AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREStriving toward a more perfect me: Doug McIntyre Just two blocks away, the Bank Lofts and LaSalle Lofts, both on Seventh Street, also are moving quickly toward completion, albeit behind schedule. And on Centre Street, residents began moving into the first of the completed downtown loft condominiums this spring. After decades of dashed hopes and disappointment, the little hillside town bordering one of the nation’s busiest industrial ports has finally caught the attention of developers. In a place where property values drop the closer one got to the water, San Pedro was an anomaly that seemed ripe for becoming the state’s next trendy seaside neighborhood. “We have instant entertainment” with the container port, said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn. “We’re so far ahead (of other cities) with our natural advantages, we just have to capitalize on it.” By Donna Littlejohn Staff Writer There’s no escaping it – the sights and sounds of construction fill downtown San Pedro these days. Workers have reached the ninth floor of what will be a 16-story glass condominium tower at Palos Verdes and Fifth streets, set to be finished in about a year and replacing a long-vacant, asbestos-ridden office building. But like most dreams, this one has been tempered by reality. A nationwide real estate slump has slowed anticipated sales of the 116-unit Centre Street Lofts, now just over half filled. And a new harbor commission appears less enthusiastic than its predecessors when it comes to waterfront development, which after its initial launch also became bogged down in endless debate. The extensive permitting and complex environmental studies required to move the project forward have further slowed the waterfront’s progress. Port officials say it’s all much more complicated than they originally thought it would be. But the runaway optimism that swept through town during back-to-back groundbreakings in the early 2000s isn’t dead yet. Most residents remain upbeat. Things just haven’t moved along as quickly – or as smoothly – as some had hoped. “I’d love for it to go much quicker than it has,” said Andrew Silber, owner of the Whale and Ale restaurant in downtown. “But it’s going in the right direction and I don’t see any signs of it faltering or stopping. In my opinion, the snowball has started rolling down the hill a bit.” The biggest disappointment? San Pedro’s slow-moving waterfront development. After building the first couple of miles of a planned promenade, progress appeared to stop in 2005 after Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s new harbor commission was appointed. “I almost want to cry,” said John Papadakis, the restaurant owner who kicked off the idea to build a European-style promenade along San Pedro’s waterfront in 2001. Papadakis’ office is filled with waterfront drawings and plans that have yet to come to fruition. “A mile of the waterfront was built, with viable plans for the rest,” said Papadakis, who recalled first sharing his promenade dream with former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan on a harbor bike ride. “What happened? It’s stopped dead in its tracks. Nothing visible has been done on the waterfront in three years.” “The waterfront project has been extremely disappointing to me,” Councilwoman Hahn said. “This harbor commission has not built one foot, not one inch of it. They’ve missed so many deadlines, so many benchmarks. It’s really a shame.” It was five years ago that the Urban Land Institute sent a panel of experts to San Pedro for a week. Invited by newly elected Councilwoman Hahn, the ULI panel was asked to take a hard look at the port town and tell community leaders what it would take to revitalize the area. Among ULI’s main recommendations was building market-rate housing – and lots of it – in the downtown shopping district. Like many aging downtowns, San Pedro’s commercial corridor had been hit hard through the years by the advent of big chain stores and regional shopping malls. Numerous attempts to breathe new life into Sixth and Seventh streets, lined with quaint, 1920s masonry buildings, never quite succeeded. Housing would provide the built-in customer base San Pedro needed, ULI panelists said. The town also should build on its unique heritage and atmosphere, they said, by encouraging the budding artist community that already had discovered the area. Since then, no one would deny that the town has come a long way. The Centre Street Lofts were built on a lot that had stood vacant for some 30 years, a depressing symbol of San Pedro’s inability through the years to reinvent itself. Debate on waterfront plans began in earnest under the harbor commission appointed by Riordan. But the big push in moving it all forward was the 2001 election of James Hahn, a San Pedro resident, as mayor of Los Angeles. His sister, also a San Pedro resident, was elected that same year. They provided San Pedro, the distant southernmost tip of the city of Los Angeles, with some much needed friends in high places. “We had this wonderful confluence of my sister and I both being elected at the same time and both of us living in San Pedro,” said the former mayor, now the managing director of a Wilshire Boulevard law firm. “The stars were aligned.” And while Hahn was defeated for a second term in 2005, plans initiated under his and his sister’s terms were already well on their way. “Obviously it’s a lot better to be at a ribbon-cutting than a groundbreaking, but sometimes the groundbreaking takes more work,” the former mayor said. If there’s an exceptionally bright spot in what’s happened since, it’s in San Pedro’s downtown area. In addition to the new lofts going up, several new independent shops