Gritty wharf at Port of L.A. will become marine research center

On a recent weekday morning, Daniel Pondella strode along a century-old stretch of concrete pylons and shabby warehouses in San Pedro.

As kelp swayed in the waves and terns circled overheard, Pondella recalled an elementary school field trip he took 40 years ago to this gritty wharf known as City Dock 1: “That was the day I decided to become a marine biologist.”

Now, Pondella is involved in transforming the wharf into a marine research center at the heart of the Port of Los Angeles, the nation’s busiest.


When City Dock 1 opened in 1913, it turned on a spigot for the Southern California economy through which $283 billion a year in international commerce now flows. Plans call for it to be converted into a nexus of laboratories and classrooms, fish hatcheries and berths for research vessels, which will explore the flows of Pacific currents, solutions to oceanic pollution and coastal erosion, and the rhythms of sea creatures from bacteria to 150-ton blue whales.

Pondella is director of the Southern California Marine Institute, which will become the center’s first tenant when it moves from its aged confines on the port’s Terminal Island. The institute will occupy nearly a quarter of what port officials expect will become 200,000 square feet of space housing universities, government agencies and industries, and a massive outdoor wave tank to study tsunamis.

The port plans to begin work this year on $31 million in seismic retrofits of the wharf, money it expects to recoup in lease payments from the new center.

The first of two construction phases is expected to begin next year with $123 million raised from philanthropic organizations and grants from government agencies. If all goes according to plan, by 2018 a converted warehouse will provide the Southern California Marine Institute with 47,800 square feet of space and circulating sea water for marine life support systems.

“There will be hundreds of people working here,” said Pondella, whose institute is affiliated with a dozen universities in the region. “We’ll rival the world’s largest oceanic research institutions. But we’ll differ from them because we’ll be at the headlands of the Los Angeles region, and tapping the mind power of its major universities.”

The project is expected to develop over the next 15 to 20 years, with donors to cover the estimated total cost of $500 million. Formal solicitations for funds are expected to begin later this year, officials said.

“Phase one is well-positioned in terms of working capital to design and build it,” said Leonard J. Aube, executive director of the Annenberg Foundation, one of the largest family foundations in the United States. “But the project, overall, is far from done.”

As the new center is phased in, it promises to bring changes to Los Angeles and, in particular, San Pedro, the port community L.A. annexed in 1909 to ensure that the inland city 20 miles away also had access to sea cargo. San Pedro now is rich with a heritage of fishing, commerce and union activism, with a vibrant arts district.

“Cargo and global trade made us a great port and will always be our core business,” said Geraldine Knatz, the port’s executive director and a marine biologist who has been a leading force in creating the center. “But adding this array of marine science, academia and related industry clusters to our public waterfront will bring a new dimension of economic opportunity to Los Angeles and redefine our stature as a Pacific Rim city.”

The name of the center and of the nonprofit organization being created to fund and operate it will be unveiled at a June 17 event led by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

“It is one of the most forward-thinking, powerful and creative projects to ever hit Los Angeles and San Pedro,” said Camilla Townsend, a member of the City Dock 1 Advisory Cabinet and a former port commissioner.

Marine biologists are already submitting wish lists for the kinds of research projects that have become painstakingly conducted in inland laboratories.

Christopher G. Lowe, a professor of marine biology at Cal State Long Beach, was only half kidding when he said: “What I want is a tank 40 feet long, 20 feet wide and 15 feet deep — with water pumped in from outside the harbor — to study great white sharks.

“The challenge with marine laboratories has always been that you need coastal property, which in a place like Southern California is already well-developed or super-expensive,” Lowe said. “To get a lab on a piece of Los Angeles’ urban ocean is remarkable.”

Pondella could not agree more.

Against a backdrop of bridges and forests of cranes reaching skyward, Pondella nodded toward the nearby breakwater entrance to the port, smiled and said: “The open ocean is right over there. How convenient is that?”