Catching Up With The Councilman

Councilman Joe Buscaino, photographed in his San Pedro office. (photo by John Mattera)

It’s 1:30 p.m. on July 15 and Councilman Joe Buscaino is on a much-needed vacation. Nonetheless, he’s made it a point to be in his San Pedro office today, with his son and daughter in tow, to catch up on some business and speak to San Pedro Today for this anniversary issue.

Dressed in a polo shirt, shorts and tennis visor on this particular day, the council office seems to fit him quite well. It seems like a far cry from his days patrolling the streets as a Senior Lead Officer with the LAPD, but in reality that was just 18 months ago, and San Pedro has been quite busy during that year and a half.

Under his watch, he’s seen the USS Iowa and Crafted open along the waterfront, main thoroughfares Gaffey and Western have been repaved (including a number of side streets), Ports O’ Call redevelopment has begun, the Southern California International Gateway Project is moving forward, skateboard “bombing” has been curbed, and, with his help, Los Angeles has a newly-elected mayor who can actually find his way to San Pedro. (Not to mention, those frustrating bike lanes, which his office is currently trying to rectify.) It’s been quite a busy year and a half for the councilman, and he shows no signs of slowing down.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

San Pedro Today: What do you think the state of San Pedro is today?

Councilman Joe Buscaino: There are some exciting times ahead of us without a doubt. It all starts with the waterline. For us to be a part of it to ensure that we don’t delay and we don’t stop progress is one of my goals. We’re seeing it. We’re feeling it. We’re hearing it, as well. The people are interested in investing in San Pedro. Look at the recent developments in the last year: the USS Iowa, Plaza Park, naming a developer for renovating Ports O’ Call, Crafted… We’re just excited. Look at the number of visitors that have come through San Pedro in the last year, it’s phenomenal and we’re just getting started.

SPT: Some might argue that there’s a battle going on between “old” San Pedro and “new” San Pedro. The older generation vs. the younger generation. Status quo vs. change. Do you find it tough to convince people of change here? As councilman, how do you convince people that change is imminent and we should embrace it?

Buscaino: Well, I think we need to be fair. We need to respect people’s opinions without a doubt. But I look at when my dad came back from a fishing trip; he took my mom, my sisters and I straight to Ports O’Call for dinner and ice cream. Fast-forward to today and I’m raising two kids in San Pedro, I think of them. I think of our future generation and the opportunities that are going to be provided for them here in town. I hope and pray that my kids remain here and my kids’ kids remain here, as well. The only way for us to think about our future generation is to make sure that they have opportunities in San Pedro, not just working the docks. The docks shouldn’t be the only job opportunity here for our families. There should be other opportunities for them to work and remain here and raise their families here. Change is good, absolutely. It’s up to our generation to move the ball forward and not stop progress. I understand there’s always going to be concerns about development, but at the same time, we need to listen, we need to be respectful of the process, and make the right decisions.

SPT: Social media has really put a microscope on crime in town, causing many to believe that crime is rampant. Whether it is or not, it’s happening and people are concerned about the recent criminal activity that’s been going on. As a former LAPD officer, how do we stop this problem?

Buscaino: Last year, the Harbor Area had the best crime reduction in 50 years. So regardless of what’s happening on Facebook and other social media sites, we’ve seen a reduction in crime. If you look at San Pedro, we’ve seen a significant drop in violent crime. We’ve always had a history of property crimes in town. I’ve experienced that as a Senior Lead Officer, as well. To answer your question, if you look at what’s happened in Hollywood and Downtown Los Angeles, good, smart development weeds out crime. We’ve had our fair share of crime here, absolutely, but you weed it out by putting people back to work, by making San Pedro a destination, by attracting tourism dollars here. Look at Baltimore and how dilapidated it was and how quick it turned around. Good, economic development weeds out crime.

We have a vigilant community, and I’m proud of the fact and it’s evident in social media. I was proud of the fact that I have the most number of neighborhood watch groups in the entire South Bureau of the LAPD just because people wanted to help. The police cannot be on every street corner, as much as they’d like to. Our community can always use more eyes and ears.

Someone who’s just been victimized, they don’t care if crime is down or not. Yet, we have to acknowledge that the relationship between the police and the community is better than ever. We need to capitalize on that.

SPT: On another topic, filming in San Pedro seems to have dropped off lately. Some downtown businesses have complained in the past about film crews not respecting their businesses, which has caused distrust amongst the city and Hollywood. In your opinion, how important is it to bring more production to San Pedro?

