- Paul Rosenberg
By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
The planned public presentation of the controversial Ports O’ Call redevelopment project has been postponed from January, as originally promised, to March 20.
But on Jan. 25, the Port of Los Angeles devoted two hours of its board meeting to “clarify any confusion that may exist by members of the public” about the process, said Executive Director Gene Seroka, as he opened the discussion.
That’s not what happened, from the community’s point of view. Rather, port staff presented — and the board echoed and embellished — a self-serving narrative that starkly illustrated the vast gulf between the port and the community.
The port — first Seroka, then Michael Galvin, director of Waterfront and Commercial Real Estate — patiently explained how they’d done everything by the book: they’d never specifically promised anything to anyone. The public, which has been engaged in the development process more than a decade longer, responded by saying how upset they were at being blindsided, especially by the prospective closing of Ports O’ Call Restaurant.
The port wanted to talk about its process, while the public wanted to talk about broken trust — the disconnect between that process and their lives.
The port’s narrative jumped right over the most crucial part of the story: how the finalized lease agreement approved on May 19, 2016 differed dramatically from what the public expected based on years of previous promises. This was reiterated just 11 weeks earlier in a March 2 presentation at the Warner Grand Theatre, when the public was promised a phased development allowing minimal interruptions for existing tenants.
“Current tenants who will remain in the project will be able to stay open throughout construction,” promised Alan Johnson, who was speaking for the developers that night. “We expect to complete this first phase by mid 2019. We are fortunate to have existing successful tenants who we are counting on to be the backbone of our pre-leasing activities.”
June Smith, a long-time parliamentarian and then community co-chairwoman of the disbanded Port Community Advisory Committee, put her finger on crucial problem in a follow-up interview.
“They’re not admitting that they changed the phases,” Smith said. “They’re not admitting that what they promised at the Warner Grand [on March 2, 2016] is not what they’re doing. The ports says, ‘Well because ‘we’ve given notice’ and this, that and the other thing, we can do this.’ No, because the community as a whole did not know that. You did not have another follow-up meeting at the Warner Grand to say, ‘You know, we have to change the phasing.’”
Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council President Doug Epperhart has a similar sense from his constituents.
“The problem is you had this very big transparent meeting at which statements were made and then very quickly backed away from,” Epperhart said. “The backing away from the statements was not done in a transparent way.”
This is the source of the port’s problems.
“If you say something here, loudly and then you say something different over here, very quietly, then you’re going to pay a price,” Epperhart said.
But it’s not just community representatives like Smith and Epperhart who are troubled about the disconnect.
“Ports O’ Call Restaurant is one of the few places in San Pedro for us to come together,” County Supervisor Janice Hahn said in a statement read by staffer Erika Velazquez, calling for the restaurant to remain open. “Shuttering this restaurant for two years would mean cutting out part of the soul of San Pedro and cutting the ties and bonds that had been built there. You would lose the goodwill that you worked so hard to build up within the community for this project.”
The common sense notion that public upset was prima facie evidence of a breakdown in process, as well as trust, never seemed to dawn on anyone from the port — either staff or commissioners. That’s perhaps the biggest problem of all. You can’t fix a problem you’re incapable of recognizing.
The framework was first set by Seroka, then fleshed out in detail by Galvin.
Seroka first referred to “public comments … that the Harbor Department made past commitments … to maintain the Ports O’ Call Restaurant and shops … through the redevelopment process [and that] also alleged a lack of transparency, related to the redevelopment process in and of itself.”
“These allegations are not consistent with the public record, which documents no such commitments, as well as a sustained public process about this development,” said Seroka, flatly.
There’s a vast chasm between the port’s legalistic view of its past statements and what the overwhelming majority of the public understood of the port’s commitments.
“The public record includes the statement by the developer in a highly attended meeting that Ports O’ Call Restaurant would be protected,” homeowner activist Kathleen Woodfield said. “Why has that statement, which is on tape been ignored in this legal presentation?”
“It just is beyond me that a place that has been here so long and as such an important part of this community is going to be destroyed,” San Pedro resident Susan Tucker said. “When I have out-of-town guests, I always take them to Ports O’ Call Restaurant.”
The Central San Pedro Neighborhood Council’s resolution calls, “ for the immediate halt of [all] Ports O’ Call tenant evictions due to the Port of Los Angeles failing to adequately disclose subsequent amendments to the 2009 approved Environmental Impact Report regarding Ports O’ Call redevelopment and keep[ing] the CeSPNC and the public informed. The POLA has also not revealed in advance how these amendments will fundamentally change the previous plans and commitments made publicly that will substantially alter the waterfront development”. They also called for the historic preservation of some buildings and the transfer of this matter to the board of referred powers of the LA City Council if the POLA doesn’t address these issues.
“I felt disappointed and deceived,” said Shannon Ross, secretary of Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council, in her public comments. “I attended most of the redevelopment meetings. Just like most of the community members, I was led to believe that Ports O’ Call Restaurant would be included as an anchor tenant.”
When she found out otherwise, she created a Facebook page and an online petition. She brought motions to her neighborhood council and her Democratic club.
“Ports O’ Call Restaurant has sentimental value to many members going back [almost] 60 years,” she said. “More than that, Ports O’ Call Restaurant is an amazing community partner, allowing fundraisers at their restaurant, supporting some great organizations like Alex’s Lemonade Stand and … the Boys and Girls Club are just a couple of the organizations that they give their time, resources [and] their employees to support.”
At a previous Harbor Commission meeting, on Dec. 14, Carrie Scoville, president of the San Pedro Democratic Club, called the restaurant “our mini-convention center here on the waterfront.”
Ironically, one idea repeatedly advanced for redevelopment of the site was the addition of a mini-convention center — the de facto role the restaurant has already been playing for decades.
“Ports O’ Call Restaurant is an iconic part of this community and is part of this community’s identity, which was yet another promise given to us in all presentations about the waterfront, which is that this community’s identity would be preserved,” Woodfield said.
Indeed, one reason the Waterfront Alliance was so welcome as the development team was that both partners — Jericho Development and the Ratkovich Co. — were known for records of historical preservation. Jericho’s local projects include the Sixth Street Brown Brothers Building, where the majority of public waterfront planning meetings were hosted in 2003 and 2004, leading to the adoption of the original conceptual plan. Ratkovich has been involved in the renovation of eighteen nationally registered historic landmark buildings, including the Wiltern Theater.
“Respecting history and having it be a part of our development is something that we attend to very carefully,” Wayne Ratkovitch told POLA’s board during the meeting.
When the redevelopment planning process began, words like those were deeply reassuring to the community.
Now, in effect, the port and the developers are asking the community: Who do you believe — me or your lying eyes?