The Port of Los Angeles is rolling out preliminary plans today to build a massive marine research facility that officials hope will stimulate economic activity and help revitalize the San Pedro community.


Geraldine Knatz, executive director of the port, has been working behind the scenes for nearly two years to generate support for the project, which would be built on a 28-acre patch of land currently serving as a petrol chemical terminal.


The site, adjacent to downtown San Pedro, is a key battleground in the port's waterfront development efforts and planners expect the high-level research facility to be a catalyst for the area's economic resurgence.


"We have this vision of a premier research institution that attracts people from around the world," Knatz said. "We're talking about bringing a new industry to San Pedro and new jobs. These are good, high-paying jobs that would be a boost to the San Pedro economy."


Knatz is expected to unveil the concept for the project, called City Dock No. 1, at tonight's Los Angeles Harbor Commission meeting. Part of the impetus to move forward with the project, she said, came last week when the Annenberg Foundation said it will commit $50,000 in grant money to begin planning the facility.


The proposed research facility would include academic laboratories, government research facilities and real estate for future maritime-related businesses what planners are calling a "business incubator." Ideally, Knatz said, the facility would become a global leader in the study of climate change and sea level rise.


It is too early, she said, to estimate the cost or timeline of the project.
The move comes after the port announced in August it was terminating the lease of New Orleans-based liquid bulk operator Westway Terminal Co. Inc., which has occupied the site since 1996, as part of a larger effort to make the San Pedro waterfront more community-friendly. The port bought out the remaining 18 years of Westway's contract for $17 million.


The terminal is zoned for commercial activities and local business leaders envision an economic rebirth in San Pedro built, in part, around this new research institute.


"This is the kind of thing that over the long term can lead to an economic wealth cycle for the community," said Herb Zimmer, chairman of the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce committee to promote waterfront economic development. "It breeds ideas and innovations and things that are going to become the basis of the new economy."


Zimmer, owner of PriorityOne Printing, Copying & Graphics in downtown San Pedro, opened his shop 28 years ago and said he has seen the local economy deteriorate as years of neglect and the decline of the once-thriving fishing industry have eliminated many jobs from the blue-collar community.


"I want to see the ports replace the jobs that we lost during the '70s," he said.
The port is currently in the middle of multi-year San Pedro waterfront improvement project, which includes the construction of a cruise ship promenade and the development of new parks and walkways. In all, the redevelopment efforts span 400 acres.


As part of those efforts, the port evicted Westway from its Main Channel terminal, which Knatz said was viewed as a hazardous area by the community.
The port already has a marine research facility known as the Southern California Marine Institute, which is a partnership of eight California State University schools, as well as USC and Occidental College. But with its cramped facilities hidden within Terminal Island, the institute has welcomed the idea of expanding its laboratory space and moving to a more attractive location along the Main Channel, which has almost 500,000 square feet of warehouse space and nearly 5,000 feet of wharf.


Knatz said the institute may relocate to the proposed research facility, but that has not yet been determined.


This project is already almost two years in the making for Knatz. She first had the idea to push for a marine research facility a little before she took over as executive director in January of 2006. The notion stagnated until this summer, when the Westway agreement changed the landscape. At that point, she said, her ideas seemed to become more viable.


Though she said she "wasn't really out hunting" for financial support, she received word last week that the Annenberg Foundation, a Radnor, Pa.-based philanthropic institution, would give a $50,000 grant to help move the project along.


"It helped spur a recent flurry of activity," she said.


The port will likely lose future revenue by dedicating an entire terminal to research and related pursuits a sacrifice the port seems willing to make.
"We recognize that it's not going to make us the kind of money as if it was a container terminal, and that is not part of this plan," she said.

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