A 900-foot-long, 70-year-old battleship is the biggest thing coming to San Pedro. But a tiny Catholic liberal arts college that has set up shop in the neighborhood is a close second.

The U.S.S. Iowa is expected to bring nearly a half-million visitors a year to the San Pedro waterfront when it arrives in nine months, while Marymount College is bringing just a few hundred students as it expands.

But boosters of San Pedro’s struggling downtown see both as opportunities to turn the area into a bustling tourism and arts center that past redevelopment efforts failed to produce.

“They’re the two biggest happenings in downtown San Pedro,” said Eric Eisenberg, president of downtown San Pedro’s business improvement district. “They’re both so huge for our downtown region.”

The U.S. Navy announced last month that the Iowa, which launched in 1942 and served in World War II, the Korean War and Persian Gulf, would make the nearby Port of Los Angeles its final home as a naval museum.

Marymount, which has its main campus in nearby Rancho Palos Verdes, has begun offering classes in multiple locations to about 150 students in downtown San Pedro, a once-thriving business district that has been in decline since the 1960s.

After decades of revitalization attempts that failed because of poor planning or bad timing, business leaders see the coming of students and tourists as their best hope for success.

The idea is that Marymount’s presence will help change downtown’s hardscrabble image and help it cash in on the surge of tourists expected to visit the Iowa. After all, if enough students hang around downtown, it will create a sense of greater activity and safety there, giving others the cover they need to visit and explore.

Indeed, there’s a palpable sense of excitement in the community’s business and arts communities these days – even though some locals count among the skeptics. And one outside expert said boosters shouldn’t get their hopes too high.

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, a professor of policy, planning and development at USC, said a young, artistic crowd can help turn blighted neighborhoods into thriving ones but she stressed that those neighborhoods also need quality attractions.

“Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Venice Beach, all those were places where the first wave were young artistic types and college kids,” she said. “But just because there are college kids there, that doesn’t mean people are going to come. They need to do something to make it compelling.”

Thousands of visitors

The Pacific Battleship Center, a nonprofit group in San Pedro that lobbied for the ship, estimates the Iowa will draw 450,000 visitors a year. That’s more than four times the community’s population.

“Those are 450,000 who have money in their pockets, who want to take a tour, have lunch, walk around, buy a couple souvenirs and enjoy themselves for the day,” said Eisenberg, chief executive of the Renaissance Group L.A., a development company that owns commercial and residential property in downtown San Pedro.

But getting those visitors downtown will be a challenge.

Already, thousands of visitors flock every weekend to Ports O’ Call Village, a strip of waterfront restaurants and shops less than a mile from downtown, but few of them venture to downtown.

Sixth Street, the main drag of downtown, is home to plenty of quaint buildings from the 1920s and ’30s, but it’s dotted with empty storefronts and many of the businesses are closed on weekend afternoons.

The community was once home to a major fishing fleet and shipbuilding industry, but those industries declined in the postwar era. Over the past two decades, the area has seen an influx of artists and downtown is now home to more than two dozen galleries. That has attracted a handful of businesses but not enough to fill the void.

Stephen Robbins, executive director of the downtown business improvement district, said the plan is to route some battleship-bound traffic through the downtown area, where tourists would be encouraged to park and take a free shuttle to the ship.

The idea is that the first wave of Iowa visitors will be served by existing business, and as more visitors come, more businesses will open. Still, those plans might not amount to much if downtown can’t change its salty reputation.

This summer, when the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln docked in San Pedro for Navy Week, the service distributed fliers to sailors warning them to stay out of a few dangerous parts of town, including most of the downtown business district.

Camilla Townsend, who recently retired as president of the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce, said the Navy must have been using old information but acknowledged sailors aren’t the only ones that avoid downtown.

“It’s an issue of perception, and there are even those perceptions in our own town,” she said. “It takes a long time to change that.”

That’s where Marymount comes in.