have filled storefront vacancies in recent months, with three ribbon-cuttings taking place in just the past week. A Starbucks has signed a lease for the ground-floor retail space of the Centre Street Lofts. And the San Pedro Peninsula Chamber of Commerce is working with Los Angeles city officials to develop an Arts, Culture and Entertainment (ACE) District to capitalize on the area’s burgeoning artist colony. The overlay zone would allow for sidewalk dining, encourage more artists to live and work in San Pedro, and provide opportunities and venues for live entertainment in the downtown. A re-energized monthly First Thursday Art Walk event already is drawing growing crowds to check out the artist galleries, studios and restaurants in the downtown. “Downtown is just flying off the charts,” said Jayme Wilson, a longtime San Pedro businessman who also manages Ports O’ Call on the waterfront. “We’re following the model of Hollywood and other areas, putting more customers downtown, then more shops, and then more people. It works in all these other communities.” Not everyone’s sold on San Pedro’s immediate prospects, however. Real estate agent and investor George Takis says San Pedro still faces significant hurdles. Low-income government housing, halfway homes and crime, he said, persist in the residential neighborhoods surrounding downtown. A San Pedro High School football player was killed last week in what police believe was a gang-related shooting just four blocks from downtown. “They have an element down there that’s just not advantageous to anyone wanting to stay,” Takis said. “If you go to Long Beach, they’re giving condos away – and at least there’s something (for people) to do.” The Starbucks that signed on at the Centre Street Lofts so far is the only retailer the developer has been able to ink for the ground-floor spaces. And many existing San Pedro shops are still closing up way too early, critics say. “That place is like the night of the living dead if you go down there at 5 or 6 at night,” Takis said. “There’s nothing around.” Community leaders like Wilson, though, believe San Pedro can eventually absorb the diverse economic stratus, offering a uniquely integrated community that will add to the port town’s creative and colorful ambiance. One commercial real estate investor, who asked that his name not be used because he does much of his business in and around the area, believes San Pedro’s revitalization is still at least 10 years away. “Even before the real estate downturn, there have been challenges there,” he said. “Downtown San Pedro is trying to pull itself up by the boot straps. We’ve seen a lot of investor interest (in recent years), but that’s gotten very quiet lately.” A huge impediment, he said, is the city of Los Angeles’ burdensome taxes and bureaucracy. “It’s a bureaucracy like no other bureaucracy in Southern California,” he said. “It hurts everybody. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. It’s so anti-business.” Developer interest in downtown remains strong, however, despite the housing market crunch. Raffi Cohen, the developer of the Vue, already is in escrow to buy the property on Fifth and Harbor Boulevard to build an 18-story condominium. And he’s hoping to build a third high-rise as well. “We’ve done very well, we’re 80 percent sold,” said Jackie Zbur, sales manager for the Vue. “We have contracts for 248 of the 318 homes.” LaSalle Lofts developer Keith Bohr said the timing of the real estate slump may wind up helping his 26-unit project, which has fallen considerably behind schedule and won’t be done until late next summer. The fact that downtown is just blocks from the waterfront has got to pay off, he said. “Here’s how I sleep well at night. Our product is coastal, so that gives you access to the water, and our product is entry-level,” he said. Units will be in the $400,000 range. “Not only will this be a nice place for singles or young marrieds to be in five years, but it could be awesome,” he said. The homeless and low-income neighborhoods, Bohr said, won’t bother most first-time homebuyers. “It could scare off some customers, but young professionals in their late 20s and early 30s are fairly immune to that,” he said. For new downtown business owners like Susan McKenna, the more residents the better. “It’s a tough business environment down here,” said the owner of Nosh Cafe across the street from the Centre Street Lofts. “But there have been some good days. You just have to be patient.” “Downtown is far from out of the woods,” said San Pedro developer Alan Johnson, who has invested heavily in the town’s ultimate turnaround. “But it’s going pretty darn well, even in the face of a real estate downturn. Hopefully, we won’t get too clobbered. I’m seeing new faces in town and lots of new businesses. So many shops that were vacant for years and years now have stores in them.” Camilla Townsend, who heads the chamber of commerce, remains optimistic. “I would like it to be going faster, no question, but I think the housing slump slowed everything down,” she said. “But I firmly believe that this is going to pass. We’re at the last mile. We’re almost there.” When it comes to San Pedro’s waterfront, though, there is nearly universal disappointment. Among the most frustrated is Papadakis, a member of one of San Pedro’s old-line, most successful immigrant families. He flatly blames Los Angeles’ new mayor and harbor commission, saying the waterfront project has been derailed by lack of interest on the part of city and port leaders. “The present leadership has totally lost its way,” said Papadakis, owner of Papadakis Taverna, an upscale and popular Greek restaurant that draws a packed house on weekends. Mayor Hahn’s harbor commission from 2001-05 included