How does a city decide what to put at the end of its pier?

In Newport Beach, where the City Council is trying to figure out what to do with a vacant structure at the end of the Newport Pier, it surveyed the uses of 42 similar structures statewide.

Then council members decided they wanted something different from the rest.

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As summarized in a 122-page retail study prepared by GRC Associates, options abound: Pier 28 in San Francisco County is used as part of the America's Cup. The Santa Barbara Stearns Wharf has an aquarium and places to shop and dine. In Santa Cruz, the Seacliff State Beach pier leads to a view of a concrete ship.

Bait and snack shops speckle still other pier structures, while restaurants with names like Pizza al Mare and The Tin Fish Restaurant claim a third of those surveyed, according to the document. Crystal Pier in San Diego even offers cabins for rent.

But council members opted to pursue a more unique idea: the creation of a flexible space that could host anything from food trucks to Shakespeare at the sea.

"I think we have an opportunity to do something different," Councilwoman Nancy Gardner said during a study session Tuesday.

Councilman Mike Henn is open to suggestions but wants to think further about the food-truck suggestion.

Before proceeding, the city would have to get state Coastal Commission permission and roughly $50,000 to demolish the existing vacant, blue-paneled building, which housed a seafood restaurant from 1993 until 2012, when its lease expired.

Such a move would also eliminate the potential for an annual estimated rent of up to $112,000 from a new restaurant at the location, as recommended in the report.

"We are interested in the welfare of the community," Councilman Tony Petros said during the study session. "I believe that this goes beyond an internal rate of return and a return on investment. I believe that, truly, the benefit to the public is to provide the greatest flexibility."

Of the five piers in Orange County, four have restaurant structures at the end of them, two of which are currently vacant. The fifth pier, in San Clemente, has a restaurant at its base.

The sales at the restaurant on Newport Pier were about $910,000 in 2011, the last full year of the restaurant's operation, and researchers believe that a new restaurant could generate $1.2 million to $1.6 million annually, according to the study.

Still, if a new restaurant were to take over the space, the building would need major repairs. Customers would also have to walk the roughly 1,000-foot length of the pier to reach it.

"I don't know of many high-end restaurants where people like to go and park and walk through the wind for a quarter mile, among the bait and the birds, to get to dinner," Mayor Keith Curry said during Tuesday's meeting. "Nobody's been beating down my door saying they want to get into it to make it a restaurant, so perhaps there is a better use for it."

Rainy and windy days do slow business on a pier, but the iconic pier locations for Ruby's Diner strengthen the overall brand, serving as a sort of trademark, said Doug Cavanaugh, who founded the first of his restaurants, on Balboa Pier, with inspiration drawn from the building there.

Ruby's previously operated at the end of three Orange County piers. In addition to the Balboa location, there's also one at the end of the Huntington Beach Pier.

Far from any modern reference point, eating over the ocean allows people to step back in time as they enter the 1940s-style diner, Cavanaugh said.

"You're a long ways from any parking," he said. "People really have to want to come out there. The flip side is you get spectacular views. The right concept could really do well."