LOCAL ELECTIONS: REDONDO BEACH : Future of Battered Pier on Ballot

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Not much is left of the bustling promenade that once was the Redondo Beach Pier. Where once stood a massive horseshoe swept by brisk sea air, there now stands a pair of salty stumps.

What to do about what was left of the pier? It's a question the city has grappled with since 1988, when a string of disasters nearly leveled the once venerable landmark and snuffed out many of the businesses there.

Should the pier be rebuilt? If so, how? And at whose expense? Not even judicial fiat has completely settled the matter. Though a Torrance Superior Court commissioner ruled in January that the city was contractually obligated to resurrect the pier, the city has appealed.

On June 5, voters will be asked to assume for the sake of argument that they have a choice in the reconstruction, which will cost an estimated $4 million to $6 million.

They will be asked three questions in an advisory vote: Should the pier be rebuilt? If so, should it be less commercial? And should the reconstruction money come from sources other than tax dollars?

The issue has been surprisingly divisive for a city that has never in its nearly 100-year history been without a pier. From the moment Redondo Beach was founded as a logging port, historians and civic boosters say, piers have been the city's focal point.

"We have a lot of land to the east and a lot of ocean to the west, and where they meet is what Redondo Beach is all about," said Ernie O'Dell, executive director of the Redondo Beach Chamber of Commerce. "What the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, the pier is to Redondo Beach."

Today, nothing is left of the horseshoe but its two lopsided arms. One is overcrowded with fish markets, food booths, video arcades and souvenir shops. The other is a rusting, concrete and steel dead end.

There have been so many piers in Redondo Beach that historians argue over the precise number and the order in which they were built.

There was a shipping pier in 1889 at the foot of Emerald Street even before the city was incorporated, and in ensuing years two more were built. When those piers were abandoned, others took their place.

A three-legged "Endless Pier" was erected in 1916 before it was destroyed by a storm 20 months later. Then in 1926, the city built its horseshoe-shaped municipal pier. Two years after that, Capt. W.N. Monstad, a former merchant marine shipper, built a straight pier alongside the southern end of the municipal pier.

"When Redondo Beach stopped being a port of entry for lumber, we became a tourist area," said Jonathan Eubanks of the Redondo Beach Historical Society. To promote tourism, he said, the municipal pier "was uniquely designed as a pleasure pier."

Generations cast their lines from the fishing promenade and worked summers in the seafood stands and arcades. But by the 1970s and 1980s, Eubanks said, the merchants that had congregated at the ends of the pier began to spread across its length, and the streets surrounding it became congested with throngs of tourists.

"It did get pretty unbearable," said Eubanks, who lives three blocks from what is left of the pier and would like to see it rebuilt. "People couldn't find parking, so they'd park in our neighborhood. They'd leave trash in the lawns, and dirty diapers, and if you complained, they'd look at you as if they were in Disneyland and there were people hired to go around behind them and clean up."

Residents in the condominiums nearby began complaining about the rate of burglaries, and the increasing appearance of gang members on the boardwalk--claims that haven't been buttressed by police. Lt. John Nelson acknowledged that the area has a high rate of vehicle burglaries and thefts but said that wasn't surprising for an area where a lot of people congregate.

Moreover, statistics indicate the pier area has a far lower crime rate than the city's major shopping mall. And in the years since the pier was damaged, statistics show, the number of major crimes in the area has barely changed.

The pier met its fate in January, 1988, when an Arctic storm rolled in on 20-foot waves, taking a massive bite out of the horseshoe's western curve.

Repairs had barely begun when April brought a second storm. Winds whipped up to 52 m.p.h. The breakers were the size of Mack trucks. Telephone-pole-sized pilings were ripped loose and tossed against the decking. A coffee shop kitchen dropped into the sea. The fishing promenade was destroyed.

Then, in May, a spark from electrical wiring under a pier restaurant delivered the final blow. About a third of the pier businesses and half the remaining decking were demolished as the midsection of the horseshoe went up in flames.

The City Council's first reaction was to rebuild. But when a public meeting was convened two months after the fire, the reaction they encountered was sharply mixed.

Joyce Long, a business owner, announced that she and her neighbors were "thrilled" when the pier burned down. John Sharp added that "many citizens think piers are, frankly, passe. "

"I think everything is being governed by a higher authority," Harold Davidson warned, "and he's telling you right now, 'Do not rebuild that pier.' "

The complaints were abundant. The pier, critics said, was an attractive nuisance that for too long had drawn riffraff and crime to the beach community. The noise had been constant, the traffic a mess, the litter unbearable. The toilets had been smelly, the penny arcades cheap. The "wrong element" was drawn in by the crowds.

The council put off a vote on the reconstruction and sponsored a "Design Your Own Pier" contest. But even the contest entries were split. Some submissions depicted to the last detail the perfect pier of the future, while others were sent back with just three words: "Burn the rest."

As the months passed, politics came into play with the election of a council majority that had made campaign promises to put the pier issue to a voter referendum.

Meanwhile, the pier opponents softened, saying they didn't oppose a pier, per se, just the resurrection of the old commercial structure. Why couldn't Redondo Beach rebuild its pier without the food stands and arcades? Why not build a surfing museum, for example, or designate the area as a public promenade?

But as the city began to explore its contractual obligations to the businesses that had signed long-term leases on the pier, the matter became far more complex.

As a cautionary measure, the city had asked the courts to determine its legal obligations under the pier lease. Torrance Superior Court Judge Abraham Gorenfeld found that the city was required to rebuild.

Undaunted, the city appealed, but an examination of the lease revealed that the lease-holders have the right to anything built where the old pier used to be, City Manager Tim Casey said.

This factor alone should be sufficient to prompt a "no" vote on the reconstruction measure, opponents say.

"We really lack ultimate control on what will happen to the pier because of these archaic leases," Councilwoman Barbara Doerr said.

Casey noted, however, that the appeal is up to the council. Moreover, he said, the council still has authority, among other things, over the size, appearance and hours of pier businesses, and could use that power to influence the overall look of a rebuilt pier.

A second option, Casey added, might be to forget about rebuilding the horseshoe and erect an all-new pier down the beach from the old remains. This option, Doerr and others say, would allow the city to start fresh.

But the horseshoe proponents say the commercial aspects of the pier were, in many ways, part of its charm.

"If I couldn't go down and have a beer after a few hours, maybe a bite to eat, well, gosh--why go at all?" said Tony Trutanich, whose fish market and restaurants have been in business on the pier for more than 20 years.

Added Mayor Brad Parton, who supports reconstruction, "People talk about having a 'recreational' pier. But for a lot of people, recreational is being able to go down there and have dinner while you watch the sun set."

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