POLA Evicts POC Restaurant Just as they Receive Offer to Stay
By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
For months, the Port of Los Angeles told Ports O’Call restaurant owner Jayme Wilson that a lease agreement couldn’t be negotiated with him until he had a letter of intent from the LA Waterfront Alliance, the developers who are overseeing the San Pedro Public Market project; it will erase and replace all of Ports O’Call Village. Wilson was in the process of negotiating with those developers, and finally received their letter of intent on March 6. But on March 7, the port served him eviction papers.
It was yet another example of thinly-veiled hostility from the port in the decades-long process of waterfront development, though the exact nature of what was involved remains shrouded in secrecy.
On March 12, a broader group of Ports O’ Call tenants—mostly ethnic minorities—and their supporters held a press conference, where they alleged widespread corruption at the port in the public process, offering hundreds of supporting documents. They called for investigations by federal, state and local authorities,
Port spokesman Phillip Sanfield called the allegations “baseless and without merit,” but these events, leading up to the long-delayed public meeting on waterfront development on March 20 (see story above), once again cast the port’s credibility into question.
“The port gave me a notice terminating our lease effective March 1,” Wilson told Random Lengths News. “We countered to the port, ‘No, the [environmental impact report] states that existing businesses will be relocated,’ and those discussions continued, to no avail.”
“Parallel discussions were going on with the Ratkovichs and the Johnsons,” partners on the development team. “We met with them in December, I think we met with them again in January, because the port had said they can’t work on an interim plan for you, Jamie, until you have a deal with, a letter of intent with the developers,” Wilson explained.
“So we spent the last couple of months getting that done, and we received a letter of intent, in draft form, the end of February, and they said the final form, the final letter would be released on March 6, which is a Tuesday,” Wilson said. “We received that letter signed by Mylan Ratkovich, and basically said that they would like to have Spirit Cruises and Ports O’Call Restaurant in the new development,” with construction starting in 2020, and occupancy in late 2021.
“The next day, we get served by the port that we have to vacate the restaurant immediately,” Wilson recounted. “That of course is a legal matter, and we responded on Monday [March 12].” At the same time, “The port decided that the boat docks are not designed to have boats, which doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “There have been boats at those since my business started 35 years ago, but in trying to avoid a dispute with the port, we have complied, and we moved the boats.”
The court requires settlement efforts before any hearing, and Wilson was hopeful at first. “Our belief is the EIR is clear, that states that the project will be built in phases, and existing tenants will be relocated to the newly completed phase, after the construction starts,” he said. “Clearly that is what they decided to do for the Fish Market and Crusty Crab and International Café and Harbor Breeze operations. I believe that we should be treated the same way.”
The broader group of tenants that called for an investigation feels similarly. “I have been part of Ports O’Call Village for [more than] 20 years and I cannot believe that this has happened in America,’ said Akibu Jimoh, owner of African American Gifts.
“We have sadly discovered that the Port of Los Angeles manipulated the San Pedro Waterfront Project Developer selection process, selected the least qualified bidder, illegally changed the approved project Environmental Impact Report 7 years later and then evicted only the ethnic minority-owned tenants, an act of discrimination and racism,” said Jesse N. Marquez, a spokesman for the tenants.
While Wilson has been intent on trying to work with the developers, this broader group alleges substantial improprieties in the developer selection process, as well as in the reshaping of the development since its approval in broad outline in the 2009 Waterfront Development EIR.
“Eviction due to construction is a core complaint common to both, running directly contrary to what had been publicly announced on multiple occasions, until this past September, when things abruptly changed — at least, in terms of what the public was told.” Wilson said. “So we’re really befuddled by what’s happening right now. Why are they not doing the project in phases like they promised the community? Why are they taking the largest restaurant, the oldest restaurant in San Pedro, choosing to push us out, when the developer wants us as part of the project?”
As Wilson now understands things, the crucial change in the port’s planning occurred over this past summer. “Something happened between spring of ‘17, and the fall of ‘17 where the entire thing was turned around and the Fish Market gets put where Ports O’ Call Restaurant is,” he said. “When that happened, I don’t know. I know we weren’t told until September that everything is being demolished at once, and the development is going to start at the south end instead of the north end, but something happened through that process.”
While the port and the developers seemed to send conflicting signals, they were obviously in close contact, as revealed in documents obtained by Random Lengths under the Public Records Act, which further cloud the picture of who was responsible for what.
“Fundamentally, we believe it to be in our mutual best interests to have a professional relationship with Wilson that limits public and political debates while preserving the port’s rights and our development opportunities,” Wayne Ratkovich wrote to POLA Executive Director Gene Seroka in a December 27 email. “Wilson has requested the opportunity to operate his Ports O’ Call restaurant through 12/31/18 and to have the use of slips for his Spirit Cruises to continue in operation…. If the port can accommodate this request without budget or scheduling impact, we think it would go a long way toward limiting conflicts among the involved parties.”
On Dec. 22, Seroka responded in a letter saying that “allowing Ports O’ Call Restaurant and Spirit Cruises to continue to operate through Dec. 31, 2018 would impact both the budget and scheduling of the construction” but that POLA “would consider allowing these entities to continue to operate” under a set of conditions, including having the developers pay for the added construction costs, releasing the port’s “obligation to timely deliver the premises,” and “to defend, indemnify, and hold harmless” the port and city for any costs related to the delay or to lawsuits from other, minority-owned Ports O’Call Village tenants, resulting from treating the restaurant different from them.
“My understanding is that LA Waterfront Alliance, LLC has declined to accept these conditions for allowing Ports O’Call Restaurant and Spirit Cruises to continue to operate past March 1, 2018,” Seroka’s letter continued. “As a result, I consider any negotiations regarding this matter to be concluded and the Harbor Department will proceed to meet its obligations under Lease No. 915 by vacating the premises currently occupied by Ports O’Call Restaurant and Spirit Cruises as soon after March 1, 2018 as possible.”
Nonetheless, the developers subsequently did send Wilson the letter he had been waiting for, in order to negotiate staying open with the port. Was this all just an exercise in obfuscation? It still remains unclear.
“The decision to lease to existing businesses in the new development is solely a developer decision.” Sanfield told Random Lengths. “However, the port and the developer must mutually agree on final project phasing including accommodating existing tenants during construction.” He added that decision was made for the following reasons:
- The economic importance to the project to maintain an operation expected to have generated close to $25 million in gross receipts for calendar year 2017.
- Maintaining ongoing operations will assist in financing and maintaining economic activity during construction and
- Adjacent location of these businesses with the San Pedro Fish Market provides opportunity to maintain a small core of businesses during construction without increasing project cost or risk of project delays.
None of this, however, addresses the underlying question: why, how and when did the port decide to fundamentally change the approach toward redeveloping Ports O’ Call? And why has it never felt the need to explain this in public? It is hard—if not impossible—to imagine that San Pedrans would have accepted the 2009 EIR, if it had contained this plan for wiping out and replacing Ports O’ Call Village, rather than the now-broken promises it made.