April 29, 2015 - From the April/May, 2015 issue

The Revitalization of Ports O’ Call Promises San Pedro Waterfront Access & New Infrastructure

After decades of frustrated efforts, negotiations are underway for the redevelopment of San Pedro Bay’s once-lively Ports O’ Call Village. To shed light on challenges of the project, TPR sat down with Wayne Ratkovich of The Ratkovich Company and Doane Liu, Deputy Executive Director and Chief of Staff at the Port of LA. They discuss the vision for the site given its constraints, necessary infrastructure improvements, and the project’s potential to bring Angelenos to the waterfront.


Doane Liu

“The key element to the development of the waterfront plan is Ports O’ Call Village. As Wayne said, it’s very tired and in need of redevelopment.” —Doane Liu

Talk of redeveloping the aging San Pedro Bay waterfront and Ports O’ Call Village dates back to the 1990s. In 2013, the Los Angeles Waterfront Alliance—comprising your company, Wayne, and your partner, Jerico Development—formed an exclusive right to negotiate on the development of that site. Yet it has proved somewhat difficult to move forward. Wayne, could you describe the project and its history?

Wayne Ratkovich: The 30-acre site is located on the San Pedro Waterfront and has, for the past 50 years, been known as Ports O’ Call. It has been the location primarily of restaurants, along with some retail stores and boat tours. 

What’s significant is that this is the one place at which Los Angeles touches the waterfront—where the citizenry of Los Angeles and its neighbors can reach the water. That’s an important consideration. It has been important to the business in place at Ports O’ Call for the last 50 years. 

Doane, you’ve just transitioned from the Mayor’s Office to the Port of Los Angeles. Could you share the motivation—of both the Mayor’s Office and of the port—in redeveloping this site?

Doane Liu: We see it as a key element of the LA Waterfront, which is about 6.1 miles along San Pedro and Wilmington. At one point, we used to call it the “Bridge to Breakwater” vision. That roughly describes the San Pedro side of it, but we also have waterfront alongside the Wilmington front, as well. We’ve done master planning, brainstorming, and wish-list-writing for a number of years. The key element to the development of the waterfront plan is Ports O’ Call Village. As Wayne said, it’s very tired and in need of redevelopment.

Wayne, what is the Alliance’s current vision for Ports O’ Call?

Wayne Ratkovich: We’re very much in the planning stages right now, so I will give you a general description. We’ll be able to produce something more specific in the near future. 

We have adjusted our prior plan so that we can better address a limitation on the site: a 50-year term to a ground lease. Ground leases are always a little challenging, but a 50-year ground lease is even more challenging. We’re probably going to have to live with that condition and make it work. 

Our adjustment scales the project back a bit, and focuses primarily on providing water-fronting sites along the promenade. They’ll be primarily food and food-related, with some boating. 

It will continue to be a place where the citizens can gather to enjoy the Los Angeles waterfront and the experience of watching the freight that comes in and out of that incredible port. It’s quite a scene. It’s a place where families can enjoy weekends as well as evenings. Hopefully, we’ll be able to expand and create something at lunchtime and during the week. Right now it does terrific business on weekends, and our job is to try to bring more people onto the site.

Doane Liu: Wayne mentioned how successful it is on the weekends. As rundown as the Ports O’Call Village might be, there’s one great tenant there: the San Pedro Fish Market. They’ve told us that they’re the largest restaurant in California at 3,000 seats, and one of the highest-grossing restaurants in the state, with over a million visitors a year.

Wayne Ratkovich: Tommy Amalfitano and Mike Ungaro are very excited about growing their operation and being a key part of the new development. Having a successful business available to us before we even start the project is a major help.

The high cost of new infrastructure to accommodate new waterfront development has posed a challenge for past developers. Doane: why the need for new infrastructure, and why has the port agreed to invest?

Doane Liu: We did something a little different than the city or the port usually does. Usually we do RFPs and allow developers to present almost-completed plans on what they want to do. The port actually tried that twice before and got no proposals in response to an RFP at Ports O’ Call. 

Working with the Council Office, where I was at the time, and the Mayor’s Office, the Port decided to do an RFQ. It got some really great interest that way. I don’t know that we would have gotten developers the quality of The Ratkovich Company if we hadn’t been a little more loose and willing to let the professionals decide what needs to be there. 

