Cinderella--by--the--Sea : If an imaginative planner has his way, Wilmington in the 21st Century would no longer be a grimy poor relation to San Pedro, but a glamorous waterfront community.

Times Staff Writer

Let your imagination run: Wilmington in the 21st Century.

Avalon Boulevard is no longer a deteriorating hodgepodge of oil wells, houses and storefronts. It is now a bustling commercial corridor, with an upscale shopping center and office buildings with rooftop restaurants, affording diners a splendid view of the nearby Port of Los Angeles.

The foot of the harbor's Slip No. 5 is no longer home to oil storage tanks and grimy industrial tenants of the port. There is a marketplace there now, dotted with colorful fruit and flower stands and trendy harbor-side cafes. On Sundays, people stroll along the waterfront promenade, or visit the new maritime museum that celebrates Wilmington's history as the "heart of the harbor."

Ships of the World Exhibit

As for the oil fields that once sat between the channels that feed into the harbor's East Basin, most are long gone. Tourists now travel there to visit the new Sea Technology Applications Center (they call it "Sea Tech" for short), and the Ships of the World exhibit, just like the one they had in the Vancouver World Exposition back in 1986.

And remember those trucks that used to rumble through the residential neighborhoods, spewing dust and creating traffic jams? They now circle the harbor on a belt of new freeways, highways and access roads.

This is consultant Calvin Hamilton's vision of Wilmington, as outlined in his recently released study.

It is a study intended to convert Wilmington from a dusty, industrial workhorse of the harbor to an economic and recreational showpiece. Its main purpose is to give residents access to the waterfront and to reduce--in Hamilton's words--"the psychological distance" between the community and the port. Its recommendations are grounded in the simple belief that people like to be near the water.

But can it work?

"I think it's absolutely feasible," declared Hamilton, whose view is by far the most optimistic of the residents and community leaders interviewed. "There's no question it would involve cost, but I think you have to look long range at this kind of thing and consider how the whole of Wilmington can be regenerated."

"I think some of his recommendations are achievable and I think some are not," said Ann D'Amato, chief harbor area deputy to Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores.

"It sounds good and dandy," said Bill Schwab, a Wilmington resident and activist. "I just don't think it's possible."

"There's no reason why Wilmington couldn't be a resort area," countered Simie Seaman, president of the Banning Park Neighborhood Assn. "I think this man has a vision and that's what Wilmington has needed for a long time."

Hamilton's study was initiated by Flores, who was instrumental in obtaining a $35,000 grant from the California Coastal Commission to pay for the report.

Flores was also instrumental in choosing Hamilton, the retired director of the Los Angeles Planning Department. "He's been called the pie-in-the-sky type of planner," D'Amato said, "and I don't think that's bad." Flores herself deemed the study "imaginative, which is kind of what we expected."

Residents thought so as well. "Has anyone ever accused you of being on drugs?" Wilmington businessman Ernesto Nevarez asked Hamilton after he presented the study to the Wilmington Coordinating Council last week. "You have quite an imagination."

Cost $1 Billion

If all the recommendations in the study were adopted, Hamilton estimates that implementing them would take 20 years and cost $1 billion.

But aside from the staggering price tag--70% to 80% of which Hamilton said could be picked up by the private sector--there are other constraints and stumbling blocks, which Hamilton acknowledges in his report.

The recommendations would require concessions from public and private entities. The study calls for rerouting railroads, rebuilding local roads and extending freeways. It also calls for the Harbor Department, the city Department of Water and Power, and the Union Pacific Resources Corp., among others, to make changes in their plans and to give up some of their land for public use.

For instance, Hamilton considers the recommendation for the waterfront marketplace at Slip No. 5 among the most important in the study. That spot, according to the study, was pinpointed by residents as their best--and perhaps only--opportunity for access to the waterfront. Hamilton's recommendations for Slip No. 5, which include building a maritime museum (even though the Los Angeles Maritime Museum is in nearby San Pedro) would achieve the study's primary goal of giving Wilmington residents access to the harbor.

