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Redondo Beach hopes to recapture pier's glory days

Developer for a $300-million waterfront project wants to return 'majesty' to the pier. But others, recalling previous development attempts, are fearful of too much more change.

June 08, 2013|By Christine Mai-Duc, Los Angeles Times
  • Old Tony's restaurant, a city institution that opened in 1952, still serves as the Redondo Beach Pier's anchor tenant.
Old Tony's restaurant, a city institution that opened in 1952, still… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

The dining room at Old Tony's is a testament to its status as a survivor. Its aging green carpets and tan leather booths have overlooked Redondo Beach Pier for more than 60 years.

Inside, not much has changed.

The tiki bar and musty-gray fishing nets hanging from the ceiling are the kitsch of decades past, and some of the waitresses have been around since the Nixon administration.

In its heyday, throngs of visitors packed the pier, even on weekdays, catching movies at the stately Fox theater or fishing off the horseshoe-shaped pier. Business was brisk enough to support a second restaurant, Tony's Fish Market, and still, dinner waits on a Saturday stretched into the hours.

"You saw kids running around with their cotton candy and ice cream till late at night. It was always so busy and alive," says Michael Trutanich, whose father, Tony, opened the popular restaurant in 1952 that still serves as the pier's anchor tenant.

These days, though, the crowds have thinned. After a devastating fire in 1988, many of the businesses closed; some that remain don't even bother to open on cloudy days.

Now, after two decades of stagnation, Redondo Beach is on the move with a $300-million plan to redevelop the ailing waterfront district. Where there are now dated office buildings and T-shirt shops, developers envision a boutique hotel, green space and a San Francisco-inspired market hall.

But wary of the legacy of unfulfilled promises and development blunders, they are proceeding with caution. The last major effort to revitalize the area was abandoned amid protest from locals who hold a fierce loyalty for a place once considered the jewel of the South Bay.

Fred Bruning, chief executive of Centercal Properties, the developer the city has chosen to spearhead the new project, is a longtime South Bay resident and has his own childhood memories of fishing on the pier. He said he wants to restore it to its former glory.

"There's got to be a bit of that majesty, that magic that used to be on the waterfront," he said.

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Today, the tired facades and crumbling asphalt along the International Boardwalk offer few clues of Redondo pier's past glamour.

After abandoning its ambitions as a deep-water port in the late 1800s, Redondo Beach remade itself into a premier resort destination — "The Gem of the Continent," proclaimed an advertisement that ran in the Los Angeles Times in 1881.

The iconic red cars carried beachgoers from downtown Los Angeles. Parasol-toting ladies strolled the waterfront's "endless pier" or bathed in what was billed as the world's largest saltwater plunge. Some tried their nerves on the Lightning Racer, a massive wooden roller coaster that towered above the sand.

But lightning-stoked fires and savage storms routinely battered the seaside resort, scattering pier lumber like matchsticks.

A black-and-white photo hangs over a table at Old Tony's, depicting the toll of the winter of 1915. "Citizens worked all night Jan. 7th to rebuild sea wall," the caption reads, "which was promptly washed out Jan. 10th."

In 1988, a fierce winter storm and subsequent fire reduced a third of the businesses to ash.

"All of this was gone," says Trutanich, looking toward the pier. It took six years to repair the damage and, he says, remaining storefronts were left to languish.

The man-made disasters haven't helped matters.

Seeking a way to finance construction of the adjacent King Harbor, the city auctioned off control of the pier into separate leases. Owners had little incentive to make piecemeal investments on their own plots without knowing their neighbors' intentions.

Then in the 1970s, Redondo razed its downtown to make room for high-rise condominiums, choking off direct access to the pier.

Some say it destroyed the soul of the city.

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Bruning is determined to bring back the glory days. He talks about the pier as if it were an old friend and uses words like "authentic," "history" and "sacred" when he mentions the waterfront.

His approach is not only sentimental but shrewd. Like many people here, he knows that the last attempt to remake the pier prompted a citizen's revolt that had a rippling effect in the community for years.

Known as Heart of the City, the effort began to sputter when residents balked at the size and density of the development, which would have allowed as many as 3,000 new homes and 15 acres of commercial space along the waterfront.

When the city tried to move forward, volunteers in 2002 gathered thousands of signatures hoping to force a vote on the issue. Instead, city leaders abandoned the project, but voters went on to adopt measures that placed strict guidelines on future waterfront development and required voters to approve most zoning changes.

More than a decade later, some residents still express bitterness about the episode.

During Bruning's first public meetings, many seemed fearful and suspicious of Centercal's efforts.

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