John Papadakis may not be larger than life, but the former USC linebacker is larger than most people. And his vision for the waterfront along San Pedro is quite a bit larger than L.A. port officials want to accommodate.

Where there are now tank farms and warehouses along the waterfront in San Pedro, Papadakis sees a promenade with retail development, parks and restaurants. Never mind that the industrial facilities are still in use and the Port of Los Angeles, which owns the land, is not planning to remove them anytime soon.

Yet the 50-year-old Papadakis, who owns the popular Papadakis Taverna in downtown San Pedro and chairs the Los Angeles Harbor-Watts Economic Development Corp., has thrown his considerable clout behind a plan to redevelop the waterfront and create a recreational zone stretching from the Vincent Thomas Bridge all the way down to Point Fermin.

He is no community gadfly with a wacky idea; he has the support of many of the most important public officials in Los Angeles, and is recruiting more all the time, using a combination of boundless energy, P.R. savvy and street smarts.

On a recent tour of the San Pedro waterfront with Rocky Delgadillo, deputy mayor for economic development and a candidate for L.A. city attorney, Papadakis made no qualms about what he envisions for the current industrial users of the land west of the port's Main Channel.

"This place should be given back to the people," Papadakis said as he stood between several huge liquid storage tanks and empty warehouses. "If it takes the port $10 million or $20 million to relocate these businesses and clean up this site, they will make it back on the long run."

Under the plan touted by Papadakis, a promenade and bike path of about four miles would connect a number of historic sites and provide public access to a waterfront that is now a grim-looking mish-mash of recreational and industrial zones with the half-vacant, rundown Port O' Call as its centerpiece.

Few denizens of the port are more suited for the challenges of revitalizing the area than Papadakis.

A former football star at USC (his son Petros currently plays on the team), Papadakis was born and raised in San Pedro. His grandfather arrived there in 1902 from Greece and eked out a living as a bootlegger during Prohibition.

When alcohol became legal again, the family stayed in the business and opened a liquor store where John Papadakis worked while growing up.

Twenty-eight years ago, after a short stint as football coach at UC Berkeley, Papadakis opened a Greek restaurant in downtown San Pedro. It's been as a restaurant owner that he has experienced first hand the decline of downtown San Pedro as both the port and City Hall neglected the area.

"There used to be activity and life here," Papadakis said. "We had celebrities come to San Pedro because this was part of the real L.A."

The decline has been particularly stinging because other local waterfront areas have steadily risen with L.A.'s rising economic tide in recent years.

"Long Beach used to be a sad, old Navy town, and Redondo Beach was this quiet little place," Papadakis pointed out.

A man of traditional values, Papadakis is as passionate about the proposed promenade as he is about the other topics that lie close to his heart: the city of San Pedro, his family, civic virtue and the USC football team. He knows that his enthusiasm lets him get carried away at times, and for a recent presentation to the Harbor Commission he decided to let a consultant do the talking so that his exuberant personality would not distract from the merits of the project.

"People get scared of me," said Papadakis, who with his powerful build does look a trifle intimidating. "They look at me like I'm going to tackle them, so we thought that it'd be better to have a more gentle looking person give the presentation."

With local elections coming up and secession sentiment on the rise in the port communities, Papadakis has seen numerous candidates for City Council and other public offices come through San Pedro and pledge their support for the promenade project.

"It's hard not to be in support of something like this," said mayoral candidate Steve Soboroff, who also presides over the city's Recreation and Parks Commission. "From a business perspective, a promenade that ties this area together could speed up commercial development and it would be a great investment by the port."

The Port of L.A., however, is not rushing to endorse the project. The California Coastal Conservancy has made $250,000 available to the L.A. Harbor-Watts EDC to finance the pre-development work on the promenade. But these funds are contingent on the port stating its interest in such a project, and the port is not ready to do that because officials are already working on their own plan for the waterfront.

Good business and jobs

Currently, the port is seeking proposals for the development of three separate sites the Ports O'Call, a site adjacent to the cruise ship terminal and a site along 22nd Street where there used to be a Unocal oil storage facility. Although parts of these envisioned projects would include a promenade, according to Larry Keller, executive director of the Port of L.A., they do not include the concept of a continuous recreational zone along the waterfront, and they certainly would not dislodge the port's current industrial tenants.

"The industrial infrastructure will stay here," insisted Keller. "They are under long-term leases and they provide good businesses and jobs to the community. Our main goal is to integrate the recreational uses of the waterfront and to provide waterside access to the public."

The industrial infrastructure of San Pedro, though, is precisely the thorn in the side of Papadakis and like-minded local business leaders, who have seen their town deteriorate over the years while neighboring cities like Long Beach and Redondo Beach have developed thriving tourist industries.

"What do you see when you drive into San Pedro?" asked Papadakis. "You see sewage facilities, refineries and coke piles. The waterfront is dominated by heavy industry without any respect for the quality of life of the people who live here, and we're lucky if we attract a handful of day tourists."

Meanwhile, the port has become the largest container port in the world, and its tenants generate boatloads more revenue than any tourist or recreational uses could ever hope to garner. And since the port owns the waterfront, which is considered the key to attracting visitors to San Pedro, many feel the port's focus on industrial development is dooming the rest of the community to continuing deterioration.

Denizens also believe that City Hall in far-off downtown L.A. has shown little interest in stemming the tide of economic decline, with that apathy fueling a vibrant secession movement in both San Pedro and neighboring Wilmington.

As chairman of the L.A. Harbor-Watts EDC for the past two years, Papadakis has had ample opportunities to provide leadership, and the promenade project has become something of an obsession for him.

"John Papadakis has one goal, and he pushes and pushes it," said Jim Cross, president of the San Pedro Peninsula Chamber of Commerce. "He represents an important part of the community, the people who have been here 20, 30 years or more, and he has gained a lot of respect, because he's been out there fighting for this project."

Papadakis' single-minded attitude towards bringing a promenade to San Pedro and getting rid of industry on the waterfront has not made everyone his friend.

He and Councilman Rudy Svorinich Jr., who represents the area including San Pedro, are no longer on speaking terms. And Svorinich's office has not been involved in the EDC's proposal for the promenade.

"Their ego seems to have gotten a little ahead of themselves," said Barry Glickman, a spokesman for Svorinich. "They've talked to every candidate running for office but they never contacted us."

For his part, Papadakis says he has invited Svorinich to meetings about the project and gotten no response. He is still hopeful that Svorinich will get involved.

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