three Harbor Area residents, providing a built-in interest in changing San Pedro’s industrial waterfront into commercial and recreational uses. The award-winning New York design firm of Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects came up with plans that were initially hailed but then somehow became embroiled in public debate. “That was my biggest regret, that once we selected EE&K we should have had the whole (environmental report) certified and construction contracts awarded,” said Hahn’s harbor commission president, Nick Tonsich. He said the commission thought it would have an additional four years to work on the waterfront. “That would have ensured that we had a very state-of-the-art waterfront, the best money could buy.” Once Villaraigosa’s new commission took over, with only one San Pedro resident as part of the five-member panel, progress stalled. “Basically, from what I can tell, they’ve tabled the whole project,” former Mayor Hahn said of the current port leadership. More than just a cosmetic makeover or tourist draw, a revamped waterfront and downtown – complete with high-rise office space – is vital to restoring San Pedro’s economic health, Papadakis believes. Bringing in new, well-paying jobs, he said, is needed in a town that has seen its once thriving fishing industry and canneries disappear. “The purpose of the waterfront development was to defeat the poverty and crime and drug addiction that has plagued the Harbor Area for decades,” he said. “Pure and simple, it was to create a great attraction so that businesses and employers would return to the Harbor Area and create a diversified, well-paying job market.” Herb Zimmer, chairman of the chamber’s waterfront subcommittee, advocates creating an “international maritime village” in San Pedro, arguing that the town desperately needs to attract new, environmentally friendly business and housing in a “walkable” environment. Tonsich is working with Papadakis and the chamber to put together an advisory group, being called “Padrinos de Promenade,” made up of influential state and city leaders to push the waterfront along and provide more continuity. There are signs that the port is listening. More than two years into their term, Villaraigosa’s five harbor commissioners have recently signaled that they’re ready to deal more aggressively with delivering the waterfront project. The port has put out a call for bids on a town square project to be done at Harbor Boulevard and Sixth Street. An interactive fountain set to music on Harbor near First Street is due to finally be finished in March. And improvements to Ports O’ Call Village are set to be made beginning next year. Port Executive Director Geraldine Knatz, who downsized the initial waterfront plan in hopes of avoiding – or at least delaying – some of the community controversy over commercial versus open space, said residents will see plenty of dirt being turned in 2008. Several pieces of the waterfront are scheduled to be done by 2010, though overall the development will take many more years to complete. “We’re all disappointed in the slowness of it all, but I do believe (the port has) every intention of going forward with it,” said Townsend, one of the local Hahn-appointed harbor commissioners who helped jump-start the waterfront plans from 2001-05. Former harbor commission President John Wentworth said he’s hopeful that community leaders like Townsend and Zimmer will help move the process forward with the port. “Camilla is the great conciliator,” Wentworth said. What’s needed, he said, is a continuing “meaningful dialogue.” If the conversation becomes too loud or adversarial, he said, progress will cease. Last month, Knatz proposed bringing a high-profile marine research institute to the waterfront, an idea that is being coupled with the chamber’s plan for a business “incubator” group specializing in green technology that could bring more jobs and residents to San Pedro. “A lot is going to be happening in 2008,” Knatz said. “I can only say that we’re working on all fronts at the same time. I know people want to see dirt moving and want to get this started as soon as possible. But the front end is always the most difficult.” The port also is continuing to pursue a new cruise ship terminal at the port’s southern Kaiser point. That proposal, however, faces strong opposition among some community members who worry about traffic and yet more density on the isolated peninsula. “My goal is to just keep the construction going and going and going and not stop until it’s done,” Knatz said. Despite the delays and economic setbacks, many view continued growth in San Pedro as something that is unstoppable. “It’s on a path now that can’t really be changed,” former Mayor Hahn said. “I think what everyone wants to see is that this funky charm of San Pedro doesn’t get lost in the rush for everybody to make money on their investments.” “I think they’re focusing in the right place,” said Keith Gurnee, the consultant Wentworth brought in on the waterfront issue some eight years ago. “They’re getting the foot of downtown San Pedro done (as a town plaza), which is a crucial piece of the puzzle, and they’re working to fix up Ports O’ Call. Those two projects are probably the most important.” Doug Epperhart, president of the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council, said San Pedro’s rise is inevitable. “This is the last place on the coast,” he said. “When it starts to really move, it’ll move fairly quickly.” Just like it did, he said, in Long Beach and Venice and Pasadena. “It’ll come,” he said. “I have no doubt whatsoever it will happen to San Pedro. Pedro is different, but it ain’t that different.” [email protected] local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!