SAN PEDRO — From her tiny front stoop on Third Street, Bess Barbadillo has a clear view of the giant steel and glass headquarters of the Los Angeles Harbor Department, one of the most striking examples of this community's changing downtown and waterfront profile.
"This is valuable property we have here," Barbadillo said one day last week, sucking on a cigarette outside her stucco apartment. "I am sure some rich people would want to buy this and build some condominiums, or a market or whatever."
Barbadillo lives in Rancho San Pedro, a 45-year-old housing project for the poor that spreads across 21 acres just north of downtown and west of the harbor's burgeoning West Channel. More than 1,500 people live in the city-owned project, which serves as a gateway of sorts to the impoverished northeast section of town.
Rancho San Pedro and the surrounding Barton Hill neighborhoods have the highest violent crime rate in San Pedro. They are popular hangouts for drug dealers and home to at least two rival gangs that often claim innocent victims in their quest for local supremacy, police say. According to the most recent figures available, four murders were committed there in the first nine months of 1986. Many residents of other parts of San Pedro say they are afraid to go near the area.
But as the Harbor Department, the city of Los Angeles and private investors pump hundreds of millions of dollars into new commercial and recreational developments on San Pedro's waterfront, local business leaders are beginning to look beyond Rancho San Pedro's notorious reputation to see it as a choice piece of real estate with vast development potential.
While denying they are "rich people" interested in developing the area at any cost, members of the San Pedro Peninsula Chamber of Commerce have drafted a proposal calling for the demolition of Rancho San Pedro, the construction of new low-income housing several blocks west on Pacific Avenue, an increase in residential density in the Barton Hill neighborhood and the development of a harbor front commercial area where the housing project now stands.
Dubbed "San Pedro 2000," the proposal is meant to serve as a blueprint for future residential and commercial development in the northeast section of town. Chamber officials say that it would provide improved housing for residents of Rancho San Pedro, reduce crime in the area, upgrade the Barton Hill housing stock and, perhaps most important, open up several blocks of Harbor Boulevard near the expanding World Cruise Center to commercial development.
"The chamber would see this as a showpiece boulevard in San Pedro," said D. Leron Gubler, executive director of the chamber. "It is valuable, prime land with ocean views."
Word of the proposal has only trickled into pockets of the Rancho San Pedro and Barton Hill neighborhoods. But many of those from the area who have heard about it characterize the plan as an underhanded effort by the chamber to rid the community of some of its poorest residents while "making the rich people richer," as one of them said.
Renters in Barton Hill fear improvements to homes there may price them out of the market, while some Rancho San Pedro residents say they do not accept the chamber pledge that all 479 units at the project would be rebuilt--upgraded and offered at affordable rents.
"They want to make the waterfront look more presentable so that more rich people will want to come into this area," said Margaret Blake, who lives in Rancho San Pedro with her husband, George, on monthly income of $800. "We are poor people here. And we have to have a place to live, too."
Harbor Boulevard, with direct access from the Harbor Freeway, is the main artery to the San Pedro waterfront, which is going through a $300-million renaissance. The largest cruise center on the West Coast is under construction, as are a marina with slips for thousands of private boats and a youth aquatics camp. The Harbor Department also has plans for a $40-million fish market, restaurants and two hotels.
'Logical for Growth'
"We are trying to define where the future business growth in San Pedro should take place," said John Barbieri, president of the chamber, who owns an energy consulting business in San Pedro. "That area just happens to be opposite the West Bank of Los Angeles Harbor, which the Harbor Department is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to develop. It is a logical place for business growth."
Since December, the chamber has been taking its proposal to service organizations and other San Pedro community groups in an effort to gather support. Gubler, who has spoken to more than a dozen organizations, said the chamber will use comments from the meetings to revise the proposal before it is presented next month to Los Angeles City Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who represents the San Pedro community. The chamber hopes Flores will then forward the proposal to the Housing Authority and the Community Redevelopment Agency.