Upstaged by its upscale neighbors and dwarfed by the massive Los Angeles and Long Beach port complex, the seaside community of Wilmington is blue-collar, likes beer more than wine and has a bit of a chip on its shoulder.

Shipping containers and the port's giant cranes block the path to the shore, and there is no beach, unlike nearby Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach. Unlike Palos Verdes, there are no million-dollar hillside homes. And unlike its closest neighbor, San Pedro, Wilmington has never seen a full-scale effort to revitalize its waterfront.

Until now.

The Board of Harbor Commissioners this month signed off on a contract with Watertown, Mass.-based architecture and design firm Sasaki Associates Inc. to draft a plan for parks, retail, walkways and transportation at an L-shaped, 90-acre swath of land once tagged for port expansion. Still years from completion, the $120 million project's capper is an oceanfront plaza at the spruced-up site of the Banning's Landing Community Center.

The waterfront development is principally the result of a decades-long push by community activists to beautify Wilmington, long considered the poor stepsister of San Pedro. While the largely Latino population of the combined Wilmington/Harbor City area, at about 80,000, is roughly the same as San Pedro's, Wilmington has far fewer cultural and recreational facilities.

"We fought and fought until they finally listened to us. It has been a hard struggle," said Lucy Mejia, a member of the Wilmington Neighborhood Council board. "We want open space for kids to play."

Meanwhile, a $700 million transformation of 400 acres in an eight-mile stretch of the San Pedro port area, called Bridge to Breakwater, is one of the state's largest planning projects; a one-mile stretch has already been completed. The Harbor Boulevard Parkway, a cruise ship promenade and the Red Car trolleys are already up and running.

The Port of Los Angeles emphasizes the connections between the San Pedro and Wilmington area developments. "The Wilmington side is coming along a bit more slowly than the San Pedro side," said Theresa Adams Lopez, a spokeswoman for the port. "We are considering it all one waterfront, an L.A. waterfront."

Regardless, many residents of Wilmington see the waterfront rehab as the start of a better age. They are optimistic it will make more businesses take a closer look at the possibility of setting up shop in the area.

"This can hopefully become an attraction for people all over the city and the region," said Ken Melendez, chair of the Wilmington Waterfront Development Subcommittee. "For this community, it would mean that we are not treated like a Third World country."


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