The Port Missed the Boat

  • 04/05/2018
  • Paul Rosenberg

Community members respond to port’s waterfront dog and pony show

By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

“It was a great big snow job.”

That’s how Doug Epperhart—President of Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council—summed up his impression of the Port of Los Angeles’ March 20 waterfront development presentation at the Warner Grand Theater.

“I told the person I was sitting next to, my God, don’t be surprised [if I] pass out from superlative overdose. Everything was awesome, everything was fantastic, everything was storied.”

Others were more charitable.

The presentation “showed that they are proceeding with the work,” former port attorney Pat Nave said simply, describing what he liked about the presentation.

“I am very happy that the port is making progress on this project, as it has been a very long time in the process,” said Darlene Zavalney, who sits on the board of the Northwest San Pedro Neighborhood Council, although she also had strong objections to how Ports O’ Call Village redevelopment was being planned. (Read her letter to the editor, p. 19.)

But some were even more critical than Epperhart.

“[It was] a sham in every sense of the word,” said Peter Warren, who chaired Coastal’s Port Committee for a decade. “It was not a public meeting under California law because it lacked comment time and the audience was there to be talked at. They had zero interest in learning what people thought.”

It’s nothing new. For almost 20 years, public demands, port promises and actual results have repeatedly ended up wildly at odds. It shouldn’t have been like this, according to John Papadakis, the driving force behind getting the original study done.

“The Bridge to Breakwater Plan (in 2000) was originally funded by the State Coastal Conservancy, because its principles expressed two major public precepts by which all state seasides and ports must operate,” Papadakis said. They were:

1)  That the public must have ‘primary access to the Waterline’

2) That the waterline must go to the ‘highest and best use of the true owner citizens’

“It is nearly 20 years since these principles totally united the entire community and the city,” he said. “Today, many years later, the Bridge to Breakwater remains only partially built. The plan has been chopped up for scrap, and buried.”

Papadakis helped get everything started, but San Pedrans are notoriously contentious, and it took Herculean efforts to come up with plans that diverse factions could all agree upon — plus Wilmington residents as well. Key concerns have repeatedly included environmental sustainability, jobs, balancing downtown and waterfront development, and preserving history and heritage, But whenever consensus has been reached, the port has inevitably blown things up, starting with the first planning process conducted by Keith Gurney of RRM in 2001, who was unceremoniously dumped later that year.

After that, the newly-formed neighborhood councils and the Port Community Advisory Committee played a major role in this planning process, with similar results: stunning the port with balanced community consensus proposals, which the port repeatedly rejected. Most memorably, the “Sustainable Waterfront Plan”— endorsed jointly by the Sierra Club and the Chamber of Commerce — was rejected by port staff in advance of the September 2009 environmental impact report, which has guided development ever since.

“It’s been my experience with port people, all through the process, they never got the answers they wanted from the public,” said Epperhart, summing up.

The port dissolved Community Advisory Committee in 2013, and the neighborhood councils have struggled to be heard since then, without the larger framework Community Advisory Committee provided. Meanwhile, the port has used the projects it has supported to create an echo-chamber alliance of support: Crafted, the Battleship Iowa, AltaSea, the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce etc. All these voices were marshalled at the March 20 meeting.

But community voices? Not so much.

Both Coastal and Central San Pedro neighborhood councils have passed resolutions objecting to the shutting down of Ports O’Call Restaurant, which many see as typifying a profoundly out-of-touch approach. Neither was allowed to be heard.

June Smith, community co-chair of Community Advisory Committee when the port disbanded it in 2013, took a balanced of view of the meeting, recognizing both pros and cons. Things she liked about the Ports O’ Call redevelopment included the interest in local businesses as possible lessees, the landscape architect’s spatial ideas, “the open space for big concerts, the park space and the children’s playground,” and “the promenade, of course,”

On the minus side, she faulted the sterile “industrial look” and trite, generic name. “A ‘public market place’ is not distinctive and doesn’t reflect anything special about San Pedro,” she said. “There seems to be no central focal point except to ‘make money’ in the marketplace.  If there is no historical context (aside from keeping a fish market) why should people come here to ‘do their shopping’?” she questioned. “Why not capitalize on what Ports O’Call advertising has already done and build on that concept?” she continued. “It could be renamed Ports O’Call Inbound, or some such slight change that would show something new but keeping the old recognition in place,” she suggested. “The premise is that Ports O’Call is a complete failure — except for the Fish Market?— and I don’t really think that is the case.”

