Downtown San Pedro had become a dead zone. Jobs were scarce. Shops were shuttered. Tourists dropped their dollars elsewhere.
In response, redevelopment officials drew up a plan to revitalize the area and rapidly succeeded in getting a recently constructed downtown building occupied. Hopes rose that a turnaround was near.
This could easily describe the situation in San Pedro today. But the sequence of events actually took place in the late 1960s under the first renewal plan from the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency.
"The CRA came in and did what they had always done: They tore down old buildings and built new buildings that they thought would revitalize business," said Camilla Townsend, chief executive of the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce. "But it was a cookie-cutter approach that destroyed the old Beacon Street and all of its character, with all of its diners and bars."
Decay, followed by optimistic but ultimately futile redevelopment, has a long history in San Pedro, which saw its heyday as a fishing village and center of shipbuilding and canning start to wane as Southern California's long postwar boom took off.
The effort of the 1960s was far from the only renewal attempt by Los Angeles officials, who have long grappled with how to rebuild the economy of the town, which took another big hit during the defense downturn of the early 1990s.
But the 1960s plan marked the first time redevelopment officials tried the kind of clear-and-build urban renewal approach though on a smaller scale that also gave birth to downtown Los Angeles' Bunker Hill high-rise neighborhood.
During the '60s, not only were shipbuilding and cannery jobs disappearing, but the ranks of dockworkers were thinning as containerized cargo operations began to take hold at the port.
Meanwhile, department stores, car dealers and other big retailers were leaving for new shopping malls in the South Bay. As if that weren't enough, the opening of the Vincent Thomas Bridge made shopping and entertaining in Long Beach more accessible.
Enter the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, which in 1969 formed the Beacon Street Redevelopment Project Area, covering 60 acres of San Pedro's downtown core. The goal: tear down decaying storefront buildings and replace them with gleaming commercial towers.
For a short while, the gamble appeared to work. An 11-story office tower, dubbed the Pacific Trade Center, had just gone up a few years earlier and had landed a key tenant: aerospace and defense contractor Logicon Inc.
But things quickly soured. Even the promise of CRA funds could not reverse suburban demographic trends that were leaving San Pedro and other urban areas behind. Only a handful of other buildings went up and redevelopment soon stalled.
What's more, there was no tie-in with the waterfront. The new buildings were just like new buildings anywhere else in L.A. Most investors took a pass. Not helping matters was an attitude of general disregard from the Port of Los Angeles, which controlled the waterfront.
"The port never considered that there needs to be a connection between the waterfront and the downtown area. They just kept to themselves," said L.A. City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who grew up in San Pedro and now represents the area.
The coup-de-gr & #226;ce came in 1990 amid a defense sector downturn. Logicon merged with Northrop Grumman Corp. and the operations were consolidated to a smaller adjacent building. The Pacific Trade Center was vacant and quickly became an eyesore and the symbol of failed redevelopment.
Then, in the mid-1990s, hope came from an unexpected quarter: artists. The hills of San Pedro with their ocean vistas had long been home to an artist colony. Now, drawn by cheap rents in downtown San Pedro, dozens of artists relocated to the area and some landlords converted their buildings into live-work lofts to accommodate them. These artists began to turn some of the vacant storefronts into galleries.
Sensing a new hipper crowd, restaurants like the Whale & Ale and the San Pedro Brewing Co. opened up. Community leaders then launched an arts open-house on the first Thursday of each month that drew artists and aficionados from around Southern California. But artists alone could not save downtown San Pedro. Their numbers were just too few.
"It's easy to over-romanticize this artist stuff," said Richard Pawlowski, a longtime broker in the region who has recently launched a Web site about redevelopment efforts in San Pedro. "Some artists did come, but they didn't transform the neighborhoods."
Indeed, huge swaths of the downtown area remained vacant or run-down. Yet the artists did serve to point the way for how redevelopment could work: start with market rate housing with a few affordable housing units thrown in and then, once the residents come in, new restaurants and retailers follow.
That indeed was the central recommendation of a landmark report from the Urban Land Institute, which in 2002 studied how San Pedro cold be revitalized.
But kick-starting this development would require an infusion of redevelopment funds into an area much larger than the boundaries of the Beacon Street project, which was only eight blocks. So, in 2002, the Community Redevelopment Agency launched the Pacific Avenue Redevelopment Project, covering an area 11 times the size of the Beacon Street project. Redevelopment began, yet again.
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