Pauline Eppink remembers going to the Santa Monica pier as a child more than half a century ago to ride the brightly painted wooden horses on the carousel.
Now, the 72-year-old retired social worker still walks to the pier every morning at the crack of dawn.
"I have a soft spot for this pier," she said, squinting against the bright morning sun as she spied a pelican near a distant buoy. "This is one of the best spots in the world for renewing energy."
The pier, a county landmark often called the "soul of Santa Monica," was damaged in a winter storm in 1983 that destroyed a large chunk of the wooden structure. Business dropped and the pier began to run up an annual operating deficit of more than $900,000.
The City of Santa Monica is about to embark on a project to reconstruct the pier, usher in commercial development and, officials say, revive the whimsical flavor that made the pier a unique coastal attraction.
After almost four years of planning and debate, a set of design guidelines has received approval from three key city commissions and is expected to go before the City Council for final approval this month.
If approved, the city will spend $7 million over three years to reinforce the pier's platform, build surface parking and upgrade utilities, sewage facilities, railing and lighting. A second, $4-million phase, which includes a 550-space parking structure, would follow.
In addition, an estimated $16.5 million would be sought from private investors for commercial development of about 150,000 square feet of the pier, more than twice the area that is currently used for commercial purposes.
The special memories the pier holds for people like Eppink has been part of the challenge in designing the development project, according to Gail Markens, outgoing executive director of the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corp., a nonprofit organization set up by the city to oversee the pier project.
People either have their own ideas about what should be done with the pier or they resist change altogether, she said.
"The pier has always been something people cared a lot about. Everyone has memories about what the pier means in their lives," Markens said.
"It has played such a role in people's lives that when they hear that change is coming . . . they say, 'What do you mean?' " she said. "We want to keep it compatible with its history and at the same time put it in a place it can continue to evolve."
The pier, built in 1921, is shared by fishermen, joggers, hand-holding couples, youngsters on skateboards, tourists and others who stroll casually down its planks or pause to rest on its multicolored benches. Its eclectic architecture has long been a trademark of Santa Monica.
The plan for the pier envisions a commercial mix of about 40% amusement and entertainment concessions, 40% restaurants and food stores and 20% retail or educational outlets, Markens said.
She said the plan would make the pier more diverse, enabling it to attract visitors both day and night year-round.
The city hopes to break even on operating the pier and eventually generate about $450,000 annually in revenues, she said.
"The pier used to be much more fanciful, whimsical," she said. "Now it has become fairly static. It doesn't have a real fun image. We want to bring back the fanciful, whimsical elements."
She added that care would be taken so that water can still be visible from most points on the pier.
"We don't want there to be any doubt of the fact that you are on a pier . . . not just in the middle of a commercial mall."
Markens said some structures on the pier will be demolished, but she said developers would be encouraged to find a place on the pier for businesses operating there now, "as long as they meet performance standards" such as sales volume and cleanliness.
The possibility that some merchants could be squeezed off the pier has several of them worried.
"The fear is dominant in every lessee's mind because of the changes that could take place," said Harold Kleinman, president of the 14-member Santa Monica Pier Lessees Assn.
Hoping for Priority
"We are hopeful the City Council will take the lessees into consideration . . . and there will be wordage so that current lessees will have some sort of priority," said Kleinman, who has run the bumper cars and amusement stands at the pier for about 18 years.
"We certainly deserve a shot for having weathered the poor times, during the storm and since the storm," he said.
Kleinman and some frequent visitors to the pier, such as fishermen, expressed concerns that the commercial development of the pier would overshadow its traditional uses.
"They seem to want to make it more of a commercial enterprise rather than a low-budgeted fun place," said Bob Carvel, who runs a Beverly Hills silk-screen business and has been going to the pier to fish regularly for 26 years.