But now, Ports O' Call Village is set to get a $100-million makeover.
City officials and developers unveiled plans on Wednesday for turning the aging property into a hip destination with restaurants, an amphitheater and marketplace. The long-awaited redevelopment is seen as a key step in transforming San Pedro's once industrial waterfront into a regional destination that includes dining, music and tourist attractions — set to the backdrop of the nation's busiest port.
The new Ports O' Call, to be renamed the San Pedro Public Market, is set to open in 2020. The current fishing village will be demolished and replaced with 16 acres of restaurants, fresh markets, retail shops, and small offices.
The project will be fronted by a waterfront promenade that will stretch more than half a mile and San Pedro's waterfront Red Car, which closed in September, will start running again through the project. Visitors also will be able to visit an amphitheater for live entrainment.
"We have the opportunity to do something special along the water front, just as it's been done in a lot of other cities," said Wayne Ratkovich, president of L.A.-based Ratkovich Co., which has partnered with Jerico Development on the project.
The project will be privately financed by the developers, while the Port of Los Angeles is paying to upgrade the infrastructure in the area.
Other cities that have redeveloped their waterfront include San Francisco, which demolished the bay side Embarcadero Freeway in the early 1990s and a decade later turned the Ferry Building into a bustling food hall. Baltimore has also had success in redeveloping its Inner Harbor.
Los Angeles has been late to the game. But its port-adjacent waterfront is changing.
The port opened a $32-million promenade and small harbor inlet in 2014 designed to host festivals and movie nights. A $125-million revamp of the Cabrillo Way Marina wrapped up in 2011, and the battleship Iowa opened to visitors a year later. In 2012, a marketplace known as Crafted opened, and a brewery debuted this year.
In all, the port plans to have invested $1 billion by 2026 in sprucing up the waterfront from Wilmington to San Pedro, which has been rebranded the L.A. Waterfront.
One challenge Los Angeles faces, however, is the location of San Pedro, which is farther removed from most of Los Angeles than waterfronts in other cities, said Larry Kosmont, an L.A.-area urban development consultant. "San Pedro is a bit off the beaten path and that adds a dimension of uncertainty."
Ports O' Call opened in 1962, in a former mooring area for boats on the west bank of the main channel at Los Angeles Harbor. The collection of shops, fish stalls and restaurants prospered.
But it started to decline in the 1980s, in part because the nearby Marineland amusement park shuttered. Thousands still come on the weekend to chow down on seafood from the villages' San Pedro Fish Market and sing karaoke in English and Spanish.
But the village has largely fallen on hard times, and 20% of its square-footage now sits empty.
"During the week its sleepy," said Elise Swanson, president of the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce. "The space just needs a fresh look."
Previous plans, including a proposal from Dallas developer Trammell Crow, went nowhere. Part of the delay, Kosmont said, was that the city in past decades often didn't focus on San Pedro, even though many locals clamored to redevelop the port-owned property.
"The city didn't seem to have a vision for San Pedro," he said.
But that changed in recent years, he said. And now the port and city say they are moving forward. Construction is expected to begin in 2017.
Ratkovich said he plans to sign a long-term lease for the 30-acre Ports O' Call property in "two to three months." He will build the San Pedro Public Market first but hold off on the remaining roughly 15 acres, which includes a sprawling parking lot.
"We are focused right now on the San Pedro Public Market as we have designed it,' he said. "If we're successful with that, the rest of the plan can be built over time."
Ratkovich said he wants to create a marketplace on par with the Ferry Building in San Francisco and Pike Place Market in Seattle.
While the entire Ports O' Call is set to be demolished, the popular San Pedro Fish Market is expected to remain open throughout construction and eventually move into a new space in the redeveloped property.
Councilman Joe Buscaino, who represents San Pedro, said the upcoming project will help the San Pedro waterfront rival those in other cities. "Gone are the days of talking about it," he said of a new Ports O' Call. "This is happening."