Ports O’ Call Village was once a top Southland tourist attraction.
But after decades of neglect, the waterfront center of New England-style cottages where merchants hawk fresh fish and maritime-themed tchotchkes is a shell of its former self.
Business owners, patrons and city leaders bemoan the decline of the once-vibrant village. Indeed, even officials at the Port of Los Angeles, which owns the property, admit they have waited too long for a revival.
Despite a history of dead ends, the port is poised to embark upon a $1.1 billion redevelopment project that will integrate the waterfront with San Pedro’s downtown and complement the new residential construction projects cropping up in the area. At the heart of the effort will be a new, modern retail and restaurant complex to replace the aging clapboard village.
“What we need to do at Ports O’ Call is redevelop the site and bring in new investments that will revitalize that area and make it appealing both to the local residents and the wider community,” said Kathryn McDermott, deputy executive director of business development for the port.
For some business owners, improvement cannot come soon enough.
Jayme Wilson owns several businesses in the center, including the popular Ports O’ Call Restaurant, and his facilities are showing their age. The roof over his boat tour business, Spirit Cruises, is sheathed in plastic to help stem a corrosion problem he first noticed in summer 2003. Almost five years later, the port has not fixed it.
“It’s very embarrassing,” Wilson lamented. “The port is required in my lease to maintain the roofs, but they’re still getting quotes, they’re still looking at it.”
Though it is little more than a minor nuisance, the roof is a symbol of the decay that has become endemic to Ports O’ Call over the years.
The decline of the village is due in part to a dramatic shift in the retail landscape in recent decades that has driven many mom-and-pop shops out of business. As Wilson puts it, “The world changed in the last 45 years and this waterfront has not.”
Nevertheless, the village still attracts a crowd on weekends as families come to dine on fresh seafood while street musicians play tunes for pocket change.
But Ports O’ Call is difficult to access by foot from the downtown area and fails to capitalize on its waterfront location. When it was built, the waterfront structures blocked views and cut off access to the water for residents.
“Design has hampered people’s ability to have access to the waterfront,” said Janice Hahn, a Los Angeles city councilwoman who has lived in San Pedro most of her life and represents the area. She said the port has lagged on the project, but it now has the backing of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, which could provide the impetus to finally move forward.
“Ports O’ Call is the symbol of L.A.’s waterfront,” she said. “I think the port has to keep their end of the bargain on revitalizing the waterfront.”
Already, the port has moved ahead with some minor waterfront enhancements, including sidewalk improvements and construction of an overflow parking lot.
Port officials plan to release next month an assessment of the environmental impact of the proposed waterfront project one of the first concrete steps in moving the development forward.
Under the proposal, an 8-mile promenade would be built along the water from the Vincent Thomas Bridge to Cabrillo Beach that will eliminate railroad tracks and incorporate walkways and bike paths. The plan also will include the construction of two new cruise terminals in the outer harbor.
Port leaders envision a pedestrian-friendly waterfront that integrates the downtown area with the harbor, punctuated by new restaurants and shops at Ports O’ Call, and surrounded by parks and other open spaces.
By doing so, the area could make better use of its enviable waterfront location, officials said. To that end, most of the current Ports O’ Call Village will likely be razed and rebuilt in a way that opens up the waterfront area.
Officials expect the plan to be ready for final approval this fall.
Many local business owners, however, remain skeptical.
John Papadakis, owner of Papadakis Taverna, a fixture in downtown San Pedro, has chided the port for paying lip service to waterfront development without actually breaking ground.
“The waterfront project has been at a dead stop for about three years now,” said Papadakis, who helped develop the original waterfront plan. “This has been an embarrassing sham.”
The port recently sought assistance from the Urban Land Institute to determine what type of development would most benefit Ports O’ Call. Some residents have derided the move, saying the same thing was done in 2002, resulting in no significant construction.
While officials admit the studies are similar, there is one key difference, said McDermott, of the port’s business development staff. This time, the port has realized it is not well suited to build a commercial center and doesn’t intend to do so itself.
“We have struggled over time with the right way to develop the site. This isn’t our core business and we need to leave it to professional developers,” she said. “We’re going to look for someone who not only has the financial capabilities to invest in building new facilities, but also has the vision to put together a master plan that really makes an attractive development.”