The Trouble with Waterfront Development:

  • 05/19/2014
  • Reporters Desk

Competing visions for the future of the Port are obscured by what isn’t being said

James Preston Allen, Publisher

One hundred some odd years ago, Southern California was criss-crossed with light rail lines. Vestiges of the old Red Car lines are still visible in some neighborhoods, now in use as parks and bike paths.

A decade ago, when Sixth Street in San Pedro was dug up for some road repair, work crews sawed through steel rails and wooden railroad ties hidden under the asphalt exposing a forgotten transportation system that connected Point Fermin to San Bernardino. Interestingly enough, it is said that with our modern traffic clogged freeways, it takes us about as long to travel from Los Angeles to Riverside as it did in 1914. Now that’s progress!

So at this point you might be wondering what this nostalgic introduction has to do with waterfront development at the Port of Los Angeles. Everything or nothing, depending on your perspective. As you will see in our report in this issue about the Harbor Commission’s vote to extend Ports O’ Call development negotiations with the Los Angeles Waterfront Alliance, there are some brewing differences voiced by John Papadakis and his followers about this project. On our letters page you will find an expanded version of his critique of the project and a rebuttal by Wayne Ratkovich, the venerated urban development guru and partner with the Johnson family’s property management company, Jericho Development, in the Los Angeles Waterfront Alliance. This could end up being a made-for-TV reality drama if left to its own devices. And, I’m not sure that the Port of Los Angeles is in the position to mediate the coming divide.

There are, however, large stakeholders in this development who have not publicly voiced their objections to this, as yet, vaguely explained project. The problem here is that much of the discussion about the future of the Ports O’ Call site has been held behind closed doors with very little public input.

The Alliance has held two highly touted “public listening sessions” and then talked privately with various players in the community. But it is really quite unclear what the development team is hearing and what this will all look like in the end. Furthermore, the Alliance’s private discussions with the port about infrastructure and traffic mitigation, and the reliance of these reports on the port’s 2009 environmental impact report calls into question the big picture of whether the project is even economically viable enough to be built. At this point, I have my reservations, primarily because of the traffic mitigation issue.

No matter which side you take in this brewing dispute between these titans of waterfront development, the critical issue comes down to how do we increase the flow of traffic to Ports O’ Call and Crafted at the Port of Los Angeles, not to mention the other proposed projects in various stages of developments near the new marinas on 22nd, without turning Harbor Boulevard into an eight-lane extension of the 110 Freeway? The answer to this innocent question is both beyond the scope of the current project, the jurisdiction of the Port and possibly the minds of those asked to come up with a solution.

A few weeks ago, councilmen Tom LaBonge and Joe Buscaino came up with a plan to present to the Metro Transit Authority board to extend the Blue Line to the Harbor Area. This is a start in the right direction. However, five years ago, Mayor Villaraigosa issued a Community Redevelopment Agency report that recommended that light rail connect the Los Angeles port to the Los Angeles International airport using an existing set of tracks known as the South Bay Loop. Clearly these are big projects in and of themselves, but they are the cure for the impasse confronting both the port and any developer wishing to bring another 400,000 souls to visit our glorious waterfront.

Public infrastructure is the path forward no matter whose vision of the waterfront is decided upon. As long as the current parties are unable to come to an agreement, movement on infrastructure projects will not happen. Lack of consensus building is the culprit behind how our community is unable to gain forward momentum. Hiding behind State Tidelands law and the Brown Act provision that allows for closed door meetings on real estate negotiations, the port and the Alliance are in a particularly awkward position. Their decision to keep these discussions behind closed doors sidelines the Papadakis’ of this town and many others who have yet to make their objections known publicly– frustrated and understandably angry. This is not the path to consensus.

If I didn’t know better, I would suspect that Bruce Seaton’s ghost — the former chief engineer of the port who lead the negotiations on China Shipping and Knoll Hill with the community — was influencing this project. My point is simply this, without a consensus plan we cannot go to Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Hall, the MTA or the federal government to build the infrastructure needed to construct anything at Ports O’ Call. If this port administration or any developer can’t produce a convincing plan that creates a consensus within our rather contentious community, then nothing grand will ever be built. And, if nothing is built, it will be the fault of the adults in the room who have forgotten the elements of the Urban Land Institute’s recommendations and who just don’t want to listen or compromise.

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