Rather than trying to evaluate proposals for a development plan, we evaluated qualifications of developers. We had seven or eight fantastic responses to the RFQ, and the Port was able to select the best candidate for this project from a great pool—The Ratkovich Company. But in doing the RFQ, it wasn’t altogether clear who does what when you build the project. 

As we got into working out the partnership and how we were going to redevelop the site, it became clear that Harbor Boulevard needs to be realigned. There’s an inconvenient left-turn/right-turn situation that makes traffic back up for almost a mile on busy days. In addition, there wasn’t enough parking. 

Beyond that, one of the Port’s requirements for the development is a waterfront promenade. That’s been a community goal for many years. The best way to give the public access to the LA waterfront was to build a walkway along as much of it as we can. We have several miles currently built, but Ports O’ Call was built 50 years ago with its back to the water, and doesn’t allow for the public to walk along the waterline. 

Is that the responsibility of the developers, or of the port? After weighing those options, we decided that the port is going to have to build the promenade, simultaneously with the development of the new retail-dining-entertainment center. (I keep calling it Ports O’ Call, but we’ll probably change the name.)

Wayne Ratkovich: I’ll add that the port is new at this kind of development. In the past, the responsibility for community revitalization was largely in the hands of the Community Redevelopment Agency. The citizens of Wilmington and San Pedro looked to the Redevelopment Agency, while the port was primarily in the business of shipping goods. 

When the Redevelopment Agency went away, I think a lot of eyes turned toward the port and said, “Can you guys step in and help us out? We need help to bring this community back to where it should be.” That’s a new thing for the port. I think all of us are taking on a pretty ambitious project and doing it for the first time.

Doane Liu: The Harbor Department isn’t good at retail development, and maybe we shouldn’t be. We have 7,500 acres of real estate, and maybe a couple hundred of that is retail. We’re running at 90 percent leased on all of our container terminals and doing an excellent job at being a landlord port. But when it comes to waterfront entertainment, dining, and retail, the port’s not going to be the best department to pull that off.

Wayne, with only a 50-year ground lease as your security, describe the challenges of providing the infrastructure that the councilmember, the mayor, and the community want. Is it possible to create a lasting revitalization at Ports O’ Call given that constraint? 

Wayne Ratkovich: The real challenge probably falls to us when it comes to improving the site once the infrastructure is in place. The condition of Ports O’ Call today is the result of a 50-year ground lease limitation. If we structured the lease the same way it exists today all over again, probably the same thing would happen. That is, 20, 25, or 30 years down the road, no one will put any money into the property. There’s no reinvestment incentive, so it effectively becomes a deteriorating asset from day one.

We need to figure out how to deal with that. We need to find a different structure than the one that was used in the past. We’re going to bring in some of the best and brightest minds in the real-estate finance and legal world to help us work that out. Perhaps we will create a new mechanism that allows us to implement this development in a way that gives it a lasting and permanent life.  

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Ensuring that the communities of San Pedro and Wilmington are comfortable with the growing port operations must require a focus on retail-commercial-consumer access to the port. The LA Waterfront is clearly one of Councilmember Buscaino’s top priorities—what role has he played in the development? Does the port’s new citizen-oriented function have the political support it needs?

Doane Liu: I think it does. Councilmember Buscaino is fervent and almost religious about his desire to redevelop the waterfront. We share that belief. The mayor certainly does. He’s made it clear that he wants the Harbor Department to make it easy for the right people to come in and help us redevelop the waterfront. 

You’ve got to remember, David: This was a man-made port that, over 100 years ago, had shipyards,  lumberyards, and break bulk all along what we call the San Pedro side of the Main Channel. This deindustrialization has taken 30-50 years. 

Ports O’ Call was always part of that. Now that some of those uses have either gone away or moved to the Terminal Island side of the Main Channel, this slow opportunity emerged to reclaim the waterfront for other types of uses.

Now we have the Cruise Terminal, the Fanfare Fountain, the USS Iowa, the Maritime Museum, the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium at Bathhouse, and the two beautiful marinas. All of that has been happening, but Ports O’ Call is the key anchor for this waterfront.

