The people who own the bumper cars, amusement games and fast-food joints on the Santa Monica Pier are protesting a new project to renovate the landmark, saying planned commercial development may force them from the pier.
The project, nearly six years in the making, is scheduled to go before the Santa Monica City Council for approval next month. It is the work of the Pier Restoration Corp., a nonprofit agency set up by the city in 1983 to oversee restoration and development of the 80-year-old pier.
Under the long-awaited proposal, the city would spend $7 million over two years to reinforce the pier's platform and upgrade utilities, sewerage and lighting. A second, $4-million phase, including a parking structure, would follow.
In addition, an estimated $15.8 million in private investment would be sought for commercial development on about 150,000 square feet of the pier.
Planners calculate the improvements would eliminate the pier's annual operating deficit of $920,000 and turn a profit of about $430,000 by 1993.
Its designers say the development program would usher the pier into a "new era of vitality," while expanding its appeal to a wider cross section of patrons.
But some of the merchants at the pier say they are afraid the plan would lead to excessive gentrification that would squeeze them out of business and drive away low-income visitors. With the buildings that the merchants occupy facing demolition under the plan, they say they may not be able to afford higher rents after the development, or that they may be outbid by bigger companies.
"I'm afraid the majority could not afford to pay the rentals," said Harold Kleinman, a spokesman for the Santa Monica Pier Business Assn., which represents the 13 businesses operating on the pier.
"And if they do, there would be such an inflation of prices that the pier would not be the pier we want it to be."
Members of the Pier Restoration Corp., however, said the proposal does not necessarily push current tenants off the pier.
Developers who bid for the project would be urged to include provisions that accommodate current tenants, and those bids would be given preference, according to the proposal.
"They have a better shot at getting business here than anyone just walking off the street," said Susan Mullin, acting director of the corporation. "We've provided them with extra weight. That's something commercial folks don't usually get."
The merchants will have to meet certain "performance levels," according to the proposal, such as standards for the quality of the food they sell.
"They have a right to their concerns. We don't want to drop-kick them, but they have to (upgrade) too," said City Councilman Herb Katz, who serves as council liaison to the pier committee. "If they don't measure up, what are you going to do?"
Kleinman, who has managed the bumper cars and amusement stands for about 18 years, called the proposal a "beautiful but impractical dream" for the pier.
He questioned the cash flow projections that the Pier Restoration Corp. is using, and he predicted the spate of development in the area--including work under way at the Third Street Mall and new hotels--will drain potential customers.
"A development of this size can't take in the money that it needs to to survive," Kleinman said. "Where are all the customers going to come from?"
Some officials criticized the tenants for waiting this long to voice their objections instead of speaking up at regularly scheduled pier planning meetings open to the public.
City Councilwoman Chris Reed called the last-minute opposition a "delaying tactic to postpone the inevitable" because the merchants fear competition.
"This community can't delay any longer on improving and rehabilitating this pier," Reed said. "A large segment of the public is disgusted with the fact that we haven't moved more quickly."
Under the proposal, buildings that would remain are the Carrousel , the Billiard Building, the Boathouse, Playland Arcade and Sinbad's. All others would be razed because they are in poor condition and are not considered historically or architecturally significant, the Pier Corp. said.
City Councilman Dennis Zane, who also served as council liaison before the Pier Corp., defended the plan.
"Nobody wants to gentrify the pier," Zane said. "That doesn't mean they don't want to attract more people . . . increase the level of spending . . . attract some more middle-class people. They do. But not at the expense of low-income and inexpensive uses.
"Without a plan of this sort, the pier is in jeopardy. It is getting too old and costly to sustain unless we improve its level of performance."