Mark McDermott

Pier sunset? Tony’s on the Pier struggles to survive Redondo’s attempt to revitalize its waterfront

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Old Tony's

Tony's on the Pier. Photo by Amy Theilig/amytphoto.com

Against long odds, Tony’s on the Pier has always survived.

The restaurant weathered the storms that have periodically wracked the Redondo Beach waterfront and persevered through the economic vicissitudes of an area that has seen dozens of other businesses come and go since a fisherman named Tony Trutanich came ashore and set up shop in 1953. Along with a handful of other businesses, Tony’s survived the massive fire that destroyed two-thirds of the pier 23 years ago and stood sentinel even as the pier was riddled with gang activity in the decade that followed.

Trutanich came to be known as the “pier godfather” and the iconic two-story building he designed himself – capped with a octagonal crow’s nest where generations of local residents have sipped mai tai’s at sunset – remains a vibrant business even after its founder passed away four years ago.

It has become unclear, however, if Tony’s will survive the city’s attempts at economic revitalization.

As part of a strategy intended revive the pier and harbor area, the city has refused to negotiate new leases with Tony’s and most of the other businesses that are part of the “horseshoe pier” area. The city, which has controlled the area’s master leasehold since the pier reopened seven years after 1988 pier fire, is attempting aggregate the leases into one larger lease in order to attract a private sector developer and spur revitalization with new investment.

The strategy has, however, left existing businesses in limbo.

Tony’s lease expires next February; other businesses, including such longstanding pier stalwarts as the blues club Starboard Attitude and Shark Attack gift shop, are either already on month-to-month leases or fast approaching that status.

The Trutanich family has asked for a minimum of a five year lease extension. Michael Trutanich, who currently runs the restaurant, said that the fight for Tony’s survival is about Tony’s survival is about more than saving a business. The restaurant is an extended family of a sort.  The restaurant’s cooks average more than 20 years tenure, a waitress named Bridget has been serving customers since 1969, while Billy the bartender has served a mere 40 years. The restaurant is also the living legacy of Tony himself.

“He’s the legend,” Trutanich said. “He would be fighting to get an extension, a longer lease. He paid his dues and stayed in business all these years – when the storms came, and after the fire, when there was no business down here for a long time.”

Tony Trutanich Jr. questioned how the city could consider a future without the oldest and most successful restaurant in Redondo Beach history.

“We feel unappreciated, because it seems it was so easy for them to kind of say, ‘Hey let’s not renew the lease because we don’t want to be in the landlord business anymore,” Trutanich said. “So we are kind of expendable, you know? It seems to me if someone came down here and purchased the master lease and wanted to tear down Tony’s because Chucky Cheese’s was deemed more financially viable, that probably wouldn’t be the correct purchaser of the master lease. They wouldn’t understand the Redondo Beach pier.”

Tony's octogonagal crow's nest was designed by Tony himself. Photo by Amy Theilig/amytphoto.com

Pier uprising

The family is not alone in its fight. A “Save Tony’s on the Pier” Facebook page has attracted 900 followers since launching two weeks ago and surrounding businesses have joined in the effort to bring attention to the lease situation.

On Monday, a city delegation that included Mayor Mike Gin, City Manager Bill Workman, harbor director Pete Carmichael, and city councilmen Pat Aust and Steve Aspel made a visit to the pier to try to quell unrest and address concerns. About a dozen business owners and residents met with the officials. The meeting was impromptu, evolving from a Facebook discussion earlier that day, and took place outside at the foot of the pier.

Aust, who is also the city’s former fire chief and its unofficial historian, tried to provide some historical context for the city’s actions. He noted that in the decade after the pier fire, the city reluctantly took over the master leasehold for the horseshoe pier in hopes of helping to revive its fortunes. The economic downturn of the 1990s dogged those attempts, and it wasn’t until 2007 that a clear business strategy emerged.

Aust said that Tony Sr. had had the opportunity to buy the leasehold himself.

“I know the city met with Tony,” he told the small crowd. “Tony had the opportunity to buy that leasehold. He had his lease, and he didn’t want that one. So Tony’s – they knew this day was coming. Now the lease is up next February. The city does not want to kick Tony’s out. We have not in any way shape or form told them they are going to be done when their lease is up.”

Aust said the city is simply trying to “put together a package” that will make a master leasehold marketable to attract an outside investor.

“The city is not in the business of developing property, and we are certainly not in the landlord business,” Aust said. “Since the pier reopened 16 years ago, we have been in that business, and that is not really the business we want to be in.”