Buscaino: I meet with Film L.A. quite often. Specifically, sitting on the Trade, Commerce and Tourism Committee. As a kid growing up on 19th and Alma, I remember CHiPs filming on 19th Street. I ran out there and saw Poncherello on his bike. When my dad was working on the nets at Ports O’Call, he called and said, “Guess who’s down here? Tattoo from Fantasy Island!” Those are my memories of filming in San Pedro. Here’s the thing, when production companies come in they help commerce. Whether it’s the grips, the actors, the studio personnel, they come, and not only do we expose San Pedro, but we help the business community. Yes, they have to respect the businesses because it’s going to affect their business. We have to be respectful of that, too, because our small business owners put their blood, sweat and tears into their own businesses.

We need to keep filming in the City of Los Angeles. I have friends who are in the film industry and they are oftentimes away for three months at a time, away from their families. These kids I coach in baseball, their dad was away on a production in the Midwest because they offer more incentives. That’s what we’re competing with.

SPT: You’ve been councilman now for a year and a half. What’s been your biggest win so far?

Buscaino: (pause) Do I have to pick just one?

SPT: You can mention a couple.

Buscaino: Okay, two of my main goals in the next four years are to lead the city in job growth and not to delay progress. We’re moving forward on the Southern California International Gateway Project (SCIG) to make this port more competitive, more efficient and more effective, and at the same time improving our environment. Developers have been chosen to lead the Ports O’ Call redevelopment project. In Watts, we’ve cleared the path for redevelopment of the Jordan Downs Housing Development. These three main projects are going to impact our economy tremendously and put people back to work.

There’s now an opportunity to move forward on Ponte Vista where you can put people back to work and offer some homes. We’re working with the Planning Department, the neighborhood councils and the community on that and hoping that moves forward within the next six months. For me, going back to your original question, the waterfront redevelopment is crucial for us. By moving forward on that project, we already have a lot of people who’ve expressed interest in investing in the Harbor Area community. We’ve done a lot in the last year and a half.

SPT: What would you say has been your biggest challenge?

Buscaino: Not moving fast enough. At the same time, there’s a process in place that I have to respect. I get excited about these projects and at the same, you know, there’s a process in place at City Hall that we need to follow that includes a lot of departments, including the City Attorney, which we need the legal advice of. But when somebody comes up with an idea and I know it’s feasible, it’s a “let’s get it done” mentality for me.

SPT: Speaking of getting it done, you campaigned vigorously for our new mayor, Eric Garcetti. In fact, I would go so far as to say Mr. Garcetti has made more appearances in San Pedro during his campaign than the former mayor has during his entire tenure. Do you think that because of your relationship with Mayor Garcetti that we are going to see a lot more enthusiasm from the Mayor’s office for San Pedro and the waterfront?

Buscaino: Without a doubt. Eric’s family to me, he’s like my brother. And in the last year and a half, I’ve learned a lot from him sitting two chairs away. The reason why I went with Eric on this is because I’ve worked with him day in and day out. I was with him three days a week on that council. I’ve seen what he’s done in his district and I just want to replicate that here. He gets it.

He called me on Wednesday before the Fourth of July, he said, “Joe, what are you doing for the Fourth?” I said there’s a great fireworks show down here at Cabrillo Beach. So he says, “Amy and I are bringing Maya, we’re going to come down and watch the fireworks show.” And we’re going to see more of that. You’re going to see him around town. He has an office downstairs [in San Pedro City Hall] that he’s opening up for people to come in and have office hours. It’s not going to take a press conference to get the mayor down here.

SPT: Any final words our town’s 125th anniversary and what it means to you, personally?

Buscaino: I still gotta pinch myself for this opportunity to serve my hometown. When I speak across the city, I say only in San Pedro is where you can find a hometown boy getting elected to a city office. We are blessed with who we are as a community, a community of faith, a community of family, a community that never leaves this place. And if they do leave, they find their way back home. So I continue to be humbled and grateful to serve and this’ll be a great four years. spt

If They Build It…Will We Come?

(l to r) Eric Johnson, Wayne Ratkovich and Alan Johnson of the L.A. Waterfront Alliance. Photographed at the Brown Bros. Building in downtown San Pedro.

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.

Could Ports O'Call become a world-class destination for all of Los Angeles? The L.A. Waterfront Alliance thinks so.

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?

SPT: 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

Townee Tours – Every Weekend

Every Weekend – SAN PEDRO WALKING TOURS departing from fINdings Art Center (740 6th St.) $20/$13. Townee Tours offers three different walking tours of historic downtown San Pedro every Saturday & Sunday: Waterfront Tour at 10am, Old San Pedro at 12:30pm and Back-lot San Pedro at 3pm. For more information or to make reservations, please call (310) 808-7800. Group rates available.