Though a comprehensive makeover is coming to Santa Barbara’s Cabrillo Pavilion and Bathhouse during roughly 18 months of upcoming renovations, many residents are hoping that one feature in particular will reopen as it was before: the East Beach Grill.
That hope was bolstered Tuesday when the City Council agreed to grant the restaurant the exclusive right to negotiate with the city for a new lease.
After lengthy and passionate testimony from the public in favor of that decision, the council voted 5-1, with Councilwoman Cathy Murillo dissenting and Councilman Frank Hotchkiss absent, to give the restaurant and city 120 days to come to a lease agreement.
The aging pavilion is slated for comprehensive renovations, and is also home to gym facilities and is frequently rented out for events.
Designs for the revitalized pavilion were unveiled two years ago, and consist of a wooden boardwalk along the beach, new gym facilities, a redesigned restaurant space, improvements to landscaping and accessibility, and comprehensive structural improvements.
The city estimates the cost of the renovation project at 1118 E. Cabrillo Blvd. to be about $13 million, with construction tentatively expected to begin in January 2018 and last for a year and a half.
The city wants to make the building into a viable recreation center for the community and turn it into the “crown jewel of East Cabrillo Boulevard.”
Last month, the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission recommended that Francisco Aguilera, who has owned the 32-year-old East Beach Grill for eight years, be given a reasonable amount of time to renegotiate his lease, which is up at the end of 2017.
If the negotiations prove unsuccessful, the commission said, then a competitive bid process for the location could be initiated.
Parks and Recreation Department staff, however, were concerned that, with final plans nearing completion, an unsuccessful negotiation will leave too little time for the city to find a bidder who will be ready to take over the expanded restaurant space.
When asked by Mayor Helene Schneider what would constitute a reasonable period of time to renegotiate, Parks and Recreation director Jill Zachary said four to six months.
A successful bidding process could still follow, she admitted, but doing both would still be a risky use of time.
Whoever takes over the spot, Zachary said, would have to make a significant investment to the tune of $500,000 or more in what will be a new, but empty, space.
The current restaurant has a loyal fan base, and patrons and fans packed the council chambers. Nearly 40 spoke in favor of Aguilera having the exclusive right to negotiate a lease before any bidding process takes place.
Aguilera and his restaurant, public commenters said, are widely loved both by locals and out-of-towners alike; are committed to their customers, the community and improving the restaurant space; and are too successful not to be given the opportunity to negotiate a lease.
“You have an exemplary businessman, an exemplary role model for his family, staff and his customers,” said one patron.
A brand new business would run the risk of failing at the pavilion, speakers said, while the East Beach Grill has seen continuous success and growth since its opening.
Aguilera, Zachary said, can participate in the bidding process, and would make for a strong candidate to win the future lease given his track record as an excellent tenant.
“We do have a good relationship with him, and we’re in regular project communication,” she said.
For the most part, the council expressed confidence that a renovated East Beach Grill could fulfill its high expectations for bringing in target revenues.
Councilman Bendy White said that although city operations and programming need as much revenue from the restaurant’s rent as they can get, Aguilera’s track record and the nearness the East Beach Grill has to patrons’ hearts had made for a convincing argument.
“I have changed direction from where I originally stood on this from saying we need to go with the (bidding process) to a place of providing this entrepreneur the shot that he has earned for all these years of steady service,” he said.
Offering a successful and committed owner the opportunity to negotiate a new lease, Councilman Randy Rowse added, would be the smartest option from a purely business standpoint.
Murillo, however, argued that although East Beach Grill has many loyal fans, the city’s 90,000 residents would ultimately benefit the most from competition between the best bidders and the services they’d bring.
“For me, it’s a matter of fairness; I’m persuaded that a competitive process would bring us the best proposal,” she said.