San Pedro is about to get a little — and maybe a lot — more crowded.
It’s hard to miss the surge of construction going on in the port town these days. A whirlwind of development is sweeping through the community, with new residential projects alone potentially bringing more than 3,000 new units online in the coming decade, about 2,000 of them in the downtown San Pedro area. One of the first projects, a seven-story, 375-unit apartment building that began construction in 2017 at 550 Palos Verdes St., is set to open in the spring of 2020.
Especially in and around the downtown shopping district, mid-rise apartment and condominium buildings are going up or being planned — as developers have discovered the working-class community on the Los Angeles coastline. Most are rentals but there also are for-sale projects in the works. The budding interest is coupled with a strong economy and new government incentives that make the cost of building housing more attractive.
But why the big push now?
Well, for starters, pent-up demand for more affordable housing has fueled most of the density embrace by local government. It’s a trend that’s being seen throughout Southern California, said Realtor Lee Williams.
“Every area, not just San Pedro,” he said, “is suffering from a housing crisis.”
In San Pedro, some say they believe there’s an added appeal: developers who see a largely untapped and under-valued seaside community that is finally ripe for picking. Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who represents the area on the L.A. City Council, is among the town’s biggest boosters and has openly courted developers throughout his two terms.
But as is often the case when major changes occur, the boom will likely cause casualties.
Available parking spaces will surely one of them.
And traffic? There will be more of that.
Some of the views at The Vue, a 16-story, glass tower that opened in May 2009, 255 W. Fifth St., could be blocked by developments now in the pipeline along nearby Harbor Boulevard.
And some residents will likely mourn the smaller, less spectacular neighborhood losses.
In the 1300 block of West Ninth Street, for example, only one single family home remained, until recently. Built in 1931 — with hardwood floors, a red-tile roof and cove ceilings — it was the type of classic Spanish home that long characterized the waterfront community since home construction began to climb the east-facing hillside in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The modest but quintessential San Pedro house had, for years, belonged to the Canetti family (of San Pedro restaurant fame), which picked it up in the 1930s. The house was sold in 2018.
This fall, the home and all of its history vanished in short order.
In its place, the framework of a two-story, multi-family building has already gone up, promising a development that will fit in with all the other box-shaped, multi-unit buildings now standing cheek-to-jowl along the block in San Pedro’s historic Vista del Oro neighborhood.
Other proposals for new housing units could take out San Pedro’s long-shuttered Dancing Waters club, 1331 S. Pacific Ave., which opened in 1972 and became significant to the local punk rock scene several decades ago. The Spot, a neighborhood bar at 2139 S. Pacific Ave., would also be slated for destruction, with a four-story, 101-unit rental and mixed-use development rising in its place.
The Grinder coffee shop, at Fifth Street and Harbor Boulevard, could also fall by the wayside.
A livable and walkable downtown is the goal
The idea of building residences in the central commercial shopping district, however, is an intentional path San Pedro has followed for some time.
The community signed on to a plan in 2002 that set forth the proposition that building more housing in the downtown shopping core, near the waterfront, was the best way to revitalize the area. The proposal, which grew out of a commissioned study by a visiting panel from the Urban Land Institute, eventually produced three mixed-use condominium developments — the Centre Street Lofts, Bank Lofts and The Vue. In a cautionary tale of what turned out to be bad timing, they all came online just as the housing market and economy took a dive.
Doug Epperhart, president of the Coastal San Pedro Neighborhood Council, sees the recent spate of development as logically picking up where those developments, which had to be converted to rental units during the Great Recession, left off about 10 years ago.
“That was going to be the beginning of the wave but then the recession killed it,” Epperhart said. “It took us 10 years to recover and get to 2016-17. Now, people are back to work, people are making money and the banks are lending. And you have people who are looking to rent a place to live.”
A new rush to build
And so, a new era of building has descended on San Pedro — one that’s hard to ignore.
Developers have rushed to file plans before the end of the year to take advantage of building incentives being offered by the government. Attractive, cost-saving waivers are being granted to developers who agree to include a percentage of low-income units, usually 10%, within their market-rate projects.
Parking and traffic top the worry list for those who are taking a cautious approach to the new construction. Waivers and density bonuses, along with other legislation designed to clear the way for more construction of housing, have allowed fewer parking spaces to be included in many of the proposals.
“We’re seeing a lot of these coming in with one-half a parking space per unit,” said Diana Nave, who heads up the Northwest San Pedro Neighborhood Council’s planning committee. “The other big impact we’ll see is traffic. Not only do you have these developments, but you’ve got AltaSea (the marine research campus being built in the Outer Harbor), and (the new) Ports O’ Call and the new cruise terminal in the Outer Harbor.”
