San Pedro makeover just getting launched

After 10 years of contentious discussions, the Los Angeles Harbor Commission is expected to vote today on a $1.2-billion project designed to transform the San Pedro waterfront into a vibrant commercial district.

The action would bring to a close a master-planning process that some in the seaside community thought would never end. But the struggles over what should arise along 400 acres available for development are just getting started.

The project calls for replacing the ailing Ports O’ Call Village tourist spot with up to 300,000 square feet of new restaurants and shops and a 75,000-square-foot conference center. It would be a crucial source of income and jobs.

The project also calls for completion of an 8.7-mile promenade, 27 acres of new parks, fountains, three pocket harbors and a fireboat museum along eight miles of waterfront on the west side of the Port of Los Angeles’ main channel.


Port authorities acknowledge that the economic downturn could slow the development process.

“I have a real pessimistic economic forecast figured into my budget this year, so I have to be careful about starting new projects,” Geraldine Knatz, the port’s executive director, said in an interview.

“Next fiscal year, we’ll have about $25 million to spend on starting something new,” she said. “But the promenade and downtown harbor developments are high-priority projects.”

The project would be constructed in phases and completed within about 10 years, officials said.


Construction work was expected to begin with a $42-million upgrade of the downtown cruise terminal and a makeover of the Ports O’Call Village’s collection of Old English, New England and Spanish-style buildings connected by an uneven, narrow, red brick walkway.

In its heyday, the village attracted more than 1 million visitors a year.

It began to deteriorate in the 1980s and took a further hit with the closing of Marineland in 1987 in nearby Rancho Palos Verdes, and the creation or expansion of tourist-friendly districts in Pasadena, Santa Monica, Universal City and Anaheim.

Today, it exists as a mix of trinket shops, candy and ice cream stores, quick-service seafood eateries and the Ports O’ Call Restaurant. Many downtrodden buildings in the village have already been demolished.

“I’ve been waiting for this master plan for as long as I can remember,” said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, whose district includes the port. “It will signal for once and for all that we are building our world-class waterfront.”

“We need a skyline to complement our crane line,” she added. “The world’s greatest working port should also become the world’s greatest living port.”

The most controversial proposal in the master plan calls for construction of a cruise terminal at Kaiser Point, on the southern end of the main channel.

The Outer Harbor terminal would include two berths -- one facing east, the other facing picturesque Cabrillo Beach on the west.


They would be designed to create more berth space and accommodate larger Voyager- and Freedom-class vessels.

Of particular concern to critics, including the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council, the Sierra Club and local boaters, is the port’s desire to build the berth on the west side of Kaiser Point.

These groups say the project would ruin panoramic vistas and dominate the waterway, creating a hazard by restricting recreational boat access in an area of the main channel known for its often treacherous afternoon winds.

“For experienced sailors, that’s not a problem,” said Roger Roman, a spokesman for the Buccaneer Yacht Club. “But for single-handed sailors and novice family sailors, there could be issues. Getting blown down into a cruise ship is not a fun day at sea.”

They also fear that the Outer Harbor terminal might one day be developed to the point that it could undermine downtown San Pedro’s commercial enhancements.

Generally, though, stakeholders in the isolated, ethnically diverse community approve of the plan, which they hope would create a people-friendly buffer between their neighborhoods and the industrial empire of cranes, cargo ships, chemical depots and diesel-powered big rigs about 20 miles south of downtown Los Angeles.

Yielding to pressure from local residents, the port began entertaining proposals for a master plan a decade ago.

Separately, nearly $100 million worth of upgrades, including development of a 22nd Street Park and 700-slip Cabrillo Marina Phase II, are already underway.


Construction of master plan projects cannot start soon enough for Jayme Wilson, a Ports O’ Call business owner and president of the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s been a long struggle. Now, let’s get it done,” Wilson said. “I just wonder when they are going to start putting shovels in the ground. The sooner the better.”

Joshua Stecker, editor of San Pedro Magazine, agreed.

“The waterfront we have right now is a shame because there is so much potential,” said Stecker, a lifelong resident of San Pedro. “San Pedro remains the only city in America where property values decrease the closer you get to the ocean.

“To those who would nitpick and call this master plan lackluster,” he added, “I say something is better than nothing.”