The Big Leagues: Buscaino’s Hometown Port Gets A Facelift
John Philipopoulos is an impatient man. The co-owner of The Sandwich Saloon in San Pedro will tell you himself if you ask about revitalization efforts at the Port of Los Angeles.
“I’ve been here since 1986, and there’s always been that talk about changing San Pedro and making it better,” the 48-year-old said, leaning back in one of the small restaurant’s chairs. “For me, I’m all about ‘let’s get it done, get it done.’ It’s getting there, but not as fast as I would’ve liked to have seen it get there.”
“There” in this case is the massive port overhaul in the works since 2006. It’s an initiative City Councilman Joe Buscaino pushed heavily both during his campaign and as he now settles into his new role in L.A.’s City Hall. Part of a Neon Tommy series following the new councilman, I checked in on the progress so far of Buscaino’s championed port redevelopment.
Officials have trotted out a series of beautification and redevelopment projects for the San Pedro and Wilmington waterfronts that they expect will carry the Harbor Area through the next decade or so.
On the business side, the port is also working to improve trade relations with China, the U.S.’s second-largest trading partner. Already underway is a $245-million expansion of the China Shipping Holding Co. terminal, slated for completion by 2014. Buscaino joined Gov. Jerry Brown and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa earlier this month to welcome China’s Vice President Xi Jinping for a tour of the growing terminal.
Both Buscaino and Philipopoulos, neighborhood buddies as it turned out, agreed prosperity at the port would spread to the rest of the community. “Oh, big time,” Philipopoulos said. “The port’s gotta play a big percentage. There’s no question it generates a lot of money in this town.” In fact, the port produces $35 billion regionally in annual wages and tax revenues.
“I mean, Joe and I have a passion for San Pedro,” Philipopoulos said. “What’s really different than any other place—people make money in this town and they like to spend it in their town. And that’s what I like about San Pedro.”
Port officials, however, are gunning for a significant bump from outside business. Project goals for revamping the San Pedro waterfront include improving access from downtown, enhancing commercial opportunities and moving cargo handling operations away from visitor areas—all in an effort to turn the 400-acre asset into a destination point.
Phillip Sanfield, director of media relations at the Port of L.A., said it’s an issue of attracting and then maintaining the interest of visitors from outside of the community. “The port is involved in constantly bringing people down to the waterfront,” Sanfield said. “Not only coming down for a night, but then maybe going shopping in the San Pedro area, having dinner, staying at a hotel. That’s part of the synergy we’re trying to create.”
The cluster of projects has found a charismatic and vocal spokesman in Buscaino. His inauguration address Saturday at San Pedro’s Warner Grand Theatre included an even-handed prompt for city officials to get to work on the redevelopment. After a roster of local politicians and community figures stepped forward to vouch for the councilman and offer their congratulations, Buscaino took to the podium to accept the accolades and outline his plans for District 15.
He mentioned exchanges he has already had with residents of the new neighborhoods he represents. He told the theater’s audience of Doretha Perkins, a single mother from Watts, who wants a healthy environment where her kids can succeed. “She is excited to see her neighborhood redeveloped for a better community,” Buscaino said, “because her and I know we can all do better.”
He said he saw a similar need in his hometown, focusing on the port’s potential to improve quality of life. “I also heard the voices of my fellow San Pedrans,” Buscaino said. “They are demanding dynamic waterfront development and they deserve it. They want to revitalize their local economy, and I will work for it.”
For Buscaino and sympathetic officials, the port holds the key to turning around L.A.’s finances. “We just need to capitalize on the economic engine that is right in our backyard—the Port of Los Angeles,” Buscaino said. He has often brought up transforming the port into a waterfront L.A. Live, mirroring the complex’s bankable impact on surrounding neighborhoods.
“We haven’t used the term L.A. Live,” Sanfield said when asked about the feasibility of that proposal, “but I think what he means is bringing people to this critical mass—figuring out a way for people to conveniently come down here, spend some money, spend some time and see this part of L.A. that frankly many people who live in the city have not seen or visited.”
Creating jobs, both during construction and when the new facilities are up and running, seemed to be less of a priority for port officials—more of an added bonus. And perhaps with good reason: According to Sanfield, the port already generates more than 830,000 jobs throughout L.A.’s greater five-county region, compared with L.A. Live’s puny 93,000. “We’ve got tens of thousands of people who live in this area who come to work on the shores here every day,” Sanfield said.
And their work is paying off. In 2011, the port had 8 million twenty-foot equivalent containers come through. Nearly 700,000 imports, exports and empties were already tallied in January, securing the port’s status as the nation’s largest.
