Deep inside the nation’s busiest seaport lurks the old Southwest Marine shipyard, a collection of rusting corrugated-metal buildings, broken windows and dark interiors that has appeared in more than a dozen films and television shows, including “Die Hard,” “24" and “CSI: Miami.”
But these days, the 38-acre site at the Port of Los Angeles is the setting for another kind of high-stakes drama, this time involving competing visions of the port’s future. It’s being waged with spreadsheets, economic forecasts, political clout and environmental impact reports as thick as a set of old telephone books.
On one side is the defunct Southwest Marine shipyard’s last caretaker: Long Beach yacht builder Gambol Industries, which wants the right to turn the site back into a full-service shipyard with modern dry docks.
“We are looking at doing new ship construction and repair. This would be a world-class facility, and we feel that the employment diversification we could bring to the port, in this economy, would be huge,” said Gambol Industries Vice President John Bridwell, whose company has assembled a team of preservationists and other backers and $50 million in private funding.
On the other side is the Port of Los Angeles, union dockworkers and businesses. They say that the Southwest Marine site is a vital piece of a complicated puzzle that includes dredging the harbor to accommodate the next generation of colossal cargo vessels and three long-delayed terminal expansion and cleanup projects. They want the old shipyard’s boat slips to store the toxic muck dredged to make the harbor deeper.
“It’s irresponsible to jeopardize this dredging project that’s critical for the future of the port and the jobs that support this community,” said George Lujan, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 13.
For years, the site housed one of the last full-service shipyards on the West Coast. But with the end of the Cold War and military contract downsizing, its fortunes diminished and the shipyard closed in 2005.
The site hasn’t been dormant. Port officials hired Gambol Industries to serve as caretaker and to help promote it as a location shoot for the entertainment industry.
During one 11-month period, from April 2007 to March 2008, port records show, the Port of Los Angeles took in more than $150,500 from various shoots on the site, its 18.5% contractual share of the revenue reeled in by Gambol Industries.
But the company has harbored bigger plans since 2007.
President Robert Stein said the shipyard would diversify employment for the cargo- dependent seaport, give high-wage ship-building jobs to thousands of workers and grab a piece of work that now can be done only at shipyards in San Diego or the Pacific Northwest.
Gambol Industries executives also said that the new shipyard, if built, would run on clean, fuel-cell power technology and would also serve as a training ground to rebuild the shipyard worker expertise that has long since drifted away from the region.
Los Angeles and neighboring Port of Long Beach “are the only two of the top 25 ports in the world that don’t have a shipyard. You can’t have a shipyard without boat slips,” Stein told the Los Angeles City Council last week during a meeting in which he hoped to persuade the council to veto the port dredging project.
Port officials fear that allowing Gambol Industries to rebuild the shipyard would put years of complicated negotiations in jeopardy.
Deepening the channel for larger cargo vessels will unearth 80,000 cubic yards of toxic sediment. After reviewing 13 potential sites to dump the sediment, port officials chose the Southwest Marine terminal site, which was already contaminated from its use as a shipyard. They decided that the boat slips were the best place to “entomb” the toxic material.
Port officials said changing course would also delay three important terminal improvement projects: a wharf extension for the TraPac terminal, changes that would allow larger ships to use the Yusen Terminals Inc. site and the removal of dredge material stored on the China Shipping Terminal.
“This is a huge undertaking because we try to match our dredging and land filling operations,” said Geraldine Knatz, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles. “There are a lot of interrelationships among the various projects. I think a lot of people really didn’t understand that.”
Gary Toebben, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, told the City Council that the dredging project “is essential to our economy right now. Nothing is more important than moving ahead with the deepening of the channel.”
At Gambol Industries’ request, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn had considered sending the dispute and related master-plan changes back to the Board of Harbor Commissioners for reconsideration. But last week, the board agreed to consider the feasibility of a shipyard at the site, as well as whether it could accomplish its channel deepening without filling both boat slips.
That was good enough for Hahn. But Gambol Industries executives aren’t happy and are pursuing other lines of attack, including appeals of the dredging project’s environmental impact report launched by the company and the Los Angeles Conservancy.
“This is a valuable asset,” Bridwell said, “and we’re committed to seeing this thing through.”