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Done Deal? Trading Ports O’Call for a Great Big Noisy Congested Outdoor Amphitheater

GELFAND’S WORLD - Let's suppose that you live in a normal residential neighborhood, and all of a sudden, a government agency announces that it is going to build an outdoor amphitheater to do Rock N' Roll concerts.

Not only that, but there will be a concert every weekend night for all of the Spring, Summer, and Fall. So right down the street from you, or a couple of blocks over, or two miles away, there will be loud noise from 8 PM to 11 PM on all your Fridays and Saturdays. 

Or maybe it will be Saturdays and Sundays. You can't be sure, because nobody is telling you. You've only been told that the plan is for 100 major events per year. 

You also don't know whether it will mostly be Rock and Roll and Rap, or whether there will be a classical orchestra concert once a month or so. 

Nobody is telling you so far. 

Now allow me to tell you that the above scenario is true for people who happen to live next to the harbor. 

The threat is true, and it is sudden. 

We were told a couple of months ago. The story was explained by Hunter Chase in a Random Lengths News article you can find here.  

As Chase and RLn explain, the original plan was to have a 500 seat theater in a refurbished version of Ports O'Call. Many of you will remember Ports O'Call as a friendly seaside destination where you could get clam chowder or a Belgian waffle or the Spanish dish known as paella. There were views of the main channel and you could sit out at a picnic bench and watch the freighters go by. 

How did the new project come about? 

A few years ago, the Port management decided that it couldn't repair and upgrade the decaying remnant of what had been a very popular Ports O'Call. They decided to tear it down, and the winning bidder designed a replacement that would be a sort of theme park/carnival/seaside attraction. 

Years went by -- years in which the Acapulco Restaurant was torn down, then the Ports O'Call restaurant, and eventually most all of the previous structures. And then the empty land just sat. And there was the Covid-19 which of course complicated things even more. 

The land is still sitting. 

There was, finally, a revamped proposal to be known as the West Harbor development. At least that was the proposal until recently. 

But in April, it was announced that there is a new plan, and it involves an outdoor amphitheater capable of holding 6200 audience members. That would be a larger capacity than even the Greek Theater. The plans include a back wall, giant video screens, and the infrastructure for electronically amplified sound. 

The one thing we are not being told is what kind of programs are planned, but the description of the proposed venue screams Rock Concerts loud and clear. Maybe there will be other programs, but there are lots of rock bands and lots of potential audience members, and it is a lot less likely that the Royal Danish Ballet will be the feature act. 

The neighbors who live alongside the port are concerned. As one attendee at a neighborhood council committee meeting expressed it, "This is the end of our way of life." 

Is that an overstatement? If you have enjoyed quiet surroundings in a private house or a modestly sized apartment building (as most San Pedrans do), the statement might not be over the top. Because how else would the venue draw enough paying customers to fill the place and pay the bills, except by raising the decibels to painful levels? 

And the proponents of the (more than tenfold) enlarged theater and the local Chamber of Commerce and contractors are not telling us what to expect in the way of headaches and sore eardrums. 

One point should be made about the acoustics in the area surrounding the port. If you look at photos or movies, you can recognize that the Port of Los Angeles has a hilly backdrop that resembles, in its own way, the Bay of Naples. For those who live along the hillside overlooking the port (i.e.: most of San Pedro), sound carries our way. Here is the latest example. Over the weekend, the port allowed a Rock concert to be staged on a wharf that is out in the middle of the harbor, far from the residential neighborhoods but directly facing them. The thump-thump noise from the concert went on for most of Saturday night. Windows rattled and floors shook. Complaints arrived at the port. Things got heated enough that the concert -- scheduled to be repeated on Sunday night -- had to be scaled back. 

And we should point out that the proposed 6200 seat amphitheater is a lot closer to the residential neighborhoods. In fact, it would be built directly adjacent to the bluff above which much of San Pedro lives. To be blunt, the drawing in the project proposal shows that the stage points right at my neighborhood, and that of thousands of other San Pedrans. 

The "Done Deal" as the old way of doing things in these parts 

When I first moved to San Pedro some number of years ago, I heard the term "done deal" to refer to edicts coming from the port and from the local movers and shakers. In brief, decisions were made behind closed doors, and by the time the rest of us heard about them, they were "done deals." The public might think that they would have a say, but it wasn't the case. So we might ask whether the proposed amphitheater is a done deal, or whether things might be capable of change. 

How to stop the project 

As of this moment, I strongly suspect that the local homeowners and renters will be opposed to the project once they find out what it is. I could be wrong -- some people really love rock and might be OK with hearing it where they live, even when they have not chosen to attend a concert. But we'll see. Once the story starts going around, most everyone will have an opinion. Of course one's opinion ought to be based on what sort of concerts would really happen, but it isn't the fault of the residents that we are currently in the dark. 

As I see it, there are two or three ways that this project might be stopped. The first would be a sizable public outcry, loud and long enough to get the attention of current candidates for mayor and for City Council. The current mayor or the next mayor could instruct the Harbor Commission to put an end to the amphitheater project. In the past, public outcries against the construction of condominium towers and shopping malls on port property resulted in the projects being scrapped. 

Another way the proposed project could be brought to an end is for a new mayor to appoint an entirely new Harbor Commission (as is generally the case anyway) but make sure that the appointees are on board with nixing the amphitheater. 

And finally, there is the legal path. The amphitheater proposal is so substantial that it requires a supplemental environmental impact study. Noise and traffic are already listed as topics for discussion. If the supplemental EIR accepts the amphitheater then a fired-up group of homeowners could finance a lawsuit arguing that the supplemental EIR is flawed. This is a standard way of trying to throw a wrench in the works. Such lawsuits are expensive (and the port has lots of money) but they also can go on for years and years, and during that time nothing gets built. One can imagine the litigation just starting to ramp up come 2024-5, and pressure to get things settled prior to the Olympics coming to a head. 

There is an attitude problem at the port 

That's obvious. Curiously, when Richard Riordan was mayor, he recognized the problem and invited one of his Republican friends to negotiate an end to what he called the hundred year war between the port and the surrounding communities. The concept should be brought back up. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])