Robert W. Schulz, president of a company planning to build a restaurant on Topanga State Beach, realized what he was up against as soon as he opened his mouth at a meeting with residents fighting the project. "I'd like to hope this is a friendly evening," he said. The crowd responded with laughs and jeers.
Residents of Pacific Palisades have opposed the eatery proposed for the site of the former Jetty restaurant at Pacific Coast Highway and Coastline Drive, almost since that restaurant burned down in 1984. At Wednesday's meeting at the J. Paul Getty Museum, they were not about to be friendly. "We do not want another restaurant, period," shouted Vance Walker.
Officials of California Beach Restaurants Inc. want to build a 7,000-square-foot restaurant with 196 seats and 80 parking spaces. The company, which is chaired by Bob Morris, one of the most successful restaurateurs in Southern California, also owns Gladstone's 4 Fish in Pacific Palisades.
Wednesday's meeting was suggested by Los Angeles County Supervisor Ed Edelman in the hope that an 11th-hour compromise could be worked out before the case is aired in court. Residents have filed a lawsuit against the public agencies that oversee the project and the restaurateurs to demand environmental impact studies on the project. Residents agreed to postpone a hearing on the case until they met with Schulz.
Schulz handed residents copies of architectural drawings of the proposed restaurant depicting a modern single-story structure with shrubs and large windows overlooking a beach of buxom women in bikinis.
The pretty pictures placated nobody in the rowdy crowd of 100. Speaker after speaker shouted that the restaurant would create traffic and accidents, crime, garbage and noise. They said it would smell of grease like Gladstone's. "This is deja vu, " said Jeanne Weiner. "Bob Morris said everything about Gladstone's you say . . . " Agreed Saadish Manooch, "Forget about your big money and let us live in peace."
As Schulz pointed out at the meeting, he was only a scapegoat. The homeowners' real battle is with the county, which has given the project a go-ahead and has a big financial stake in seeing it proceed.
The county operates much of the state's property, including the marina in Marina del Rey and state beaches along Pacific Coast Highway. The county earns more than $1.3 million a year from Gladstone's alone, according to Chris Klinger, deputy director of the county Department of Beaches and Harbors, which oversees the concession agreements. Klinger expects that the county could earn $500,000 to $600,000 annually from the proposed restaurant, money county officials say is desperately needed. County officials project a $66-million budget shortfall for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
Klinger argued that beach restaurants give people who are not rich or lucky enough to live on the beach the chance to enjoy a coastline that has been increasingly walled for private use. Schulz called the proposed deck on the restaurant, where diners can drink while they wait for tables, "a public access view opportunity deck."
Environmentalists argue that the public can better enjoy the beaches by walking on the sands than by staring at waves from a bar window.
The leasing of public lands to private businesses has become an increasingly controversial policy issue. Recently, local activists have successfully fought several other restaurant proposals on nearby stretches of Pacific Coast Highway, arguing that they would destroy the environment.
County officials are in a bind. "We can't look at revenues alone," said Edelman. "We also have to look at the impact of profit-making ventures on the surrounding beaches and residents. It's going to be a tough row to hoe."
Wednesday's meeting only hardened the resolve of some residents, who reminded Schulz that in 1988 they successfully forced Occidental Petroleum to stop drilling offshore. "What makes you think you can beat us?" one man taunted. Schulz said he didn't know.
"I took a beating. I better call my wife and let her know I survived," he joked afterwards, his formerly crisp business suit rumpled and his face flushed. Given the hostility he encountered, Schulz said, the case may well end up in court. "I'm not sure we can reach a common ground," he said.
A smaller group of homeowners will attempt to hammer out an agreement with the restaurant company in the next couple of weeks, according to John Murdock, the attorney for the Palisades homeowners.