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Pier Pressure

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tony Trutanich has spent 44 years slaving away in a hot kitchen, tending bar, schmoozing with customers and shaking the hands of thousands of patrons to build up his restaurant business on the Redondo Beach Pier.

But what took Trutanich four decades to build, he says, is slowly being undone by officials in this seaside city who have raised weekend parking rates as high as $10 a pop and are thinking of tripling pier maintenance fees.

So Trutanich, whose business has survived gusty storms, a devastating fire and a sluggish economy, says he has never weathered a worse time with Tony’s on the Pier, Tony’s Fish Market and the leasehold for 10 properties on the pier.

“It’s not fun any more,” said Trutanich, 73, sitting in one of his two pier restaurants where the ocean view is unmatched. “Gosh, the city is partners with everyone out here. It behooves them to do things to bring bodies down here so we do more business.”

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Trutanich and other longtime merchants maintain that city officials have killed a thriving tourist attraction with decisions that have set up a costly roadblock to visitors to the pier, which was nearly wiped out in 1988 when a fire and two storms badly damaged part of the horseshoe section. The new city-owned pier reopened in February 1995.

Redondo Beach spent $11 million to transform the once-rickety wooden structure into a modern concrete deck whose 202 concrete pilings should withstand fires, 10-foot tides and 20-foot waves. But the pier’s rebirth came after much debate and squabbling. Nearby residents griped that they didn’t want the pier back because of the noisy and sometimes unruly crowd that packed the place.

Those crowds also had made the pier a profitable place to own a business.

In 1991, city voters approved the pier reconstruction, saying they wanted a replacement with more open spaces where destroyed businesses used to be. And that’s what they got.

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The northern end of the pier’s horseshoe is a vast walkway. Fishermen toss their lines over the side hoping to catch a whopper. Children chase sea gulls.

Fifteen of the pier’s nearly 40 restaurants and shops were destroyed in 1988 and never rebuilt. And that, merchants say, is just another reason people are staying away from the pier, which before the fire and storms was labeled the most visited pier in Southern California with 6 million tourists a year.

“There just isn’t as much product here,” said Judy Milner, who has owned the Shark Attack gift shop for 24 years. “There were two or three more large restaurants, gift shops and stores. . . . And a lot of people think the pier was destroyed and never came back.”

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The city, after spending seven years to rebuild the pier, is trying to attract new businesses. But the city and business owners differ sharply on what they would like to see and how fast it needs to get there.

The master leasehold for the destroyed section used to belong to Steve Shoemaker, operator of the Fun Factory, a video game arcade located on the pier’s lower parking level.

Shoemaker’s idea was to open something like a carousel, a wax museum and/or an aquarium and some restaurants on 22,000 square feet. But the city didn’t like Shoemaker’s business ideas and bought his master leasehold for $1.5 million last year after he paid $1 million for it in 1991. “They don’t want anything amusement or recreation oriented,” Shoemaker says.

Mayor Brad Parton agrees. He said the city is looking for some quality enterprises to fill the vacant space to attract a better crowd that will not spark neighbors’ complaints of loud noises. The city also wants to avoid a carnival atmosphere. “We don’t want any more cotton candy stands. We’ve got plenty of that. I would rather take our time and get good high-quality businesses.”

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Parton would like to see restaurants such as Gladstones for Fish or Wolfgang Puck’s commit to the pier. To further that effort, the city three months ago hired Wald Nickell Co. in Pacific Palisades which has contacted about 80 firms, of which 23 are willing to talk about opening something there, said Barry Kielsmeier, harbor properties division manager.

Meanwhile, pier business owners say the city is hindering their efforts to make a profit by trying to raise maintenance fees. After not raising maintenance fees for eight years, the city had proposed increasing them three to four times over a seven-year period, which would bring them up to what commercial buildings charge, Kielsmeier says. That means that people with master leaseholds, such as Trutanich, would see his fees go from $23,629 a year to $45,851. Bob Resnick, another master leaseholder, will have his fees increased from $24,449 a year to $90,144.

The fees need to be increased to pay for maintaining the pier and help raise money to replace, in the next five to 10 years, the pillars not destroyed in 1988, Parton says.

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The City Council in April rejected that fee increase and directed the staff to come back with a new proposal Tuesday.

Milner of Shark Attack says that under the old proposal, her maintenance fees would have gone from $732 a year to more than $5,000 while business isn’t even close to what it used to be several years ago.

Jay Taylor, who owns the Slightly Different gift shop, says the maintenance fee increases would hurt him tremendously because his business revenues are down 40% to 50% from 1988.

The city, however, counters that in areas such as Shoreline Village in Long Beach, maintenance fees are $1.50 a square foot.

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Redondo Beach officials say they are subsidizing the pier merchants whose maintenance fees don’t cover the city’s expenses.

That angers Trutanich, who says he pays for much of the landscaping outside his restaurants and cleans up any graffiti.

What also angers merchants are the steep parking fees imposed last summer. It used to cost $2 a day to park in city-owned lots during the week, but that has gone up to $5. And on weekends, it costs $1.50 an hour with a $10 maximum. The California Coastal Commission is investigating the parking rate increase because the city didn’t apply for a Coastal Commission permit.

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Restaurant owners note that patrons don’t linger long after dinner or in the bar when weekend parking costs $1.50 an hour. Merchants prefer a sliding scale where it costs little to park for the first two hours and then increases more dramatically the longer you stay.

The parking fees were raised, Mayor Parton says, because too many beach-goers and fishermen were taking advantage of the cheap parking and not spending money at the pier. The city also needs to refurbish the 26-year-old concrete parking structure.

“We had complaints from these very same merchants on the pier that they were tired of the whole parking structure being full when people weren’t going to the pier,” the mayor recalls. “We increased those fees to help solve those problems and provided a validation system for those who wanted to use it.”

However, the validation system hasn’t been popular with merchants who must pay 60% of the cost while the city picks up the rest. The city is thinking about increasing its share to 50%.

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But that may not be enough for Trutanich, who opened his first restaurant, Tony’s at the Pier, in 1952, and now thinks about selling out. The pier holds a lot of memories for him. He met his wife when he hired her as a waitress in 1960. His children, Donna Sevilla and Mike Trutanich, have worked at the restaurants since they were teenagers.

Sevilla is still trying to persuade her father to let her and her brother run the restaurants to keep up the family tradition.

“I can’t imagine not coming down here every day and not being a part of the pier,” Sevilla says. “How could I come down and see this restaurant called something else, like Charlie’s?”


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