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Old Malibu Pier Catches a Wave

With repairs underway, the state chooses a local surfer's partnership to oversee concessions, including cafes and water-sport rentals.

March 07, 2003|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

Battered by storms and bruised by construction mishaps, the beloved Malibu Pier is being resuscitated by, appropriately enough, a local surfer.

On Thursday, the state's top parks official picked a partnership headed by Jefferson "Zuma Jay" Wagner, longtime owner of a nearby Malibu surf shop, to run the pier's concessions. The plans include sport fishing, cafes, a bait shop, water-sport rentals and even a refurbished, upscale Alice's Restaurant at the Pacific Coast Highway end of the pier. A surfing museum, with vintage boards and other memorabilia from the 1940s and 1950s, will be an added attraction.

If all goes well, Wagner said, some operations could open early next year.

Some say they look forward to more glory days for the renovated pier, with its sun-splashed views of famed Surfrider Beach, the Santa Monica Mountains and a coastline that many have likened to the Riviera.

"It's a beautiful pier," said Paul Spooner, a surfer and general manager of Duke's Malibu restaurant. "Unlike some of the newer piers, it has a lot of architectural integrity."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 08, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Malibu Pier -- An article in Friday's California section about the Malibu Pier restoration incorrectly reported that a tower was damaged when a crane toppled during construction. A tower wall was damaged and will be restored.

Not to mention a colorful past.

The 780-foot pier was commissioned in the early 1900s by businessman Frederick Rindge as a shipping wharf for hides and grains produced on his 17,000-acre Malibu Rancho. It also served as a dock for unloading materials for building the 20-mile Rindge Railroad, which ran from Las Flores Canyon to the Ventura County line.

During the 1920s and 1930s, film studios shot sea epics there. In 1929, a daughter of the Rindges, Rhoda Rindge Adamson, erected a tower-like home for her son along the new PCH, within view of her own coastal, tile-festooned Adamson House. (In 1972, the tower became part of the newly opened Alice's Restaurant.) Protecting the tower was a rubble-studded concrete-block wall.

In 1934, the pier was opened to the public. Cesar Romero and Buster Crabbe were among the many Hollywood stars who strode through the massive, rough-hewn gates and fished for halibut and barracuda from Malibu Sport Fishing Co. barges anchored offshore.

During World War II, the Coast Guard used the pier as a lookout post. After a ferocious storm demolished much of the pier in 1942, businessman William Huber bought the structure for $50,000 and rebuilt it.

A 1983 El Nino storm destroyed many of the pilings, and the pier, then owned by the California Department of Parks and Recreation, was shuttered for 18 months. Soon after it reopened, the state named it a historic point of interest.

But major storms in 1993 and 1994 once again trashed much of the pier; it was closed in 1995.

In recent years, the effort to restore it was stymied by a nasty feud between partners hired to repair the pier. Their legal battle, which state parks officials say will have no effect on the concession plan, is still raging in state and federal courts. (While those contractors were working on the pier, a crane toppled, crushing several feet of the tower. The current contractor, Dennis J. Amoroso Construction Co., plans to restore the wall.)

Meanwhile, the state and Los Angeles County have kicked in $6 million for repairs, including all-new decking, railings, structural bracing and epoxy and fiberglass coverings for the pilings. Twin buildings at the ocean end of the pier are also being revamped, with porthole windows, "ship lap siding" and other original elements left intact.

With the choice Thursday of Malibu Pier Partners, Wagner's specially formed partnership, a state parks official viewed the money as well spent.

"We are excited to bring Malibu Pier back to life," said Ruth Coleman, acting director of the California Department of Parks and Recreation. "This concession will provide high-quality services while re-creating the Southern California beach atmosphere of the 1940s."

Indeed, Wagner said he and his partners -- who submitted the only bid for the concession -- went to great lengths to research the pier's halcyon days. The new Alice's Restaurant will feature a menu by Bradley Ogden of the renowned Lark Creek Inn in Northern California, as well as white tablecloths and "chilled forks," Wagner said.

"We're pretty excited about it," said Hayden W. Sohm, the Malibu-area superintendent with the state parks department. "It's going to provide the city with a real destination."

Dave Yates, who lately has resumed walking onto the pier to fish, said he can't wait for the pier to reopen.

"Malibu Pier has been like my backbone," said Yates, who fished there as a boy.

Some obstacles remain, Wagner noted. Parking is limited, as is the sewage treatment capacity. Wagner said he expects his partnership to invest $200,000 or so to upgrade that system.

With the lean, rugged good looks of a Marlboro Man -- which he once was, albeit a nonsmoking one -- Wagner, 49, has the sea-blue eyes one might expect of an award-winning surfer. When he is not advising customers on wetsuits at his shop, he rigs up special effects for movies.

For Wagner, who grew up taking illicit flying leaps off the Malibu Pier, plunging into pier concessions is exhilarating, even if he doesn't expect to turn much profit for several years.

Just think, he said, "all those millions of taxpayer dollars, and they're putting it in the hands of a surfer."

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