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Sink Gump, Former Mayor Urges

By Paul Rosenstein

A month or so ago, my wife and I were in Monterey for the weekend and together with another couple we went to Canary Row for dinner. When we saw Bubba Gump, I suggested we eat there because I knew that the City was seriously considering this chain, owned by Viacom, for the Boathouse site on the Santa Monica Pier, and I was curious to see what it was like.

However, our experience was so unpleasant that we left after being seated for only a few minutes and we found a nice meal elsewhere in the area. Bubba Gump was so over-commercialized and programmed that it is hard to see how it would fit on the Pier.

As we approached the restaurant, it was clear that the theme of the movie "Forest Gump" was everywhere – from the trappings around the entrance to the retail store to the wait staff doing headstands and other goofy things. The noise and commotion inside was extremely unpleasant. This is the kind of facility that I would expect to find inside places like Disneyland, Universal Studios or Magic Mountain. It certainly does appeal to some, but is it what we want on the Pier?

This is only the second time in years that I have walked out of a restaurant. The first time was when we went to the Boathouse for dinner during the controversy over its future. That time the oppressive smell of beer, the obnoxious language of the entertainer and the overpowering noise drove us to Rusty’s across the way (where we had a very pleasant meal despite the fact that the music there and the décor are not my cup of tea).

So, what should the City do with the Boathouse site? The basic problem, I think, it that there has been a surprising (for Santa Monica) lack of public discussion about what kind of a facility the community wants.

Do we want a bar, a dance hall, a high end eatery, a hamburger joint, a moderate priced restaurant, a fish house, or what? It would have been helpful if the Pier Restoration Corporation (PRC) had organized widespread discussion and public workshops where the community would have been able to chew on the alternatives.

It would have required hard work to develop a consensus, but then when the type of facility was clarified, we could have decided what it would take to get it there and then aggressively gone after it.

Instead, the PRC has assumed the responsibility of representing the public interest and a consensus was developed somewhere to get an operator that had lots of cash to rebuild the deteriorated building, make money for the Pier, offer affordable prices and bring in lots of people.

It is important to remember the critical difference between the Pier and the Third Street Promenade. Because the property on the Promenade is privately owned, it has been very hard to maintain the special character of the street that we all so loved. The street is becoming unrecognizable as the gentrified chains displace the eateries (with the wonderful outdoor dining) that gave it its eclectic flavor.

The Pier, in contrast, is publicly owned and it is appropriate that the leases reflect the community’s interests. It would be nice if the Pier would pay for itself, but the City supports other public places (like parks) that are not expected to make a profit.

If profit were the only concern, then the city would have shut down Pacific Park, which hasn’t paid a dime in rent since the day it opened. If more people were our only concern, then we should rent to bars and chains that would bring them in.

I think that if those who are to make the decision on Bubba Gumps would visit the one in Monterey (preferably unannounced), they would realize what they are committing us to for the next 25 years! I would urge the decision makers to think about whether they will one day say to themselves, “How did I do this?”

Paul Rosenstein is a former councilman and mayor who has long called for a makeover of the pier board and more public process before leasing the Boathouse site.

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