Big Reveal Threatens Ports O’ Call Restaurant

  • 06/15/2018
  • Reporters Desk

By Carlos M. Garcia

One recent Friday night I stopped by the Ports ‘O Call Restaurant to see what all the commotion was about. The place was jumping. A happy local crowd filled the bar and the outdoor dining area. The main banquet room was also at capacity as a family celebrated the birthdays of their mother, grandma and aunt. In another room supporters of local congresswoman Nanette Barragán were quietly phone banking, trying to get her another term.

This is how history is made at the most iconic eatery on the harbor waterfront. By closing time, these single strands of simple life will have been woven into another day in a storyline that winds all the way back to 1963.

But time appears to be running out for Ports O’ Call Restaurant, which must get out of the way of a redevelopment project called San Pedro Public Market. Officially, that means closing for three years ― a scenario based on a March 6, offer from the San Pedro Public Market to include it in a second construction phase that won’t be completed until late 2021 or early 2022. The restaurant’s proprietor, Jayme Wilson, has publicly stated that the restaurant could not survive a three-year hiatus in operation.

On May 17, the Los Angeles Superior Court judge affirmed the Port of Los Angeles’ and the City of Los Angeles’ March 7 eviction of the restaurant. The judge noted that with respect to the prior commitment by the port and developer, he said that the development plans were “fluid” and all the existing tenants knew this.

Looking ahead, the port expected there would be an appeal and had planned for six months of litigation. The port will not issue a promenade construction request for proposal until late 2018, followed by five months of proposal review, negotiations and contract award with construction starting in the spring of 2019. So, the immediate demolition of the building is not necessary.  

In April and May 2018, all three San Pedro neighborhood councils passed resolutions urging the port and the developer to renegotiate the operating lease so that both the restaurant and the Fish Market would stay in continuous operation throughout the construction of the San Pedro Public Market. It seems an easy enough task to accomplish. The Fish Market, instead of remaining in its current location for one year would stay in place a second year before transitioning to the San Pedro Public Market at the site of the restaurant. This location was chosen to take advantage of the existing pier foundation that would be used to build a large outdoor dining area for the Fish Market.

The current phasing plan calls for the restaurant building to be demolished in 2018 before the beginning of the first construction phase instead of the second phase as originally planned. Since the port has not found a suitable interim location for the restaurant, it would now be closed for three years before reopening after the second construction phase scheduled for completion in late 2021 or early 2022. This plainly contradicted what had been pledged by an earlier port administration in 2009 for an existing tenant that would be included in a new development.

Although the judge required the restaurant’s proprietor to pay the port’s legal fees for the non-jury superior court trial, to file an appeal he would have to put up a $50 million bond, all the while hoping that the pressure from the San Pedro community and their neighborhood councils will force the developer and the port to reconsider the phasing plan to keep both the Fish Market and the restaurant in continuous operation throughout construction of the San Pedro Public Market with minimal risk to the project’s cost and schedule goals. The proprietor, if he does not appeal the superior court ruling, may join the recent lawsuit brought by the other already evicted minority tenants.

In my estimation, there is no programmatic reason for not renegotiating the operating lease to do exactly what the port promised to do in 2009.

In short, successful existing businesses would not be taken out of service until replacement locations were available. If a suitable interim location could not be found for the restaurant, the two actions needed to keep the restaurant and Fish Market in continuous operation were readily apparent: (1) keep the Fish Market in its current location for two years instead of one, and (2) keep the restaurant open during the first construction phase, as originally planned, and then have it transition to the new development at the end of the first construction phase. This alternative phasing plan is consistent with the implicit request in all three San Pedro neighborhood councils’ resolutions.

The solution is really this simple and everyone knows it.

However, since the superior court ruling, it seems the port is trying to do the opposite by moving quickly to lock the restaurant’s doors and tear down the building. One veteran neighborhood council leader sardonically quipped:

At this rate, the port will be responding to the three neighborhood councils’ resolutions the day after they tear the building down.

Some in San Pedro contend that the legacy of the Port Community Advisory Committee, and Jayme Wilson’s role as its co-chair for many years are factors in the port’s lack of support for rephasing the project since it would benefit Jayme Wilson. The port considered the PCAC a thorn in its side and was glad to see the Board of Harbor Commissioners disband it.

However, Jayme Wilson now sits on the board of the Harbor Community Benefit Foundation. To the displeasure of the port, its board recently recommended re-establishing the PCAC based on the findings of a recent land use study it commissioned to assess the impact of port-related operations on San Pedro and Wilmington. They believe that this history helps explain why the port has not taken steps to keep the restaurant open at least to the end of 2018, much less help keep it in continuous operation throughout the construction of the San Pedro Public Market.

If these non-programmatic, political factors are at the root of the port’s unwillingness to rephase the project because it would support Jayme Wilson’s business interests, for whom there is little sympathy at the port or at City Hall, there may be little the community can do.  

This surely is not what a large segment of the San Pedro community wants to see happen. Will the mayor step in and rescue the situation? Will the port’s executive director let bygones be bygones, reassess the phasing plan and change its onerous conditions — whatever the motivation — for rephasing the project? Will the developer be willing to accept an alternative phasing plan that, while it keeps both the restaurant and Fish Market in continuous operation, delays the transition of the Fish Market to its new site for two years instead of one?  Can they all work together to achieve a win-win situation? Many in the community believe they can and should act as trusted public servants and responsible businessmen. Let’s hope they can; there is still time to do so.   

Carlos M. Garcia is a retired Government Accountability Office senior analyst who monitored the C-17 program at Boeing in Long Beach for several years analyzing the cost and schedule of the program during development and early production. He is a lifelong San Pedro resident and a member of a neighborhood council.

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