With that success comes increased expectations, Sanfield said. “We need to continue to flourish. We need to be able to expand our cargo terminals so that we in turn have these revenues to invest in community projects,” he explained. “So it’s kind of a balance.”
Sanfield said funding for the revitalization projects comes from internal resources and revenue. For San Pedro alone, port officials estimated in 2009 when the project was first approved that building up the waterfront would cost $1.2 billion.
The price tag is attached to development of park spaces and a promenade, as well as the expansion of Sampson Way along Ports O’ Call Village. As costs for these beautification and infrastructure improvements continue to rack up, Sanfield said port officials are pursuing federal grants and investments from private developers.
He also emphasized it was crucial to keep the public involved throughout the process. “There’s a lot of community interest in this project,” he said. “San Pedro is a community that is built on generations of people living here. So they’ve had a lot of feedback.”
John Philipopoulos might disagree. He said he hadn’t attended the public meetings, and didn’t know anyone who had. When asked what he’d say to port officials in charge of reviving his community, Philipopoulos said he thought the outreach had been lacking. “Keep us informed on what’s going on. You know, maybe let’s send out a little mailer, flyer, letter thing to the different businesses so we can keep up,” he said. “And if there’s anything they need from us, you know, contact us.”
But generally Philipopoulos said he was in favor of the development. “I’m all for it. Bring in more jobs,” he said. Preliminary numbers for the San Pedro development projected nearly 6,100 construction jobs would be created, with another 1,070 added in operation.
Philipopoulos also clearly saw what was at stake for his own business in the project’s tourism boost. “Any time you get more people venturing into San Pedro, first thing they’re gonna ask is ‘hey, where’s a good place to eat?’ And our name’s gonna pop up, because we’re one of the top restaurants in this area. That’s a fact,” he said, before adding with a grin, “and I’m not just saying it because I own it.”
Still, he seemed hesitant to invest too much enthusiasm in the projects. Thus far, the community impact has been moderate at best. “Well, there’s a few more people employed,” Philipopoulos said. “You can see that.”
But that lagging improvement might change with his good buddy Joe in City Hall, he said. During his time as a police officer, Buscaino helped clean up the street where The Sandwich Saloon welcomes longshoremen and neighbors alike. Philipopoulos said Buscaino organized a group of officers to boot transients off the nearby library’s lawn. “It’s like day and night. I always remind him of that,” he said. “I tell him I can’t thank him enough for what he did for us.”
In the other room of his restaurant, a large postcard is tacked up on the wall next to a rack of chips. It shows Philipopoulos standing in front of the counter. Next to him is Buscaino, who holds one of the Saloon’s popular sandwiches. Both men are smiling, small-town chums in the waterfront neighborhood. Philipopoulos said he had faith his friend could lead the district to become the community it deserves to be.
“There are brighter days ahead. And with Joe running this ship, I think we’ll be okay.”
UPDATE: Not all San Pedrans are so supportive. KPCC reported a protest Thursday just outside Ports O’ Call Village, during which residents voiced concerns about the health consequences of a proposed railyard, the so-called Southern California International Gateway. Roughly 5,000 trucks would transfer containers to trains at the new railyard each day. Activists say that environmental impact would cause significant damage to the community.
From KPCC’s report:
“Having a railyard of that magnitude in this community is just a bad idea this close to schools, churches, homes, parks, community gardens,” says Angelo Logan, who directs East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. He says the port should plan future expansion at the dock. “We believe railyards belong in the ports not in the neighborhood.”
Along with Coalition for Clean Air and Coalition for a Safe Environment, Logan argues that kids and older people in west Long Beach already suffer more asthma and respiratory illness than people living further from the port. He says he doesn’t trust BNSF. “What their website says is they’re going to create more jobs they’re going to reduce air pollution and they’re going to take more trucks off the and we believe that all three of those statements are false.”
BNSF spokeswoman says Logan’s wrong. “We’re gonna take over a million trucks off the 710 freeway,” she says, adding that the proposed railyard would be the cleanest of its kind in the US. She says the new transfer point near the 710 between Sepulveda Boulevard and the Pacific Coast Highway would save trucks 20 miles of driving to a downtown LA yard: the current route. “If we can’t put them on rail closer to the port they’re going to keep going on our freeways to a point where they can get on rail,” Kent says.
Port officials said a full report regarding the railyard’s environmental impact would not be available for several months, at which point L.A. harbor commissioners will hold a public hearing and vote on the project. Councilman Buscaino could not be reached for comment on the protesters’ objections.
Published March 1, 2012, on Neon Tommy.