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Pier Pressure : A wave of slow-growth sentiment collides with redevelopment supporters over restoration plans for the historic boardwalk. City planners are caught in the middle.


SANTA MONICA — The Santa Monica Pier, often called the soul of the city, is the subject of recent soul-searching as development foes question the wisdom of a longstanding, community-endorsed plan to redevelop the regional playground.

"Slow-growth forces are trying to stop the pier," said Councilman Herb Katz, a project supporter. "For a mix of reasons, some people want Santa Monica to turn back to 1940."

Actually, supporters of the pier restoration are seeking to recapture an even earlier era, with plans for a Fun Zone of games and rides, including a 115-foot Ferris wheel and baby roller coaster that would join the restored carousel, itself a throwback to another time.

The pier, which draws an estimated 3 million visitors annually, is actually two side-by-side connecting piers: the Municipal Pier, jutting far out to sea, and the wider, shorter Pleasure Pier to the south, where the Fun Zone would be.

The Fun Zone is budgeted to cost the city about $500,000 and private developers $6 million.

The main forum for the debate over the pier has been recent meetings of the city Planning Commission, although the issue has also percolated to the surface at the City Council, chiefly in discussions about whether the city is being overrun with alcohol outlets.

In one testy exchange last fall, Councilman Dennis Zane, long a champion of the redevelopment project, accused Mayor Ken Genser of using the alcohol issue as a tool to attack development in the city, especially on the pier.

The Planning Commission is considering an environmental impact report on the redevelopment project, and attempting to address concerns raised by residents that adding an amusement park would invite crime, noise and traffic.

The commission broke off a long discussion of environmental minutiae at 2:25 a.m. Thursday and hastily scheduled a meeting for Monday night. Then, the commissioners are to vote first on whether the environmental impact report is sufficient, and then on the project itself. If the commission approves, the project would then go before the City Council.

Responding to studies in the environmental assessment showing that the project would generate an unacceptable amount of traffic, the Pier Restoration Corp., a public-private partnership formed to redevelop the pier, has already decided to back off from a key element of the plan: a Central Plaza composed of retail stores, a food court and parking lot.

Forgoing that moneymaker, however, means that the city will continue to operate the pier at a deficit--currently $900,000 a year, which is expected to fall to $780,000 by 1996. Those projections count base rents only and do not consider sales tax revenues that may come in if the remaining project is a big success.

Now, attention is centered on the Fun Zone, which is to take up 70,000 square feet in the southwest corner of the pier. One thing is clear in the public debate: One person's sound of joyous children's laughter is another person's blood-curdling shriek.

To illustrate her fears that the noise will ruin the neighborhood, Leigh Kavanaugh, owner of the nearby Belle Bleu hotel, turned around during public testimony at a Feb. 5 Planning Commission hearing and screamed at the top of her lungs.

"Our quality of life is at stake," Kavanaugh said in an interview. "It's terrifying. . . . They're saying, let's take a risk. If it turns out to be a nightmare, they can just say, 'Oops.' "

Kavanaugh was one of 16 project opponents who spoke at the Feb. 5 meeting. At Wednesday night's meeting, project advocates countered with a cadre of supporters, including a group of grade-school children who held up bright crayon drawings of Ferris wheels.

The question underlying individual concerns about the effect of the Fun Zone is the impact of the militant slow-growth climate that has evolved in the city over the past several years.

When reminded that the public was behind the project when the master plan was approved in 1988, Planning Commission member Sharon Gilpin replied pointedly with a question: "Have things changed in the city in the last four years?"

Gilpin has been an outspoken opponent of many recent commercial projects, and was particularly active in the successful campaigns to thwart a large office development at Santa Monica Municipal Airport and restaurateur Michael McCarty's luxury hotel project on the beach.

In both cases, a community uprising squelched plans that had support from the City Council. Slow-growth activist Kathleen Schwallie, who says the pier project is much too big, contends that the issue is whether the city's leaders will apply to the pier the voter mandate to slow down development.

"People want to see the pier improved," she said in an interview. "People don't want to see the character of the pier destroyed."

Supporters of the pier project say comparing it to previous unpopular projects is like comparing apples to oranges.

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