Open arms

Marymount has had a presence in San Pedro for years, housing students in a college-owned apartment complex on 24th Street and in a former Navy dormitory complex on the north end of town. But this year, for the first time, students are taking classes in San Pedro’s downtown, a world away from the college’s pristine Palos Verdes Peninsula campus.

For Marymount, the expansion into San Pedro was a matter of necessity. The college, which started offering four-year degrees last year, saw its enrollment grow by 70 percent over the past two school years, but Rancho Palos Verdes voters rejected a ballot measure that would have allowed the school to expand there.

Marymount President Michael Brophy said San Pedro residents, businesses and community groups have welcomed the college with open arms.

“There are thousands of people in Palos Verdes who love the college, who support the college, but there’s motivation in San Pedro to engage the college at a much deeper level in terms of urban renewal,” he said. “They’re not looking for suburban renewal in Palos Verdes.”

Brophy said he knows downtown San Pedro’s reputation, but he said it is a safe environment for students, thanks in part to area property owners.

“The business improvement district funds a significant public safety program, something far beyond what my resources could bear, frankly,” Brophy said. “My people, my faculty, my staff, are all very comfortable.”

Business leaders hope the stamp of approval from the college, and the presence of a few hundred students, can help rebrand downtown San Pedro as a safe and even hip place to be.

“If Marymount thinks it’s a great location and a safe location for their students, it will change people’s minds,” said Beate Kirmse, who runs a downtown art gallery and is one of the founders of the San Pedro Arts and Academic Alliance. “It’s not dangerous. You have to get that out of people’s heads.”

This summer, Marymount summer signed a 10-year lease for 16,000 square feet in a downtown office building vacated by Northrop Grumman Corp., the longtime L.A. defense contractor that recently moved its headquarters to Falls Church, Va. About 150 students are taking business and global studies classes there.

Just down Sixth, about 150 more students will start taking classes next year at what will be an arts center, donated by college boosters Marylyn and Chuck Klaus. More students could be coming to downtown in 2013 when the college begins offering graduate programs.

The college also is using a few historic downtown buildings for events. Students will have their first art exhibition next month at the Arcade Gallery on Sixth Street, and since January, Marymount has been holding performances and other events at the Warner Grand Theatre, a classic 1930s movie palace. The theater, owned by the city of Los Angeles and renovated after decades of decay, hosts film screenings, and live music and theater performances.

Still, Brophy said he’s concerned that San Pedro leaders might see Marymount as a cure-all.

“They may overestimate how much of a catalyst we will be,” he said.

High hopes

Indeed, the college and the Iowa could be the latest in a long string of unsuccessful cures to downtown’s ills.

In the late ’60s, the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency wanted to clear out vacant and decaying storefront buildings and replace them with commercial office buildings. The office market never materialized and redevelopment stalled.

Then in 2003, spurred by an Urban Land Institute study that said new housing could help revitalize downtown, the CRA promoted residential projects. Several buildings with about 1,200 luxury and affordable condo units went up, but they came on the market just as the housing bubble burst. Several have since been converted into apartments.

Richard Pawlowski, a local real estate broker who has lived in San Pedro for decades and watched several revitalization efforts fail, is among the skeptics. He believes that with or without Marymount, Iowa tourists aren’t going to go downtown because there’s not much to see or do.

“They’ve been trying for years to get people to walk downtown from the waterfront, but they don’t. And if they do, they get depressed,” he said. “If they don’t change it into something worthwhile, it’s not going to work.”

He wants to see downtown turned into something like Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade, a pleasant, pedestrian-friendly shopping district where people don’t have to worry about parking.

Townsend acknowledged downtown still doesn’t have enough activity but said such a district would just copy what other communities have done. She believes things are slowly improving and that Marymount, the Iowa and business improvement district programs need to be given a chance.

“It isn’t all in place yet, but the pieces are here,” she said.

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