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L.A.'s PORT IN A STORM : Harbor Working to Combine Success, Good Neighbor Image

December 06, 1987|DEAN MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

Gertrude Schwab, a lifetime Wilmington resident, is well acquainted with the problems of living in the shadow of the Port of Los Angeles.

"We are the only waterfront community where properties have little value," Schwab told the Board of Harbor Commissioners at a recent meeting. "We have no access to the water, and we are glutted with trucks."

Schwab and a handful of other Wilmington homeowners had come to the meeting to oppose a proposed cement importing plant that they fear would crowd residential streets in the community with up to 100 trucks a day.

The harbor commissioners, who oversee operations at the most profitable port in the United States, were caught in what has become an increasingly familiar quandary: How to nourish the thriving $128-million-a-year port while also attempting to be a good neighbor to residents of the Los Angeles communities of Wilmington and adjoining San Pedro, all the while catering to thousands of boaters and tourists who visit the harbor each year.

'Come Up With a Balance'

"We are committed to bringing people into this port--and not just in ships," Commissioner Ira Distenfield said in an interview. "Our job is to try to come up with a balance. The Port of Los Angeles is an industrial port, but on the other hand, we need to remind ourselves that one of our reasons for existence is to make sure the citizens of this city have a port that they can visit and enjoy. . . . You don't make every decision with a slide rule and calculator."

In recent years, the port has experienced extraordinary growth, with profits last year reaching a record $67.2 million, up nearly 16% from the year before. Capitalizing on a worldwide boom in Pacific Rim trade, the port has expanded its container cargo and automobile handling facilities and has joined the neighboring Port of Long Beach in drafting a massive expansion plan that would add 2,400 acres of landfill to San Pedro Bay during the next 35 years.

The port provides more than 20,000 jobs in the harbor, and it estimates that an additional 130,000 jobs and 20,000 businesses in Southern California are indirectly related to port activities.

With the growth, however, have come unprecedented demands from the surrounding communities. Increasingly vocal residents in Wilmington--a predominantly Latino working-class community of 60,000 with some of the poorest and most industrial neighborhoods in the harbor area--have called on port police to cite truckers who use residential streets. They also want police to force port tenants to stop storing large truck-sized shipping containers on previously vacant lots in residential neighborhoods.

Wilmington residents, saying the City of Los Angeles has neglected them for years, have demanded recreational and commercial access to their heavily industrial waterfront--which Schwab complained "is now fenced off"--and have even suggested that the port help pay to revitalize Wilmington's depressed downtown.

In San Pedro, a one-time seedy fishing town that now boasts expensive harbor-view condominiums and a fleet of $100,000 yachts, the port and private developers are building a $100-million waterfront marina and recreational complex on the West Channel. Although the complex is a victory for community groups that demanded more public facilities, some residents and boat owners complain that the recreational area is being spoiled by pollution from nearby industrial facilities and the storage of oil and chemicals nearby.

'Give Something Back'

"There are situations caused by the fast growth of the port that are not being mitigated by the port," said Los Angeles Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who represents the harbor area. "The community tends to have the view that because they have to put up with most of the inconveniences of the port that the port should give something back."

Indeed, some San Pedro residents, emboldened by their success in gaining public access to the port, have challenged the Los Angeles Harbor Department--the city agency that runs the port--in areas of planning and policy. Nothing better illustrates the conflict than the recent struggle over Kaiser International, the port's largest exporter of bulk commodities.

Kaiser International operates the port's $26-million bulk loader, a facility on the eastern bank of the West Channel that serves as an industrial backdrop to the area's new recreational and commercial character. A group of San Pedro residents and boat owners, convinced that coal and petroleum coke from the bulk loader--which moves such commodities onto and off of ships--was turning their boats and front porches black, led an effort to force the operator to install new pollution equipment or cease operations.

The group late last year filed several complaints with the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which verified enough of them to declare the company a public nuisance. Based on the complaints, the AQMD staff last April refused to issue Kaiser International two crucial operating permits.

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