Ed Castro, the owner of Starboard Attitude, told Aust that he and fellow business owners felt a lack of appreciation for their role in pier history.

“I think the concern of the people is that Tony’s is going to be here close to 60 years, and you are not extending them,” Castro said. “I’ve been here since 1987…I’ve invested a large part of my life in Starboard Attitude on the pier, and I endured the storm and the fire. I had just been on the pier eight or nine months, but headed by Tony, we decided …to endure, to stick it out, even though we knew times were going to be rough. And we feel totally unappreciated by the city because we stuck with the city through very hard times.”

Pat Aust

Councilman Pat Aust, flanked by George Freeth and Pete Carmichael, explains the city's position at the Redondo pier Monday afternoon. Photo by Mark McDermott

“We are sorry you feel unappreciated, but those same tough times you’ve had – we’ve had too,” Aust said. “It hasn’t been a bed of roses. It’s really tough as a city when you are trying to get services to 67,000 residents in this city. We have been trying to market [the pier] to get a true landlord you could deal with, and then they would negotiate those leases.”

Mayor Gin told the business owners they could apply to become master leaseholders themselves. He also said that the city should have some resolution in the matter within months.

“It’s not that we are not going to extend leases – it’s that we need to complete this process, and the process will be done this summer,” Gin said. “I don’t believe it’s good timing for us to unilaterally extend leases when we’ve got a process we’ve been working on the past couple of years. So I encourage you to become partners in this process and apply…It’s not, from my standpoint, that we don’t want to extend leases. But I want to make sure that process is set fairly and equitably.”

The call for partnership likely rang a bit hollow for Castro. Starboard Attitude has been on a month-to-month lease for six years, a situation that has personally impacted Castro – he cannot, for example, obtain a loan to buy a house because the business he owns could be closed any given month. The bitter irony, he says, is that he sold his business in the late 1990s and was recruited by the city to return when the new owner failed.

Castro and his manager, Trinity Keeney, have been trying to call attention to the situation for years. Last year, they launched a website, www.saveourseaside.com, which both supported the city’s Measure G harbor rezoning and laid out the concerns not only for their business but for the rest of the pier. Their calls have largely fallen on deaf ears; according to Castro and Keeney, the city has rarely communicated with them.

“We want to be partners, but it seems there has been a total lack of communication,” Castro told Gin. “You can’t achieve anything without communication.”

Gin said he sympathized. Harbor director Pete Carmichael vowed better communication. But Keeney was skeptical. She pointed at many of the city’s past efforts at revitalization– such as the waterless fountain built at the Catalina Avenue entrance to the harbor area, the significantly vacant “top of the pier” office development and the empty, deteriorating “pad 10” octagon building.

“As a resident, I am concerned about some of the things that have come out of this ‘process,’” Keeney said. “Like the fountain that can’t be a fountain, the pier sign we call the ‘eir’ sign because you can’t see the ‘P’ during the day, the parking system that cost so much money to fix that doesn’t work on a weekly basis and is a frustration for everyone….I am concerned – the octagon building is vacant 20 years. We can’t have a process that is endless. We can’t have a plan to make a plan to make a plan.”

Carmichael tried to assure her that the time of inaction is at its end.

“One of the things the city is doing, and one of the things that may be causing some of this feedback we are getting – the city is really moving from a planning posture and starting to develop, to implement….We are moving from taking the plan that has been written and running with it.”

The plan

One thing everyone agrees upon is that something has gone badly wrong at the Redondo Beach pier. While the Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach piers have flourished over the past decade, the Redondo pier has been mired in stagnation and decline.

The city has been attempting to address the problem for at least a decade. The failed Heart of the City plan – which called for mostly replacing the AES power plant with a residential neighborhood and a new seaside commercial district in the harbor – was intended to inject new life into both the harbor and pier area. Residents balked at the size of the residential component of the plan (up to 2,998 units), however, and launched a successful referendum movement in 2002 that killed the Heart of the City.

And so in 2007 the city tried a different approach. They hired real estate consultant Larry Kosmont, a former city manager who specializes in matching private sector real estate concerns with public sector land use policies. Kosmont issued a report that made recommendations for how to go about attracting private investment He determined that large parts of the pier and harbor area were “functionally obsolete” but that the development of certain “anchors” could spur revitalization.

One of Kosmont’s fundamental recommendations was that the city needed to get out of the landlord business. Furthermore, it needed to amass smaller leaseholds into bigger leaseholds that a major developer would be interested in. “By aggregating leases into large leaseholds with critical mass effective management companies can be attracted to invest capital in redevelopment activities as required,” Kosmont wrote. “The larger leaseholds attract investment, as redevelopment efforts can result in actual change of significant portions of the Harbor Area, rather than just small sections, resulting in a critical mass of change that has the potential to result in a return on investment, and thus long term improvement of the Harbor Area.”

