The Jonathan Beach Club, located on the Pacific Coast Highway adjacent to the California Incline, will conclude its lease in the near future. City officials are in negotiations regaurding the extention of their lease for another 10 years. (photo by Maya Sugarman)

PCH — While the Annenberg Community Beach House has enjoyed a busy inaugural summer of steady visitors, its much older and more established neighbor to the south is hoping to convince city officials to let it keep its sandy space.

The City Council on Tuesday began the process of determining whether it should pick up a 10-year extension for its soon-to-expire contract with the Jonathan Club, which rents three beach parcels for an annual payment of $975.

The more than 75-year-old private social club has rented approximately 39,000 square feet from City Hall since 1984, using the parcels, which run parallel to the main facility, for beach recreational use and parking. The club owns the property on which the beach house sits.

In order to extend the contract, which expires at the end of this year, city officials will need to rule that there has been no material change in the need for public use of the parcels.

The council has yet to begin discussing whether change has taken place, deferring it to another meeting and instead listening to public testimony.

The club in 2007 claimed that fair market value for the parcels was $1 per square foot but offered $2 a square foot for an extension, which was rejected by City Hall as too low for such prime beach land.

Miriam Mack, the economic development manager for City Hall, said the lease had a backwards rent schedule in which the club paid about 65 cents a square foot in the first five years of the contract. Years six through 15 had the highest rental rate, charging the club about $43,367 for all three parcels annually.

If the contract is extended, market rate will be subject to negotiation, she said.

“Certainly one needs to look at what the lease says as to what the basis of the rent will be when the first option is exercised,” she said. “It’s significantly more than what they are currently paying.”

About a dozen people affiliated with the club through membership or management spoke in support of the lease extension, arguing that there’s been no evidence of material change to the leased areas of the beach, pointing out that the organization could help fund some projects to improve access, including a continuation of a pedestrian pathway.

A member of the board of directors, Michael Lindsey, said the Jonathan Club is willing to forgive a rent overpayment of $212,300 to City Hall and instead contribute that money toward the construction of the pedestrian pathway. The club is also offering to loan another $250,000 toward that project and is also proposing to build a paddle tennis court.

“There is no evidence in record that would support a finding of … material change,” he said. “Why? Because the lease, the law and the facts on the sand basically support our position.”

City staff said that beach usage in general has increased in the past 25 years, as well as demand by groups, such as youth camps and other organized classes. The beach has also seen more cyclists, which has resulted in conflicts with pedestrians on the bike path.

The recent opening of the Annenberg Community Beach House in April has also heightened the need to extend the pedestrian bike path north of the pier, city staff said.

Officials with the beach club countered that the number of beach visitors has actually declined since 1984, quoting data from the county that there were 8.73 million visitors in 1983-84, dropping to 3.87 million in 2007. City Hall said that the figures conflict with its own data, also received from the county, and is in the process of resolving the discrepancy.

“In managing the city’s open space asset, we are increasingly challenged to deal with the increase in overall visitors to the beach,” Barbara Stinchfield, the director of community and cultural services, said.

She referred to a 2007 survey by the Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau that found visits to the beach increased by 19 percent from 2003 to 2006.

Since 1984, the council has also adopted some planning documents that pertain to accessibility issues facing the north beach area, which is challenged in that the bluffs act as a barrier between the main part of the city and the beach. The documents — Land Use and Circulation Element Strategy Framework; Open Space Element and Parks and Recreation Master Plan — call on City Hall to take steps to better strengthen that portion of the beach through new parks and pedestrian path extensions.

“North beach suffers from a multitude of barriers that inhibit the public use and enjoyment of the beach,” Stinchfield said.

The lease extension has been opposed by several resident groups, including Friends of Sunset Park, Wilshire Montana Neighborhood Coalition and Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City. Representatives from the group did not speak at the meeting.

“A new pedestrian bridge has been built since the original lease was signed that links our neighborhood to the beach next to the Jonathan Club,” Jeanne Dodson, the chair of the Wilmont Board wrote to council in a June 8 letter. “Our residents use that bridge to get to the beach, but are currently denied access to some of the most convenient areas because they are held by the club.”

Groups also argued in favor of extending the pedestrian path to Annenberg.

The lease does afford City Hall the right to designate part of parcel 1, which sits north of the other two, for a path even if the lease is extended.

Brian Boxer Wachler, a Santa Monica resident, said the Jonathan Club is important to families and urged the council to consider what the impact would be if the parcels were taken away.

He asked the council to imagine the fond memories they have of family gatherings and parties.

“Now imagine if suddenly those memories are taken from you and those traditions are taken away,” he said. “You probably wouldn’t feel too good about that.

“That is what is at stake here. That is why this land is so important to our families and our children.”

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