Downtown San Pedro looks a lot different than it did half a decade ago. Trolleys run up and down cleaned streets under crisscrossing lights that have given the area new charm. Just two months ago, the streets were blocked off for a festival celebrating the town’s 125th anniversary that drew thousands.
But despite all the momentum, there remains an undeniable, and quite visible problem: a number of “For Rent” signs still hang in shop windows up and down 6th and 7th streets. In August, Williams’ Book Store closed its doors after more than 100 years, and Jolly Burrito packed up and moved to Pacific Avenue.
“Nobody’s going to rent an empty space when on both sides of it is a business that’s suffering or another empty space,” says Warren Gunter, owner of P&M Management, which houses businesses like Niko’s Pizzeria and The Surplus Guy. He says two of his 12 spaces are currently vacant.
Gunter himself owned the former San Pedro Jewelry Mart on 6th Street. He thinks a lack of advertising to attract new day-to-day customers is what keeps tenants with staying power, and who will increase property values, from opening up shop.
“You could fire a cannon down the sidewalk. There’s no traffic downtown because there is no effort to bring in new customers on a day-to-day basis. The idea of these two-day parties that bring a lot of people downtown — well what happens the rest of the 365 days of the year?”
But others say the pre-Del Amo Mall days of residents doing much of their shopping downtown are over and it’s time to find a new brand or niche market to draw visitors. With the success of the First Thursday Artwalk and two new theatre companies moving into an already theatre-rich area, downtown seems to be shaping itself as an arts and dining district.
“There’s a certain charm around here. I think more and more people will think of this as a place to come eat and retailers will be more of the funky stuff,” says Alan Johnson of Jerico Development, another major commercial real estate company downtown, and one of the developers overseeing the makeover of Ports O’ Call Village. He estimates vacancies are about what they were when the Business Improvement District, or PBID, was formed six years ago, but says the area is making progress finding its new identity.
“Galleries and funky little shops will appeal to a crowd that’s looking for something different because we’re not going to be Hermosa Beach, we’re not going to be Long Beach; we have to carve our little niche.”
But downtown’s thriving community of artists and galleries isn’t necessarily open to the public on a regular basis, adding to the number of closed storefronts. Some are only open during First Thursdays.
“I hear a lot of concern about that, but otherwise they might not be occupied, so I think it’s actually a real plus,” Johnson says. “I think they really are central to the community we are.”
Inconsistent business hours are a problem among businesses downtown across the board. Some of downtown’s strongest businesses are restaurants with regular hours.
“I think the businesses that are going to survive are going to be the ones that create regular hours and a product that people will want to buy,” says Eric Eisenberg, owner of the Renaissance Group, which owns much of the commercial real estate downtown.
He estimates his vacancies might be better than what they were six years ago. The Renaissance Group recently hired a new marketing director who’s brought in a surge of inquiries through online marketing. A new vegan smoothie shop recently moved into the old Jolly Burrito location on 6th St.
“Do we have more vacancies than we’d like? Absolutely. But the reality is we’ve started a new type of advertising and I think if you talk to me in two months you’re going to see a lot of the vacancies rented.”
Eisenberg’s glass-half-full view of the vacancies is shared by others who stress that downtown’s transformation will take time.
“For the first five years we’ve concentrated on infrastructure, making the district an appealing place to come to, and now it’s time to start marketing,” says Valerie Goodman, PBID’s marketing director. “There are a lot of communities that have been really successful in reinventing themselves and attracting businesses, like Pine Street in Downtown Long Beach, but it takes time and doesn’t happen over night.”
PBID has received some criticism for its focus on beautification.
“No potential business is going to say, ‘I’m going to open a business because there’s twinkle lights and a red trolley car that runs up and down the street empty most of the time,’” Gunter says.
Johnson, who has also been doing business downtown for 30 years, however, thinks it’s a logical approach.
“To me, you don’t just market and scream at people 100 times to come down here,” he says. “You make something that people are going to want to come to and then you market it, so I think we are doing it in exactly the right order.” spt
Happy 125th Birthday, San Pedro! There’s no way to predict what the next 125 years will bring, but I strongly believe that in the next 25 years we will do much more than in the previous quarter century. And, contrary to some local critics, we’ve come a long way in that time.
Consider this: In 1988, when we celebrated San Pedro’s Centennial, anyone venturing into downtown at night would have found a virtual ghost town, which was considered too dangerous to visit after dark. The only place of note to eat and/or drink at night around this time was Papadakis Taverna.
