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Thursday, Dec 7, 2023

Anchors Aweigh?

Now that planning is underway to dramatically remake the San Pedro waterfront into more of a visitor attraction, one big stakeholder is shouting to make sure it doesn’t get marginalized by the plan.

The Battleship USS Iowa Museum, which has been moored at the Port of Los Angeles since 2012, has distinguished itself as a popular attraction for tourists and local Navy enthusiasts. That’s despite its presence as a stand-alone attraction relatively obscured by fencing that has the effect of separating it from the rest of the pedestrian-friendly infrastructure along the San Pedro waterfront.

And as port officials identify priorities for the waterfront’s revitalization, leaders behind the Iowa museum want to make sure they’re included and featured at the destination with top billing instead of leaving it relatively stranded and apart from the portion that’s slated to be revitalized.

“The Iowa, we’ve been down in the waterfront for 11 years,” said Jonathan Williams, chief executive of the Iowa museum. “Over time, we’ve led the tourist destination side of the waterfront, which is great, but we’re a stand-alone destination.”

The port seems to agree. After shelving it at the start of the pandemic, the port has picked back up the waterfront connectivity plan and is considering relocating the Iowa museum alongside the ongoing West Harbor development to add retail, restaurants and an amphitheater – a location Williams supports. The port held a meeting seeking community input last week; it will continue to receive input through Nov. 7 and expects to have a finalized plan in December.

The port’s position is that the Iowa deserves a place of prominence in the revamp, formally called the San Pedro Waterfront Connectivity Plan.

“We’re heavily invested in making a visitor-serving district successful down here,” said Mike Galvin, director of waterfront and commercial real estate for the Port of Los Angeles. “The connectivity plan really provides the reframing of how we’re going to be successful.

“The Iowa,” he added, “jumps out as one of those projects as further anchoring West Harbor.”

Jonathan Williams, CEO of the Battleship USS Iowa Museum, with the ship’s mascot, Vicky. (Photo by Ringo Chiu)

However, the plan is still being worked out, and Williams said he is detecting “no sense of urgency” that the battleship will be moved to the heart of the redevelopment.

Popular but isolated

Since its debut at the waterfront, the Iowa museum has carved out a unique spot among L.A.’s museum spaces.

The Iowa was first commissioned in 1943. It ferried President Franklin D. Roosevelt across the Atlantic for the Tehran Conference during World War II and later participated in the Pacific fleet’s battles with Japan. After being used during the Korean War, it was relegated to the reserve fleet until 1984, when it was reactivated as a counter to the Soviet Union’s naval fleet. It was decommissioned for good in 1990.

Visitors can tour the battleship and experience its various spaces and artifact gallery. A scavenger hunt for the ship’s mascot, Vicky, a dog, is a popular activity on the ship among visitors, and an escape room, Escape the Mothball Fleet, is among the attractions. During NFL season the museum hosts watch parties on its deck.

However, the Iowa’s isolated location means that people visiting it are likely to drive away when they’re done. And likewise, visitors to restaurants, stores and other sights along the waterfront don’t see the Iowa museum as an easy next stop that’s walkable.

“Everything down there was siloed,” Williams said. “Frankly, what happens is you bring down multiple visitors and you’re not maximizing the destination and the amount someone spends per trip.”

The Iowa museum shares a large parking lot with the Los Angeles Cruise Center and is situated behind fences – a location that Galvin conceded was “not exactly, from a visual perspective, deeply accessible.” The museum had previously been highlighted as a priority project for the waterfront connectivity plan, which seeks to transform the assets there into a linked destination for locals and tourists alike. The Port of Los Angeles dedicates 10% of its annual revenue to a pot of funds to make that happen, and investments from public and private partners are expected to bring $62.5 million for the revamp during the next five years.

Unfortunately, the pandemic forced port officials to hit pause on most of the complex’s capital projects. The port is now in the midst of revisiting and finalizing those priorities and plans. And while the public presentation of the draft plan includes the proposed relocation of the Iowa museum and highlights it as a popular asset in the region, Williams said he was concerned that the plan “does not confirm or convey a sense of urgency for relocating the ship to connect this valuable asset to the waterfront.”

“Why it’s really come to a head at this point is, the port has released its draft copy and there’s very little about how the Iowa is a catalyst to connect the harbor,” he added.

The Iowa’s future

The port’s Galvin acknowledged the public show of support for the museum’s continued role in San Pedro as the port and its consultant, SWA Group, worked on the final plan.

“We’re at the point where we need to prioritize for the next five years. Different entities are looking to the community to prioritize their project,” Galvin explained. “(Local organizations) have expressed their opinion that (the Iowa museum) is a priority. We’re getting more advocacy coming at us now. We’re hearing from more community groups outside of those structured groups. It seems like the community is going to support moving forward … to moving it to the West Harbor development.”

And Galvin also highlighted his personal affection for the museum and its impact locally, calling it a “community meeting point” for San Pedro and nearby neighborhoods. He added that its proposed relocation and potential status as a priority for the redevelopment “seems to make a lot of sense.”

“San Pedro has a big shipbuilding history and big history with the Navy. The Iowa really serves to spotlight both of those historic uses in the Port of Los Angeles and has been really adopted by the community as a central waterfront development,” Galvin said. “It is a very special part of the community, and Iowa leadership has really ingrained itself in community leadership.”

For his part, Williams said he supported the proposed relocation site, which would share space with the under-construction West Harbor retail center. That project calls for bringing a series of restaurants and stores to the waterfront, along with a 6,200-seat amphitheater. While a slip already exists at the location, Galvin noted it would need to be dredged to an adequate depth to accommodate the Iowa.

“It’ll pull us out from being hidden,” Williams said of the site, “and finally help be a catalyst to drive that traffic and connect the rest of the waterfront and let the cruise terminal be the cruise terminal.”

Councilman Tim McOsker, a San Pedro native and former chief executive of the nearby AltaSea institute, also voiced his support for the relocation of the museum and featuring it as an anchor for the waterfront.

“The Battleship Iowa has been a popular tourist destination in the L.A. Harbor since its arrival in 2012. However, as we develop the waterfront, its current location becomes relatively isolated,” McOsker said in a statement. “Moving the battleship would combine several exciting amenities for visitors to the harbor area. Visitors and residents would be able to shop, dine and enjoy entertainment at the upcoming West Harbor development, and in the same area, be able to board the Iowa and learn about this iconic battleship and the rich history of the surface Navy.”

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