Shrouded in Doubt

  • 03/22/2018
  • Paul Rosenberg

Community Concerns Remain, Despite Port’s Greatest Hits Waterfront Development Show

By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

On March 20, more than three months after an initial presentation at the San Pedro Yacht Club ended unexpectedly amidst sharp questioning from local residents, developer Wayne Ratkovich finally made his long-delayed Warner Grand Theater presentation to the general public of the final plans for redeveloping the Ports O’ Call Village site.

Prior to the meeting, more than 50 community members marched boisterously in support of keeping the iconic Ports O’Call Restaurant open. More than 1,000 people have signed a petition in support.

“It brought tears to my eyes, seeing all the employees and community supporters marching in support of our restaurant,”  owner Jayme Wilson told Random Lengths News.

“This is our third presentation to you in this historic theater,” Ratkovich said, but he and his teams’ half-hour presentation took up just one quarter of the port’s two-hour presentation, which was overloaded with a plethora of promotional feel-good videos, presided over by Port of LA Executive Director Gene Seroka. There was a video for almost every facet of waterfront development and associated community engagement, including longtime youth-serving community favorites like the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium and the Los Angeles Maritime Institute. The public was understandably supportive of the overall thrust of the evenings’ presentations, but the devil was hardly hidden in the details, and the actual fate of some key community concerns—Ports O’ Call Restaurant and the Red Car line—remained shrouded in doubt.

“ [During his introductory remarks] Seroka boasted about all the community meetings and input,” community activist June Smith noted. “That referred to the days of PCAC [the Port Community Advisory Committee], which pushed the promenade. But he made it sound as though the whole design had lots of community input…NOT.”

Wilson and Smith served as community co-chairs of PCAC, but it was disbanded by the port before any specific planning to redevelop Ports O’ Call began.

Organizers of the public meeting used a combination of tactics to effectively destroy the pretense of a real community partnership. Those included repeatedly delaying the meeting until all eviction notices had been served, loading up the agenda with roughly a dozen other presentations that could have been made 12 months earlier or later, and denying community residents any opportunity to raise questions and articulate objections. Even neighborhood council representatives were excluded from the program.

“It is another case of city government and the port being disinterested in what the residents of San Pedro want to see on their waterfront,” long-time neighborhood council activist Peter Warren told Random Lengths afterwards. He argued that the event was a propaganda show, not a true town meeting.

“If the port leadership wanted to hear comment, they would have invited one more harbor commissioner to the meeting, making it an official meeting of the board and requiring public comment under state law for public meetings,” Warren said. But comments were only heard second-hand, at best.

“Your comments and suggestions have been overwhelmingly positive,” Ratkovich told the crowd. “Only a few have been critical.”

Perhaps that’s been true in privately curated settings, as it was at the last public presentation more than two years ago. But plans for the redevelopment have changed radically since then.

It was telling that Ratkovich’s presentation scored its biggest applause when he announced that he was in negotiations with Jayme Wilson to keep Ports O’Call Restaurant as part of the new project, and when he indicated an intention to bring back the Red Car line—if the project’s success could support it. Retaining those two elements had long been taken for granted by the community. Both remain questionable, at best.

“The fact of the matter is that the Port of L.A. has stated that they will not allow him [Jayme Wilson] to come back. They do not want him to come back, and so that was not brought up,” said Jesse Marquez, a leading advocate for the smaller tenants being evicted.

“We learned early in the process that Pedro would not be Pedro without a wide diversity of opinion,” Ratkovich acknowledged. Left unsaid was how hard community members had worked—in multiple public meeting processes from 1999 to 2009—to create a plan framework acceptable to all, which the current plans now violate. As Marquez pointed out, that kind of process continued in Wilmington.

“Right now, we have a developer, architect, coming [and] showing here’s what we think the vision is, without any San Pedro resident participation in what that would be, in contrast to the Wilmington Waterfront project,” Marquez said. “We have discussions with architects, and some of the designers as to what kind of themes do we want for our Wilmington Waterfront Park, and then what were some of the detailed design elements in the Wilmington Waterfront Park. And so we got to participate, and we got to make recommendations as to what we wanted in it. And that’s a vast difference from the San Pedro community not having any voice whatsoever in what the design elements are.”

“There doesn’t seem to be an overarching theme,” Smith added. “What collectively will the Market be featuring?” In contrast, the Crafted presentation did convey a coherent shared sensibility and spirit.

“The development concept and its steel shed architecture lack imagination, soul and most importantly a significant ‘draw’ to capture any enduring interest,” homeowner activist Janet Gunter said.

“The name is disastrous,” Smith said.

And Ratkovich’s explanation revealed deeper problems. “The name change was simply essential for us to succeed in financing the development,” he said, noting that “the decline [in] conditions… compelled us to give the development of a new name.”

But the Port helped engineer that decline. It took over the village in 2001, and has neglected it ever since, despite repeated pleas from tenants. And choosing a name based on generic financing concerns has resulted in a generically-named project with some genuinely great ideas, but a lack of historically informed coherence and relationship to the community.

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