Everything changed almost immediately after 1988 when Alan Johnson opened John T’s, which was later taken over and changed to the San Pedro Brewing Company by James Brown. Suddenly, young San Pedrans had a downtown place for drinks at night. The crowd soon invaded Tommy’s next door (now Crimsin) and the spark was lit for a downtown scene where one can now eat and drink at numerous locations.
The fact that downtown is a much better nighttime place to visit than it was 25 years ago flies into the face of the nostalgia you often hear from old-timers. True, retail isn’t nearly as strong as it was in the years prior to the opening of malls like Del Amo, but that’s the case in downtowns all across America. And the next 25 years will get better – much better.
Everything starts with the port. There are currently two major developments – AltaSea and Ports O’ Call – that will not only change the face of the waterfront, but all of San Pedro, especially downtown.
AltaSea will greatly expand the current Marine Research Institute by relocating at City Dock 1. The research center, which is a collaborative effort of eleven major universities, including USC and UCLA, will feature seawater labs, classrooms, lecture halls, an interpretive center, and an opportunity to develop the world’s largest seawater wave tank.
A world class research center will drive to San Pedro a large wave of academicians, vendors, businessmen, and professionals that will either work at AltaSea, service its operational requirements, or create business partnerships that leverage the research being done there. The most natural place for these newcomers to locate their offices will be in downtown. And more people in more offices will establish the environment for a better variety of places to eat and drink in downtown… and at Ports O’ Call.
Ports O’ Call will create a waterfront dining and shopping experience that will spark tourism, as has happened in other port towns such as Seattle, Sydney, and Barcelona. However, the key to making our area a regional attraction will be our ability to integrate for visitors a seamless experience where they can traverse between a great waterfront and a vibrant downtown scene.
The reason I was so inspired by the choice of the L.A. Waterfront Alliance as the Ports O’ Call developer is that the team includes Eric and Alan Johnson. The Johnsons own property throughout San Pedro and understand the importance of an integrated plan linking the waterfront and downtown. What other outside waterfront developer would have been such a strong advocate for downtown? Alan has a vision for downtown that includes one-way streets with better parking, enhanced public performance space, wider sidewalks that allow for sidewalk dining, and transforming alleys into pedestrian walkways – much like in Old Town Pasadena (I’d add bringing the Red Car up 6th Street to Centre).
In addition, Alan is on the board of Marymount University and is very active in helping the college establish a film school at the Klaus Center on 6th Street, which could assist in Mayor Garcetti’s idea for making San Pedro one of the city’s entertainment corridors.
It all adds up to a downtown on the upswing… it should be a great quarter century for our town!
Jack Baric can be reached at email@example.com.
It wasn’t that long ago when Downtown Los Angeles was still trying to find its way. Before Staples Center, before L.A. Live, before the lofts, the new restaurants and the Nokia Theater, Downtown Los Angeles was suffering. There were even news reports on all the vacancies in the skyscrapers. It wasn’t a pretty picture. Cut to today and what do we see? A vibrant, urban environment, constantly busy, offering world-class entertainment and top-notch restaurants in a fun and safe atmosphere with plenty of parking. Concerts, sports, special events all seem to happen in Downtown L.A. these days.
Redevelopment is happening across Southern California. Look at Hollywood Blvd. with the Dolby (formerly Kodak) Theatre and the top of the line retail shops, and Old Town Pasadena with the same type of revitalization. It was only a matter of time before our waterfront became a top priority for redevelopment.
Earlier this year, Wayne Ratkovich of The Ratkovich Company, and Alan and Eric Johnson of Jerico Development, known collectively as the L.A. Waterfront Alliance, were awarded the opportunity by the Port of Los Angeles Harbor Commission to redevelop the current Ports O’ Call location. It’s a much needed yet daunting task as Ports O’ Call has fallen under hard times in recent years. Weekend crowds still fill the San Pedro Fish Market, but weekday traffic across the village is minimal. Most everyone in San Pedro will agree that it’s in dire need of redevelopment.
San Pedro Today caught up with Ratkovich and Alan Johnson (his brother Eric was unavailable) at The Ratkovich Company office in Downtown Los Angeles to discuss their “world-class” plans for the waterfront, their vision for the future, and what San Pedro can expect in the coming years.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length
San Pedro Today: Why did Jerico Development want to get involved with the Ports O’ Call redevelopment project in the first place and why did The Ratkovich Company want to join in? What was the genesis behind it?