One of the areas he focused on – and subsequently successfully marketed – was the city’s property at 655 Harbor Drive.  Local developer Mike Zislis currently has plans to build a Shade Hotel at that property, which is the northern part of the harbor.

Another target was the horseshoe pier. Significantly, in a lease management plan submitted in 2008, Kosmont broke the entire harbor and pier area into designations: phase one, leases which could be aggregated and developed in two to five years; “phase two,” leases that that would be impacted by the pending redevelopment of the Redondo Beach Marina by Decron Properties in the next two to five years; “phase three,” longer term or underdeveloped leases that could be improved within five to ten years; “future revitalization,” longer term leases not likely to change for 10 to 20 years; and “HBU,” or “highest/best use,” properties currently at optimal usage.

The harbor’s marinas were designated “HBU.” The entire horseshoe pier was designated phase one, except Kincaid’s – the restaurant the city recruited in the late 1990s that has a lease through 2028, which was designated HBU.

Herein was the logic for not renewing leases: all the businesses from Starboard Attitude to Shark Attack – which include Craig’s Hot Dog on a Stick, Charlie’s Place, Oriental Breeze, Hats N’ Things, and Zeppy’s Pizza, among others – could be aggregated by 2012.

But that stretch of businesses also happened to include Tony’s on the Pier. And while many of the businesses have a long and loyal following – Shark Attack, for example, has been in business for 39 years – the possibility of a pier without Tony’s has struck a particularly discordant note in the community.

Councilman Bill Brand, whose district includes the pier, noted that this lease management plan was in place when he took office in 2008. And though he initially didn’t understand it – particularly because of the revered status Tony’s on the Pier enjoys in the community — Brand said he came to see the logic in aggregating the leases.

tony trutanich

Tony Trutanich shortly after opening his restuarant on the pier 60 years ago.

“We have an overall asset management plan, and I am going to do my best to make sure Tony’s is part of it, but right now we have to entertain offers from capital markets, from investors that have the ability to invest in the pier beyond that particular lease,” Brand said. “That is what we are looking for. Tony’s has to be a part of it – it would be a mistake not to make it part of it. People aren’t happy and it’s a difficult situation. But the end result could be much better for Tony’s and everyone else – capital markets are very fickle, and it’s got to be a clean offering.”

It’s not a very satisfactory answer for pier business owners. The Kosmont plan, after all, has already been in place for three years, and owners with expiring leases are unable to reinvest in their properties, thus worsening the already deteriorating condition of the pier. But City Manager Bill Workman hinted in an interview this week that things are progressing behind the scenes – he said potential investors have contacted the city after a long drought that coincided with the nation’s economic recession.

“I’ve had more calls in the last few months about this that I had in the last five years,” Workman said.

Councilman Steve Aspel said the controversy is overblown.

“This whole thing has been blown way out of proportion,” Aspel said. “Everybody loves Tony’s. No one is kicking Tony’s out. We just need to get the city out of the landlord business, and this is the way to do it. Everybody knows the city makes a lousy landlord.”

More than a dozen people came Tuesday night’s council meeting to protest the situation. The council took a rare step and spent the first hour of the meeting discussing an issue that wasn’t on the night’s agenda.

Adriene Biondo, the chair emeritus of the Los Angeles Conservancy Modern Committee, came all the way from Granada Hills to argue that Tony’s is a cultural landmark that has influenced architecture and style throughout Southern California.

“Very few things in life are perfect just as they are – Old Tony’s is one of them, a rare circa 1952 jewel that stands out from all the rest,” she said. “A waterfront restaurant that symbolizes everything that makes living here in Southern California delightful…Revitalizing the pier is one thing, but removing the heart and soul of it is a big mistake.”

Tony Trutanich Jr. made an appeal to the council. He said he appreciated the love city officials had expressed for Tony’s on the Pier “but actions speak louder than words” and no business can successfully operate on a month-to-month lease. He suggested more than a five year extension.

“I would love nothing more than to take my two sons down to Old Tony’s 40 years from now and celebrate the 100th anniversary of Old Tony’s,” Trutanich said.

He ended his appeal by urging the council to instruct Bill Workman to give him a call the next day. At 1 p.m. on Tuesday, his phone rang.

“Bill Workman was on the other end,” Trutanich said. “We are meeting this afternoon. To be continued….”

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