The Huntington Beach City Council, which two years ago ignored protests from thousands of residents and allowed wrecking crews to demolish the historic Golden Bear nightclub, is actively soliciting an operator for a new, privately owned entertainment club in virtually the same location.
Plans for the club, which would be at least 3,000 square feet and seat at least 150 people, are part of a $22-million commercial, office and condominium project called the Huntington Pier Colony.
The project, at Pacific Coast Highway on the south side of Main Street, would also include a six-screen movie theater, restaurants and other retail space, all a block from the Huntington Beach Pier.
In letters to prospective operators of the club, the city has suggested that the Redevelopment Agency might approve subsidies if the building’s high rent poses a problem.
Though the project is being developed privately by California Resorts, it is being encouraged by city officials who are championing a large-scale redevelopment and revitalization of the downtown Huntington Beach area.
Encouragement of live entertainment facilities, however, is a marked turnabout for the city.
Eager to proceed with downtown redevelopment in 1986, city officials maintained that the Golden Bear was seismically unsafe and issued a demolition permit. Built in the early 1900s and a club since the early ‘60s, the Golden Bear had developed a national reputation with performers ranging from Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin to B.B. King and Huey Lewis & the News.
Nearly 3,000 county residents signed petitions to save the building, but the Hungtington Beach Historical Society was denied time to apply for designation as a state historic landmark for its architectural and cultural significance.
Also in 1986, the council refused to renew an entertainment permit for Safari Sam’s, which observers agreed was the most adventurous nightclub in the county. Neighbors had complained of noise from the club and had blamed vandalism on club patrons.
As recently as last week, the Redevelopment Agency sent an eviction notice to operators of the last remaining outlet for live entertainment in downtown Huntington Beach, the Finally A Unicorn Emporium, a small coffee shop-club-theater, which was in the way for new construction. Ironically, at 3,000 square feet, Finally A Unicorn is the exactly the size of the new club envisioned for Pier Colony.
City officials said they hope to avoid the sort of problems that surrounded Safari Sam’s. “We are hoping that as part of a brand-new project, attitudes of the downtown (residents) will somehow change,” said Mike Adams, director of community development.
“We are trying to locate the suite where this (club) would go, as far as possible from new residential housing,” he added. “It will be on the second floor instead of the first. Even with all that in place, it will require a conditional use permit for approval.
“I don’t know whether it would take a real gentle club with a piano bar (to win approval), versus something where they wanted to invite new artists in and have hours until 3 or 4 in the morning.”
Mayor John Erskine recently sent letters to 29 club owners in the state, seeking their involvement, according to Stephen Kohler, principal redevelopment specialist for Huntington Beach.
The nightclub’s specific format has not been determined but Kohler said it “certainly will be music” as opposed to live theater, comedy or other entertainment.
Kohler would not specify which club owners have been approached, but those who said they received letters include operators of the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, which offers rock, folk and jazz; Bogart’s in Long Beach, which offers rock, and the Baked Potato in Studio City, a jazz club.
Coach House owner Gary Folgner said that he has talked “very seriously” with Huntington Beach officials about opening a club there but that the relatively small size would make it difficult to make a profit. Folgner has suggested a larger club, perhaps 10,000 square feet with a capacity for 400 to 500 people.
Huntington Beach officials said the plan might be expanded to make a larger club possible.
Rent in the new project is expected to be $2.50 to $3 or more per square foot, which is considerably higher than most nightclub owners pay, according to Sam Lanni, former owner of Safari Sam’s.
“Most clubs operate on a fairly inexpensive lease--50 cents, 75 cents, maybe $1 per square foot,” Lanni said. “At $2.50 to $3, there’s no way a club can be competitive, unless the city subsidizes it. In a way, (the high rent) is justified, but the businesses that can pay that kind of money and still get a return are not live-entertainment nightclubs.”
Kohler said Erskine’s letter anticipated that problem and told prospective tenants that “the Redevelopment Agency is empowered to provide (financial) assistance to entertainment establishments.”
He said approval of a subsidy would be based on a financial analysis “to determine whether a contribution by the agency is warranted.”
California Resorts president Uri Gati said the search for an operator is still “wide open” but he added that the “most impressive” proposal for a club of the size currently under consideration has come from the owner of the Baked Potato.
“I think a jazz club would be nice, and I understand there are a lot of superb jazz musicians in Orange County,” Gati said. “If this was a state-of-the-art place, I think it would be real popular. But nothing has been decided. If the city gives someone their blessing, we will too. We will look to the city to see which way they want to go.”
Gati said a decision is expected in the next 30 to 60 days in anticipation of ground breaking before the end of this year and completion of the project by spring, 1990.
The commercial-office half of the project is planned on the old Golden Bear site, at the south corner of Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway. A 130-unit condominium building is planned for the lot immediately south of that.
During Planning Commission meetings, there was discussion of using the Golden Bear name for the new club. “It would probably be up to the developer and the operator that is selected to figure out whether they want to use the Golden Bear name and whether they can get legal authority,” Kohler said.
Former Golden Bear operators Richard and Charles Babiracki, who Kohler said were not asked to be part of the Huntington Pier Colony nightclub, have said they registered the Golden Bear name for their own use.
Gati said: “Whoever is chosen to operate it would probably be asked if they can incorporate some of the architectural pieces and memorabilia that were saved from the Golden Bear. But that’s not set in concrete.”
Two blocks up Main Street at Finally A Unicorn Emporium, co-owner Lee Miller said the Redevelopment Agency is helping her find a new location for her plucky establishment. She said she hopes to remain in the vicinity and to keep offering small-scale theater productions and folk performances.
But she said higher rents may price her out of the downtown area, where she has operated since 1983.
Miller said she is paying 40 to 50 cents per square foot rent on her 3,000-square-foot storefront. The Redevelopment Agency has quoted her rental rates of $1.50 and up per square foot for space in another new project that will replace the building where Finally A Unicorn operates.
“That’s out of our range,” she said.
Mayor Erskine and the other six City Council members were unavailable for comment about the project Tuesday.