Alan Johnson: As you know, the talk was that Ports O’ Call was going to be redeveloped and there was a lot of interest in town. We were approached by several people about doing it and well, you know, that’s not our thing. We do our own stuff. [Jerico] didn’t have the wherewithal to take on that big of a project. Then [someone asked], “Would you like to meet Wayne Ratkovich?” And I said absolutely! I’ve followed Wayne and his career for quite a while. I personally wasn’t going to miss the chance to meet Wayne. And the prospect of actually doing something together was just beyond even thinking about.
Wayne Ratkovich: That’s how it all began. We were introduced to one another. I don’t think [The Ratkovich Company] would have taken on the project if we didn’t have someone like Eric and Alan locally that would be part of the development. We needed to have somebody with a local presence. If we didn’t have that, I don’t think we would have put our hat in the ring. When we met, it seemed like we’d probably get along okay together. We shared a common culture in many ways. We also share the fact that this is very important for the City of Los Angeles and for San Pedro. This is important stuff. Alan and Eric have waited a long time to see this property improved and we saw it as an opportunity to fulfill our mission, our development company’s mission, which is to ‘profitably produce developments that improve the quality of urban life.’
SPT: What’s your opinion of Ports O’Call in its current state today?
Johnson: It needs a lot of help. I don’t think anyone would argue with that. There is an opportunity to do something much better than what is there. Keep much of the good, but give it a new life.
SPT: There is concern from the community that a place like the San Pedro Fish Market, which is a San Pedro institution, might become a victim of the redevelopment. What’s your mindset going into what will stay and what will go?
Ratkovich: We have to look at what we think belongs there. It must draw, and draw not only from the San Pedro community, but it must draw from the region. We got to have something that has a magnetic force to it. As we go through all of that process of trying to figure out what that is, it would be downright foolish to toss away existing success stories. We can’t guarantee anything at this point, but common sense says you want to keep what is already producing good revenue and doing good business as you build more to it. I think that’s the framework we have.
SPT: At the first public meeting at the Warner Grand, you gave a fairly lengthy presentation prior to the public comment of all the other harbor locations across the world; other ports and harbors that are on a much bigger scale than what is currently there now. Is that the mindset going into this project? Something that big and grand?
Johnson: Yes. Big. We have all talked about big. In a city like Los Angeles, with all the other world-class top attractions, I think it only makes sense. I think Ports O’Call deserves it. I think it’s fitting there. It’s L.A.’s waterfront. There are a lot of factors that say it should be big.
Ratkovich: We’re not looking at this from the standpoint of wanting to do big things just because we want do big things. We’re not measuring this in square footage. We’re saying if this is going to be successful, you can’t think small. It just won’t work. You’ve got to think big. You got to draw a big picture. You have to have a big attraction. You have to induce a lot of enthusiasm, because there’s not much enthusiasm right now. There’s not much hope. So we want to reverse that.
SPT: I know you’re still in the early stages, but what have you come across as the biggest challenges so far with this redevelopment plan?
Ratkovich: We’re early, but so far everything’s going really well. If we have a challenge right now, it’s convincing the San Pedro community to be patient, because they are anxious to have something happen. And in this day and age, I wish things happened faster than they do. But it takes more time than most people think. That’s why I’ve tried to convince the world that developers are entitled to two lives instead of one, because everything takes so damn long. (laughs) Right now that’s probably the one thing that concerns us the most – keeping the support of the community. I think we got a lot of support in that first meeting and we want to keep it, but we can’t expect people who are not in our business to understand why it does take so long. Also, we’re really happy that our work with the Port has been like a partnership, which you don’t expect very often when you’re dealing with a government agency.
Johnson: The port has so much planned down there and there are so many things that have to be done just right. There is going to be a couple billion dollars spent down there between AltaSea, Ports O’Call, the infrastructure… And I tell you what, there won’t be $2 billion spent there five years from now. Everything has to be laid out and understood and made to work. The challenges… certainly one is moving people along Harbor Blvd. How is that going to happen? The worst thing you’d have is this phenomenally successful development, you know, it’s not a disaster, it’s phenomenal, but it’s like a people explosion! Take what you see there now on Mother’s Day or any holiday weekend, we’re going to quadruple that. Those are the numbers that are going to happen. So how do we do that? It’s building the infrastructures. The port’s very open to it and I think we’re making good progress talking about this. We’ve had some very productive meetings and I think if there’s a roadblock, I haven’t seen it yet. It’s just time.
SPT: Let’s talk about funding, since you started dropping some numbers here. Where are the funds coming from to put this development together? Have you worked out a budget of what it’s going to cost?