And then there’s the more nuanced issue of how to preserve San Pedro’s particular seaside culture, of which longtime residents are fiercely proud.
Settled by European immigrants who have left a stand-out stamp on the town, San Pedro is one of the more distinctive and set-apart communities in Los Angeles. That strong identity is also fostered by its geography: The town is located on a peninsula largely cut off from its more easily-accessed neighbors in the South Bay and Long Beach.
“The real question is what the impact is going to be on the small-town feel that is San Pedro, and how are the newcomers going to be assimilated into a sense of who we are,” Nave said. “It’s an unknown at this point but it’s up to us to figure out how to keep the best of what we have.”
Mona Dallas Reddick, president of the San Pedro Bay Historical Society, refers to the current rush to build as “densification,” a term planners use to describe increasing the numbers of people living in urban settings.
More densely developed urban communities feature designs that build up, creating taller, more compact buildings along with offering smaller living spaces.
The victims of this trend, it appears, will be the markers of the town’s history.
It is hard to see historic homes being swept away, Reddick said. And the higher-profile buildings, she added, will alter and obscure the familiar hillside and port views that long defined the historic enclave by the sea.
Reddick stood in front of the historic Muller House Museum, on Beacon Street, overlooking the Port of Los Angeles one morning last week. She pointed toward the Palos Verdes Peninsula hillside rising up on the west through overcast skies. A multi-story condominium building is slated to go up on the corner across the street, between the Muller House and the peninsula view in the distance.
“It’s not only the loss of the houses, but one thing that has always characterized this area is the view of the water (on one side) and the hills (on the other),” Reddick said, gesturing in both directions. “It’s our mental map of the area, and it’s a geography that grounds us.”
An evolving culture
When it comes to San Pedro’s culture, though, the changes have already taken root. Or at least according to Epperhart they have.
“Many people have this vision of San Pedro as it was 25 years ago,” he said. “They’re still living in 1990 in terms of how they see San Pedro.
“People are coming here,” he added as a counterpoint to the town’s self-image, “from Northern California and the beach cities.”
The make up of the neighborhood council, Epperhart said, has shifted, with younger professionals — including newly transplanted attorneys and scientists — and renters taking up more board seats in recent years.
“It’s a good thing, it really is,” Epperhart said. “You don’t want a community that stagnates. There are a lot of challenges in maintaining the feel of San Pedro but these developments bring a whole new social change to the community and that’s not a bad thing.
“These people bring fresh eyes,” he added, “they bring a different vision.”
“Look at the proliferation of Starbucks and gay pride,” he said. “That’s the story in a nutshell.”
New residents, he said, claim San Pedro heritages going back only two or three years.
“The new place,” Epperhart said, “will be a place where nobody cares if your dad or grandpa or great-grandpa came here from Italy or Croatia.”
Still, despite all the buildings that have already gone up in recent years, San Pedro has still not kept up with the housing demand, Williams said. The housing crunch, in San Pedro and elsewhere in the region, has frequently resulted in young folks leaving their hometowns.
This ongoing building spurt, then, could help more of the town’s younger natives stay here.
There are, Williams estimated, 17,000 homes in San Pedro, which has a growing population of about 80,000 people.
“One of the things that makes San Pedro so endearing is so many people love to stand up and say, ‘I’m so and so, born and raised here in San Pedro,’” Williams said. “My biggest concern is we’re going to lose that. Our kids are going to college and not finding jobs or housing here so they’re moving to Colorado, to Oregon, to Texas, to Arizona, or they’re moving inland.”
With housing now increasingly being built, he said, more of San Pedro’s native young people may be able to stay.
And Nave, for her part, said the new construction should also be good for downtown, although she notes that a plaza and parking lot on the northeast corner of Sixth and Mesa streets could be lost — as it is in line for a future building project.
“We’ll probably have more young people and with the outdoor dining (coming in),” she said, “we’ll have a much more vibrant downtown, with people walking their dogs and restaurants that should do well.”
It wasn’t that long ago — in the late 1980s and early 1990s — that the push in San Pedro was down-zoning, as a way to preserve the town’s single-family home, seaside character.
But that was then.
There are so many projects now, Epperhart said, that the community presentations on them begin to fade into a blur.
“You’ve got three decades of pent-up (housing) demand,” he said. “It’s our turn in the barrel.
“A community has to grow or die,” Epperhart added. “That’s just how it is.”
The town will survive, Nave said.
“Will people adjust? Yeah, of course,” Nave said. “You have to adjust.”
But, she added, it just may not occur without a few growing pains.