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Dock City 

San Pedro has its own ideas of how to make itself new

Wednesday, Aug 2 2000
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From below, the Vincent Thomas Bridge is green and fresh, the paint glossy-bright on all the bolts and screws, wires and girders, all the way to the tops of its towers.

I’ve looked up at many big bridges in my time; even lived under one once. But I‘ve never seen one so, well, shiny and straight-out-of-the-box-looking.

The bridge is spectacular, but little known. Since almost no one lives on Terminal Island but federal inmates, you rarely use this bridge unless you’re carrying truck cargo. That‘s heavy weight, but such is the strength of Los Angeles’ biggest span that it seems to sing, rather than rumble, under all that travel.

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It can be restful under bridges. All that traffic is moving, and you and the bridge are not. Gulls circle the giant piers, the water laps them gently and, looking up through the grid and the hustle, you see the eternal sky. A calming complexity, usually. And in most places -- certainly San Francisco and New York City -- underbridges are easily accessible. You just do what we three visitors did a few days ago: You go there and look. Undisturbed.

Not in San Pedro, though. “Excuse me, can I help you?” comes a voice in the key of anger. A man in a T-shirt has emerged from no visible point in the several acres of semi-paved territory around the bridge pier. There are no obvious keep-out signs, but the man -- heavily built, but not very big -- amplifies: “You are all trespassing.” Did someone, I wonder, manage to sell this guy the Vincent Thomas Bridge? But the hostility is neither funny nor understandable: We‘re decently dressed, unthreatening folk in our 50s, we’ve arrived midafternoon in a respectable new vehicle. We don‘t have cameras or sketchpads, so we can’t be Iraqi spies. I start to ask where it says this isn‘t public property, but one of my local friends is already, while conversing pleasantly, backing the intruder away in a manner that suggests that if he doesn’t bother us, we won‘t bother him. We linger a few minutes after that, but confrontation is hard on contemplation. The only real reason we could stay was that we were three to one.

And that is Los Angeles Harbor territoriality in a nutshell. There are vast, friendly public accommodations and beaches. But elsewhere there are undelineated fiefdoms and weird little power plays. One of my guides said that when he last visited another attractive area, someone chased him with a wrench. Though we were not disturbed at the same locale, it was hard for me to stop worrying and enjoy the vistas.

But if Los Angeles’ own port town can be a rough place in which to wander, there‘s an attraction to be found in its mix of natural beauty, antiquity and privation. There’s also a deeply rooted residential and business community of spacious diversity and loyalty. The community has long united in its frustrated wish that the rest of us would come down and spend and enjoy it more often. To make it prosper.

Now comes John Papadakis, restaurant owner and San Pedro native son. Papadakis is a prominent but, as he insists, coequal member of a local initiative group that wants to bind San Pedro into a tourist-friendly whole.

A big, congenial man in his 50s, Papadakis comes from a family that has been locally prominent for generations; he‘d like to see San Pedro reach what many of its long-term inhabitants think is its crowd-pleasing potential. Something like San Francisco’s Fisherman‘s Wharf. Only with a city of nearly 4 million, instead of 700,000, at its back.

And the first step in this revival, he says, is “a pedestrian-oriented walkway and bicycle path along the four- to five-mile San Pedro waterfront.”

An artist’s rendering shows an attractive, wide, paved path very similar to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade that has invigorated that New York borough‘s eastern shore. The San Pedro ’Nade would zigzag up and down wharves and docks, marinas and channels, past the Cruise Ship Terminal and the Cabrillo aquarium and museum, to the shady paths of Point Fermin Park, which has some of the best ocean views anywhere. Papadakis blames past problems of San Pedro revival on a lack of overall vision. So far that revival consists of “hotels, commercial centers, restaurant sites that don‘t hook up in any particular way,” he says. There have been over 20 years of this patchwork effort costing tens of millions, some by the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, some by the Harbor Department and other agencies. The results are stuff like the newish and underused-looking, medium-size hotels scattered from Gaffey Street just off the Harbor Freeway down to the harbor itself, and retail pods still lacking tenants. The promenade would help connect them all, and encourage many to walk three blocks from the shore to the little district‘s downtown. Where the Los Angeles Harbor-Watts Economic Development Corporation (or EDC) proposes another redevelopment of Old Town San Pedro, along the preservationist lines proposed by the National Historic Trust.