Ratkovich: No, we haven’t, too soon for that. Our job is to create a scenario that will attract capital. So we first have to create that scenario. We have to put together the ingredients that are necessary to attract the capital. That means some pre-commitments from tenants. Perhaps existing ones, perhaps new ones. That all has to come together, and that’s our job. If we get the ingredients that will produce revenue, then we’ll get the financing.
SPT: So to be clear, that’s the current stage you are in right now? Putting the ingredients together to get that financing? Are you confident you’ll achieve that goal?
Ratkovich: That’s correct. We feel confident that there is a lot of capital available for investment. Our job is to create the scenario that attracts that capital. It’s complicated by the fact that this is ground lease property that makes financing more challenging. It’s certainly not impossible; it just makes it more challenging. It limits the number of investors or lenders. It changes the terms. Makes it a little less attractive. Interest rates are a little higher, terms a little shorter. That kind of thing. But it’s not impossible.
SPT: As far as tenant commitments go, what’s been the general response?
Johnson: Existing or new?
Johnson: We’ve got some very interesting prospects.
Ratkovich: We do. We brought in the National Real Estate group from Commercial Real Estate Services (CBRE) to work with us. And while we don’t have anything in writing from anybody yet, we do have pretty positive expectations about what they think they can do, who the brokers think they can bring in. And that’s good, because if we didn’t have that, we might as well fold tent right now. So we’re very optimistic about the possibilities.
Johnson: Regarding the current businesses there now, the Port has set it up in such a way that all the current leases end in December 2014. That’s how they tend to deliver the space. But as Wayne said earlier, you’d be pretty foolish not to take advantage of what is working down there and those old connections.
SPT: There’s been an issue with the name change, because you’ve already gone public that the Ports O’ Call name will be retired. Why the idea for the name change? And do you have a list of new names you’re considering?
Ratkovich: I’m the one who said I thought there should be a name change, and I do believe that. We don’t have a new name yet. There’s just too many negatives associated with “Ports O’Call.” If you’re going to reach out to an entire region, as well as the local community, I think you need to say this is a whole new thing happening. [My company] has restored 17 historic buildings in the City of L.A. I have great respect for history. But to me, it’s the history of San Pedro – not the history of Ports O’Call.
Johnson: If you see what happened over time, the Fish Market was Norm’s Landing, and it was a fish market and it had nothing to do with Ports O’ Call. Ports O’ Call has just come to mean that whole [area], but it’s really not. I remember seeing this old picture, some old weekend and the crowd in the parking lot was all around Ports O’ Call in the village, very little around the fish market. But what a transformation from now, where it’s just completely flipped! I think there are very fond memories of Ports O’Call, but it’s the Ports O’ Call that people remember back in the day.
I think the promise this redevelopment holds is the ability to bring down those people in San Pedro that refuse to go down there. Bring them through downtown; see that downtown’s nice. With a town of 90,000 people like San Pedro, you really shouldn’t need to leave town to buy all your stuff like you have to do now. We have enough retail space in downtown and throughout town on Gaffey and Pacific and all of these places that if they rediscover the waterfront and they rediscover downtown, there’s plenty of retail space for every use that is necessary and needed for them if they come back, if they support it. You’re not just bringing tourists back, you’re bringing the town back, then all of a sudden you serve their needs on those streets and you just let the market figure it out. There’s a whole effort to make that connection between downtown and the waterfront and I think that is a really key thing. It’s important to us and it’s important to the development of the town because there’s a big disconnect now.
SPT: Finally, when this project comes to fruition and you guys are ready to get the proposal out in front of the public and show the designs and we see pictures of what could be, what can you tell San Pedro to expect?
Johnson: We really want to be measured against the waterfronts of the world. We have world-class developers working on it. So to me, I think nothing short of that. I think we’ll see a very efficient way to get people off the freeway and move them through to Ports O’ Call, but then we move them through to Alta Sea, we move them to the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, we move them along our waterfront so they really have this full day in San Pedro. With tourism being the number one industry in L.A. right now, it just happens to be really good for us. We have a lot of wind in our sails, a lot of community support and so I think things really seem lined up, I know we’re going to hit bumps. I don’t want to have this become a burden on our town, a “what did we wish for?” scenario. It doesn’t have to be that way. It shouldn’t be that way. And we’re going to work our asses off that it’s not that way.
Ratkovich: The time has come for the waterfront and downtown San Pedro to be what it really should be. Something that’s really wonderful and unique and that all the citizens can share. That’s sort of a vague and broad description of what we hope to get, but that’s what it’s going to be and it should be something that not only is successful in its own right, but it contributes to the success of downtown San Pedro and to the living environment – a whole urban complex – that’s down there today. spt