Finally, Smith noted, “The arts community wasn’t even given a breath of air.”

Artist, curator and arts district resident Ron Linden had similar thoughts about continuity and development process.

“Staging development projects is the solution to this situation. Build around successful existing businesses and relocate them to new quarters before scraping the old,” Linden said. “This would save the established, some rightly described as iconic, locations that are the linchpins of Ports O’Call Village, and save hundreds of viable jobs,” he added. “It’s unconscionable to destroy existing jobs on the speculation that in three or more years down the road new opportunities will arise.”

“This is urban renewal in its worst form, where businesses or residents who have supported the community for years get pushed out when things are about to turnaround economically,” Warren said. “That is a bankrupt system.”

While much of the criticism focused on Ports O’Call redevelopment, the deeper problem, Epperhart noted, was “the death of consultation”…or even “simple communication,” he said. “It’s not even one way, let alone two-ways.” As he described it, the port starts off with “a dog and pony show and everybody’s going to come and look at it these plans with Ferris wheels and glitzy lights and blah, blah, blah,” followed by… Nothing, for two years. Until “They come back with the real plan. Which is pretty minimal, because at some point, somebody has to figure out that oh yeah, this is going to have to make money to sustain.”

“That’s been another part of the problem going all the way back,” Epperhart recalled. “The questions that got asked about economic viability over and over and over again were never answered by the port,” he said. “Supposedly they had studies. They would never even share them with people at PCAC.”

The question of money has always been crucial, of course. But it only makes sense in terms of resources, goals, partnerships, and time-frames—the entire policy framework.

For the port, that framework is one of a sideline to its main business—the only one it really understands: moving containers and fossil fuels.

But for the community, it’s something very different: a chance to rebalance the scales and put an end to being treated like a sacrifice zone.

“We consume, pay for and absorb tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars of the port’s externalized costs each year,” Warren said. “We pay them in the cost of health care, traffic, road impacts, car damage, soot pollution, reduced home values, etc. We have lost recreational and green space to the port. Thousands of acres.”

An early homeowner concept envisioned a complete reversal of this situation: a “Griffith Park by the sea,” a completely non-profit, public investment that could — like Central Park — generate enormous long-term wealth in the surrounding community. But only small fragments of this vision have been carried forward. Economic necessity is the port’s rationale, but its conceptual framework is severely limited.

“It is very important to create jobs, but this is a bankrupt process,” Warren went on to say. “Yes, the port creates jobs and some select few in the thousands, low tens of thousands, get well-paid union work, but the vast majority of those paying the port’s bill for externalized costs are not in this group of beneficiaries. Instead, they pay, get no benefits and suffer.”

We can have both a thriving port and a healthy community. That’s what community activists have been fighting for since at least the Riordan administration. From this perspective, the closing of Ports O’Call Restaurant — even temporarily — is painfully indicative of a much larger heedlessness to the worthiness of their lives. Does it really have to be this way? Or can the community, once again, come up with a better, richer, more inclusive solution? Does it make sense for Random Lengths to convene a true public meeting to explore this possibility, which the port refuses even to consider?

Nave thought not. “It would only be disruptive and continue our city-wide practice of getting nothing done,” he said. But others disagreed.

Former Port Engineer Vern Hall, who convened the first Community Advisory Committee-like body to deal with Cabrillo Marina development, was typical. “Great idea for Random Lengths to host a town hall focused on the former Ports O’Call situation,” Hall said, noting it “would provide the opportunity to hear from those immediately affected, as well as the long term impacts on downtown San Pedro and the entire community.” He, too, suggested partnering with “one or more of the neighborhood councils.”

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