The promenade proposal is the key element in the EDC’s plan to remake the entirety of San Pedro into something that a wide range of Angelenos will find worth visiting.

It is hoped it will be picked up as a centerpiece for the new port development. The plan would involve three extensive sites along the proposed walkway.

The idea seems to be gathering wide local support and some media coverage; the Harbor-Watts EDC has an office and a small staff, led by development expert Bruce Dobb, who likes to call San Pedro “a gold mine on a waterfront,” Southern California‘s last underdeveloped commercial shoreline. Dobb says his plan tried to avoid a “gold rush,” the massive and slapdash revamping he fears from the Harbor Department.

But as in most gold mines, there’s more dirt than gold along the San Pedro shore. It‘s studded with disused tank farms, derelict docks and underutilized warehouses of the department of harbors. Papadakis points out that the entire world of shipping has changed since the city took over the once-independent port town: Cargo now arrives in giant containers, which are unloaded north of the Vincent Thomas Bridge. Much of the old pier area south of the bridge, which handled old-time loose cargo, is now obsolete. That’s why, say boosters, it so badly needs the promenade‘s symbolic and actual unification.

As noted last week, mayoral candidate Steve Soboroff is very interested in the EDC proposal. “I love the idea and it is very well thought out,” says the man Dick Riordan wants to succeed him as mayor. “It’s something we should go ahead with as long as it doesn‘t interfere with the port.” And even if it does, Soboroff says, the promenade project should be completed with the appropriate route changes.

But the decision making is up to the department of harbors. Harbor spokeswoman Barbara Yamamoto says that her agency is at the pre-request-for-proposal stage in its big plan. “We’re interested in what Mr. Papadakis proposes,” she says. But the final decision on what goes on the San Pedro shore will probably be made by whoever gets the redevelopment contract with the Harbor Department.

When Papadakis and Dobb mention that all-powerful agency, it‘s with foreboding. “They just haven’t been with us on this sort of thing; it‘s as if it weren’t their concern,” Papadakis says. Dobb puts it more bluntly: “They‘re just not equipped for this kind of project.”

There is a common San Pedro lament against the department: “They don’t even think of us as residents.” Or to realize that the harbor community interpenetrated by the city‘s shipping operations is also home to more than 100,000 people.

To Dobb, the major affront came seven years ago, when the department ordained a new export facility -- the so-called LAXT -- for finely divided coal and carbon-coke. He complains that little consideration was then given to the possible pollution via dust from a large, open coal pile. Nor that it could be a health danger. Locals united, the pile was covered. But the harbor agency, the largest local employer, was less trusted than ever.

Some San Pedrans think the mayor’s recent ejection of Harbor Commission president Ted Stein could improve department-community relations. “He wasn‘t very receptive,” Dobb says of the former Riordan intimate.

Replacement Rick Caruso is locally unknown, but has development experience Stein lacked. There’s ambivalence, however, about how Stein went. Hector Cepeda -- a consultant to state Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg and candidate for the local 15th District council seat -- adds, “No one‘s sorry to see Stein go, but no one’s happy about how he went.”

Cepeda strongly backs the EDC proposal, though: “The place has its own character. It should keep it.” Fellow candidate Frank O‘Brien agrees the EDC is a good idea, but he is skeptical about what difference the Stein ouster will make. “The Harbor Department doesn’t believe in the community. I believe the new boss will be the same as the old boss.”

Yamamoto says that the department‘s board may not choose a contractor until November. If so, vital decisions on whither San Pedro are going to be made by a new mayor. Could people-friendly harbor development become a big 2001 campaign issue? I wouldn’t be surprised. In fact, Soboroff, who says, “I‘m for greening L.A.,” is already out there running with it.#

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