Wayne Ratkovich: Let me add that we have seen terrific support from Councilman Buscaino. As Doane has said, he has been a very strong advocate for Ports O’ Call. I believe he sees Ports O’Call, correctly, as key to the revitalization of downtown San Pedro, and to an improvement in the quality of life for people who live along the San Pedro waterfront. 

The mayor has also stepped in and been a strong supporter of this development. The best indication of that is Doane Liu himself. The mayor moved Doane from his role as a Deputy Mayor down to become Chief of Staff at the Port, and handed him the responsibility to work with us. 

I will say candidly that we had been pleading to have the kind of connection that Doane brings to City Hall and to the port. That gives us a very enthusiastic burst of hope for the project. We now have the backing, leadership, and direction that this project needs.

In February, the Harbor Commission gave the Alliance four months to finalize an agreement, and the site’s 50-year ground lease expired in December. Will the Commission’s timeline be honored?

Wayne Ratkovich: The answer is “yes.” We’re going to honor the timeline that we have agreed to. We probably won’t have everything finalized by then, but we will make significant progress. We’ll be working, as we do work now, weekly with the port to move this project forward. 

It is very important for us and for the port to establish a realistic schedule of when this project will become reality: when it will be built and open to the public. 

I totally understand why the citizenry of the San Pedro waterfront are very anxious to see something happen to Ports O’ Call. We are happy to be a part of that process, but I think we owe them frankness and honesty in terms of how long it’s going to take. They may not like the length of time that we’re talking about but at least, I hope, they will appreciate that we’re realistic. There’s a lot of infrastructure and financing work that needs to take place. That can all be done—it’s just going to take a little more time than any of us would like. 

Doane, could you talk about the integration of other improvements taking place on the waterfront, including the AltaSea project? How do you see these new developments and amenities coming together to reshape Los Angeles’s connection to the water?

Doane Liu: Using Jon Jerde’s terminology from plans once developed by the Riordan administration: the promenade is the spine, the backbone, the string of pearls. That string is more than just Ports O’ Call, and it’s more than a physical thing: it’s an activity. 

It’s a beautiful walk today from the bridge to the breakwater. It’s about six miles. Some of it has completed promenades that could compete with Baltimore, Seattle, New York—anywhere around the world. 

And we’ve got great pearls along the way, from the Cruise Terminal, the Catalina Express Terminal, the USS Iowa, to CRAFTED at the Port of LA, a startup marketplace that we hope becomes successful. One of the major tenants coming in there is a brewery that we hope will bring a new and exciting millennial crowd to the waterfront. 

AltaSea could really be a game-changer. The Annenberg Foundation’s investment in that project could bring a college-town feel to San Pedro. We’re hopeful that not only will it bring the research folks and the students, but also but that they’ll continue planning a business incubator focused on marine technologies and sciences, with a university component, too. They’re working with the Southern California Marine Institute, a coalition of marine-science departments at USC, UCLA, Occidental, and others. We hope that can bring all the activities that come with an academic environment.

Wayne, the Ratkovich Company was prescient in developing the Hercules Campus on the West Side when no one else believed it would work. Are you equally prescient coming into Ports O’ Call? 

Wayne Ratkovich: I am, David. It’s a totally different type of development and a different challenge. But I believe there is an opportunity to do something here of great significance—not just for the San Pedro waterfront, but for the entire City of Los Angeles and the Southern California region. That’s possible. 

We have some hurdles to get over, but that’s why we’re here. It’s our job to get over those hurdles. We’re going to do our best to make it happen.

Doane Liu: Wayne and his company have a track record of taking on difficult projects that people probably doubted would ever become successful, like the Wiltern Theater Building and the Chapman Market. They provide staying power and vision. That’s why we thought they were the perfect partner for us. We really look forward to working with them on this one.

If we gather together a year from now to talk about the status of this project, what will we be discussing?

Wayne Ratkovich: I think we’ll probably be seeing the infrastructure under construction and moving forward. I would guess that we’ll also be able to talk to you about some tenants that have committed themselves to the project, and we’ll be able to tell you how we’re going to fund the whole thing.

Doane Liu: That sounds wonderful to us. 

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