By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. December 07, 2015

It may be cliché to say the Santa Monica Pier is iconic, but it’s true. More than many other one-of-a-kind icons, the Pier has meant many different things to many different people, ever since it first opened in 1909 — from serving as a de facto public park and an affordable entertainment destination, to a place for people watching and experiencing raw nature — and much, much more.

Over the years, both the Pier’s physical structure has changed, as have the physical structures on top of it — sometimes by force of nature, like the great winter storms of 1983 that destroyed one-third of the Pier’s length. Other times from societal trends, like the creation of the La Monica Ballroom in 1924 (then the largest dance floor on the West Coast), which was converted into a rollerskating rink in the 1950s and ultimately demolished in 1962.

Today two outside forces are again going to reshape the Pier — the need to address earthquake safety; and the coming of the Expo Light Rail line.

Earthquake safety means the existing bridge connecting Ocean Ave. to the Pier must come down, and a new one rebuilt to current seismic standards. Already an Environmental Impact Report study is underway to evaluate different new bridge designs. Because of the Expo line, the direct flow of people to the Pier is also expected to change in favor of more pedestrians.

But perhaps the bigger question is “will the Pier stay funky, affordable and accessible, while continuing to evolve with the times?” The Santa Monica Pier Corporation Board has been discussing this over the last couple of years, and has brought in the Roma Design Group from San Francisco to stimulate creative approaches.

Perhaps the driving force (pun intended) behind possible changes on the Pier is the proposal for a second bridge leading to the Pier across Moss Ave., which is a tiny street that runs down the short slope from Appian Way to Ocean Front Walk, just south of Big Dean’s Oceanfront Cafe.

The idea is to redirect regular auto traffic there, then move pedestrians and cyclists down the replacement bridge, without the current conflict with motor vehicles — in effect, extending the pedestrian orientation of the soon-to-be-completed Colorado Esplanade, with its new 20- to 30-foot sidewalk widths, to facilitate thousands of arrivals to the Pier from the new Expo Light Rail station at 4th/Colorado.

A Pier escalator?

One of the goals for the replacement bridge is to connect to the Pier earlier, so that it doesn’t visually obstruct any of the Hippodrome (Santa Monica’s first National Historic landmark building), and instead to create a more vibrant public space where it does connect.

To facilitate this, Roma — whose consultant history with Santa Monica goes back to 1980s role in helping create the Third Street Promenade — has suggested incorporating both an escalator as part of the bridge, and an elevator coming up from Parking Lot #1, north of the Pier.

Since cars seeking to park on the Pier would be entering via the Moss Ave. bridge, the open space to the east of The Albright restaurant where cars currently enter, could be used for other purposes. Roma has suggested a new building there, with a first-floor food market and an open glass community event space on the top (which could also produce additional revenue to address projected increased Pier operating and capital costs.)

If such a new building is constructed, a critical issue is to retain visual and pedestrian permeability to the south towards Ocean Park. To accomplish this, the existing structure to the east of this open space — which currently houses the Pier Maintenance building, the Police substation and a bike rental — should come down, and the new building built in its place, thus retaining more of the existing open space, which is also critical for the high-volume pedestrian flow from the (also iconic) Twilight Concert Series.

I was on the City Council and supported the police substation when it was built. But this large substation has not fulfilled the dynamic role we envisioned. With the existing maintenance functions already planned to be relocated under the Pier, we need to rethink this space. To its immediate west are beautiful public restrooms, which are easily accessible on their west side, but not so much on their east, because the existing maintenance/police/bike building crowds them. A new building (with perhaps a smaller substation) should be set away enough to remedy this.

How much parking on the Pier?

As part of the City’s “Clean Beaches Project,” Santa Monica will construct underground storm-water runoff storage tanks beneath the Deauville Parking Lot (next to PCH north of the Pier), to divert an estimated 1.6 million gallons of often-polluted runoff from the Pier and Pico Kenter drainage basins away. In addition, a set of storm water runoff storage tanks will be placed at the Pico-Kenter Outfall pump station, located just south of the Pier. Together those tanks will be used to “harvest” runoff from the drainage basins, divert them from the Bay for treatment at the Santa Monica Urban Runoff Recycling Facility and then distribute them for non-potable uses — critical in times of extended drought.

A side benefit is that when this project is completed, a still-to-be-determined number of parking spaces from the Pier deck will be relocated there at grade. That will provide flexibility to pull the remaining parking spaces back from the Pier’s southern edge, creating a new paseo there with benches and picnic tables. Along with more efficiently re-striping the remaining parking spaces, Roma believes a new public event space can be created in the existing parking area, which can also generate new rental revenue.

Of course many in the community have advocated removing all parking from the Pier, with the exception of for handicap access. One of my greatest heartbreaks from my time on the City Council was when my April 2002 motion to place underground parking under what eventually became Tongva Park and Ken Genser Square lost in a 4-3 vote. The idea was that drivers headed to the Pier would get off the I-10 freeway and park, then walk to the Pier, activating Tongva Park more (especially at night) and lessening traffic congestion at Ocean/Colorado. At the time we even had Redevelopment Agency funding to finance it.

But as fate has it, had we done that, we would not have been eligible for the Caltrans funding that is today paying for the Pier Bridge replacement project, which is contingent upon providing automobile access to the Pier. This is not to say that some day most parking could not be removed from the Pier, but only if/when a nearby financially feasible option is available.

Preserving the Pier’s soul

One of the appealing aspects of Roma’s proposals is that they can provide additionally needed revenues to fund Pier operations and capital improvements, without necessarily gentrifying nor corporatizing the Pier. Part of the Pier’s iconic nature was the resident revolt in 1972-1973 against plans by the then City Council to tear down the Pier and build an island in the Bay, with hotels and a convention center. Recently retold in a heartfelt play written by local Pier historian Jim Harris (author of “Santa Monica Pier: A Century on the Last of the Pleasure Pier”), and performed in the open air at the end of the Pier, that Save the Pier movement reflected so much about what makes Santa Monica special. Today we need to ensure we retain those values while envisioning the Pier’s future.

Next steps

With the construction of the Pier Bridge Replacement project still a few years off, many decisions about what happens on the Pier don’t have to be made yet. That’s why at its next public meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 17 at the Santa Monica Aquarium, the Pier Corporation Board will vote upon a conceptual document to frame future discussion about these questions.

So far most of the public attending these meeting have been from the Pier’s immediate community — including the Pier lessees, community members interested in historic preservation issues related to the Pier, and some like me who walk/bike/rollerblade there almost every day. Now it’s your turn to be there and add your thoughts.

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004).  He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein

Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.