Conflict With Industrial Uses

But Sid Robinson, the port's planning director, said those recommendations would conflict with nearby industrial uses. The land just north of the slip is owned by the Harbor Department, which leases it to various tenants, among them Catalina Freight Lines and the Wilmington Liquid Bulk Co., who have made improvements to the land. Just last month, Wilmington Liquid Bulk obtained a permit to build a 63,000-square-foot cement importing facility there.

Robinson said Wilmington Liquid Bulk has a 20-year lease, and that the port has no plans to ask it or any other tenant to move from Slip No. 5. Robinson noted that a recently released port study, which calls for some hazardous cargo facilities to be relocated, does not call for the relocation of the Wilmington Liquid Bulk terminals.

He said placing a recreational site like the marketplace at Slip No. 5 would be "inconsistent with our plan. It could have safety implications; it could have traffic implications."

Another of Hamilton's recommendations calls for the eventual removal of oil storage tanks owned by the city Department of Water and Power. But Ed Freudenburg, water and power spokesman, said that "for the foreseeable future, we are going to have power generation equipment at that site." The Hamilton study noted that the Water and Power Department "has no intention of relinquishing any of their real estate at this point."

A third Hamilton proposal--the one for tourist attractions such as a water theme park and sea technology center--would require both the Harbor Department and a private corporation, the Union Pacific Resources Co., to relinquish their respective portions of a 100-acre parcel between the harbor's Dominguez and Cerritos channels.

The Harbor Department has already designated its portion for recreation. But Union Pacific, which owns most of the land there, would have to either lease or sell its parcel and consolidate its oil drilling operations into several working oil platforms that, in Hamilton's vision, could be viewed by the public. Ed Gladish, spokesman for Union Pacific, said his company has "extensive plans for continued oil and gas operations in that area" and "would not be very anxious to sell." In addition, the tourist center would require the relocation of two pleasure-craft marinas, which are home to people who live on their boats. The feasibility study alone for this recommendation would cost $500,000.

Despite its grand nature, Hamilton views the Sea Tech recommendation as one that stands a good chance of being adopted, primarily because it has already been proposed by a group of private developers, whom Hamilton described in his report as "highly qualified internationally acclaimed deep-sea experts."

With the closing of Marineland in nearby Rancho Palos Verdes earlier this year, Hamilton thinks the Wilmington market is ripe for an institution like Sea Tech. The center would have eight exhibit pavilions, including a 50,000-gallon aquarium; a submarine; a cruise ship, and the working oil-drilling platform, which would explain offshore oil technologies.

Less Ambitious Ideas

In addition to these major recommendations, the study includes some less ambitious suggestions. Among them:

A plan to incorporate the "Avalon corridor"--the area bounded by Anaheim Street, Fries Avenue, B Street and Broad Avenue--into the part of Wilmington that has been designated for revitalization by the Community Redevelopment Agency. The CRA could then use its powers of eminent domain to acquire land, relocate businesses and institute public improvements in the Avalon corridor.

Beautification plans. Hamilton recommends planting palm trees along Fries Avenue and Avalon Boulevard and urging the Harbor Department and the Department of Water and Power to landscape their properties. He said the Water Department has landscaped its properties in other parts of Los Angeles, and that the Harbor Department "has done that in San Pedro, but they haven't done anything in Wilmington."

According to D'Amato, Wilmington residents probably won't see any improvements from the study until next year and even then, the changes will be among the less ambitious of Hamilton's proposals. Flores has asked officials from various arms of city government--among them the Community Redevelopment Agency, the Community Development Department, the city Planning Department and the Harbor Department--to review the study and comment on its feasibility by Feb. 15.

D'Amato said Flores told the agencies and departments she wants them to propose alternatives if they think certain aspects of the Hamilton proposal are unworkable.

"Don't come back and say these things aren't feasible," D'Amato quoted Flores as saying. "Just come back and say what is feasible."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World