Spotlight on San Pedro: New Development Approach Brings Artists to Downtown

By HOWARD FINE
Staff Reporter

Downtown San Pedro was once a bustling blue-collar haven, where nearby shipbuilders and cannery workers would drop buy for drinks after a hard day's work. But one-by-one, the shipbuilders and canneries closed, and the downtown merchants who relied on these workers went out of business, leaving behind a decaying town center.

But in the last four or five years, new life has come from an unexpected quarter: artists. Lured by cheap rents and proximity to the waterfront, artists have flocked to downtown San Pedro by the dozen. They've set up in lofts, turned 50-year-old storefronts on 6th and 7th streets into galleries, and given new spark to the area's nightlife.

Seeking to capitalize on this new, hipper crowd, restaurants have moved in, led by the Whale & Ale English pub, which opened in 1995, just before the artist rush.

"When we opened, we saw this area as being terribly under-realized," said Whale & Ale owner Andrew Silver. "Our business has improved dramatically due to the influx of the artist community," he said.

Other eateries soon followed, like San Pedro Brewing Co. and Marcello's.

And community leaders launched what has become a monthly phenomenon: an arts "open house" on the first Thursday evening of every month featuring two dozen galleries.

"No question about it, we've made an aggressive push to bring artists in, and it has succeeded in transforming the downtown area," said Jayme Wilson, president of the San Pedro Peninsula Chamber of Commerce.

A new approach

The change has coincided with a new approach to redevelop the area. Back in the 1960s, the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency launched the Beacon Street redevelopment zone, bulldozing several buildings in a 60-acre area two blocks west of the waterfront. But redevelopment failed to take hold; instead, it created a "dead zone" between the waterfront and the historic downtown area that further contributed to the decay of downtown.

"In 20/20 hindsight, it's almost unanimous that the older redevelopment project wreaked havoc on the urban fabric of San Pedro," said Grieg Asher, planning deputy to L.A. City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who has represented the area since last July.

Now, the CRA has taken a different tack.

"We are looking at rehabilitating existing buildings, not tearing them down," said deputy CRA Administrator Don Spivack.

Examples of this new approach can be found at two historic performing arts venues currently undergoing restoration: the Warner Grand Theatre, once a marquee theater, and Liberty Auditorium, which for nearly 70 years had been an auto parts garage.

The CRA is also focusing on rehabilitation of two run-down single-occupancy hotel buildings in the heart of the "dead zone" between Center Street and Harbor Boulevard. One of those is in the process of being purchased by a software company seeking to expand.

Across the street, the CRA is seeking proposals for a mixed-use retail/residential development on a long-vacant 1.2-acre lot next to the Sheraton Hotel. When built, the project would serve as an anchor for the redevelopment of the eastern part of downtown.

Meanwhile, on the western end, the CRA is considering another huge redevelopment zone along Pacific Avenue, from 3rd Street on the north to 26th Street on the south. CRA officials say they are open to suggestions from the community on how to improve this stretch of mom-and-pop stores in decades-old buildings.

Gentrification fears

The impending gentrification has left residents both encouraged and concerned. Among the artists' community the concern is that the process could go too far, destroying the affordable and quirky aspects of the area and ultimately driving artists away.

"We may be priced out of the area," said Jan Govaerts, one of 13 artists who live in a loft complex just north of the downtown retail area.

And whether all these efforts are successful in lifting the area out of its long funk remains to be seen. After all, turnarounds have been promised before, only to wither away.

"Ten years ago, they (government and community leaders) promised us that things would get better," said Jerry Gusha," co-owner of the Williams' Book Store, one of the oldest bookstores in all of L.A. "But that didn't happen. It seems everything moves in cycles: things get a little better for a while and then they turn down again."

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