilapidated row of abandoned warehouses.

“Let me give it to you short and sweet,” Crispo said in a raspy voice as he jabbed a visitor in the arm. “I’ve seen the life, the death and now the resurrection of Cannery Row. And I’ll tell you one thing for sure. I like the area a lot more during the resurrection than I did after that last sardine was canned.”

The aquarium is only partly responsible for the crush of visitors and the surge in development, said Carl Anderson, the city’s public facilities director. Developers were stalled because the land-use plan for Cannery Row, which is required by the Coastal Commission, was not completed and ratified until 1981.

“We finally got our coastal plan and the drought of the 1970s, which stalled building because of water problems, ended,” Anderson said. “And then Monterey was named as home of the aquarium and builders discovered the facility would attract millions of people. This all happened around the same time and caused the flurry of building.”

Development was the key issue in the 1983 Monterey mayoral election, and the voters made their preference clear. Fry, the pro-development incumbent, was defeated by Roberson, who was backed by voters concerns about the environment.

Traffic and parking problems caused by the influx of visitors also have spilled over into neighboring Pacific Grove. That city is planning to install 150 parking meters to control parking abuses caused by aquarium visitors and is restricting parking in one neighborhood near the aquarium to residents with permits. It will be the first time Pacific Grove has used residential parking permits or parking meters, an official said.

Julie Packard, the aquarium director, never expected to be put in the position of defending the facility. Packard, a marine biologist, is the daughter of David Packard, a founder of the Hewlett-Packard Co. A foundation controlled by Packard and his wife supplied $40 million to build the aquarium and establish its program.

“When we began, we wanted this to be a sensitively planned project,” Julie Packard said. “We restored the original cannery, and we built the facility in a way that was sensitive to the city and the area. Then the traffic and parking situation is not dealt with. . . .

“This aquarium is supposed to be a resource for the community, not a problem.”


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