In recent years, the Port of Los Angeles has neglected historic buildings at Terminal Island – a pattern that plagues industrial sites around the country. A plan introduced in 2011 calls for the demolition of more structures and fails to endorse the idea of adaptive reuse. Local preservationists fear this plan could be the model for an even larger plan that would permit more needless destruction.
Terminal Island played a vital role during WWI and WWII as a major shipbuilding center, and was the place where America’s tuna canning industry came of age. The island also played a key role in a tragic chapter of American history: In 1942, an entire Japanese-American community there was seen as a national threat; its residents were forcibly removed and imprisoned at the internment camp Manzanar.
- Change the plan that restricts use of historic buildings to port functions only.
- Save buildings facing demolition by promoting new uses, ensuring public access, and attracting new tenants.
Ways To Help
Written by Brian Turner, Project Manager
Preservation advocates are celebrating after the governing body of the Port of LA voted to approve a new policy that will afford greater protections for the Port's historic buildings, including those at Terminal Island. As far as we are aware, it is the first working port in the nation – and perhaps the world – to do so.
The move is especially significant given that the Port of LA is making commitments to preservation while facing great pressures to modernize its facilities. While ports in cities like San Francisco and Brooklyn (Red Hook), for example, have been rehabilitating maritime buildings for new uses, they do not share LA's challenges. In those cases, neighboring ports in Oakland and New Jersey, have primarily focused on modernizing their working ports to survive in the increasingly competitive global market to attract trans-oceanic container ships. By taking this step Los Angeles is proving to the world that maritime heritage can be protected while such modernization occurs.
Specifically, the new Policy is intended "to encourage and establish priorities for preservation and reuse of the historic, architectural and cultural heritage." Among other commitments, it requires that the Harbor Department maintain an inventory of historic and cultural resources. The database has a 50 year benchmark and will be updated every five years. The heart of the Policy is its mandate that the Harbor Department "shall promote and establish priorities" for preservation and adaptive re-use "where feasible." This echoes a critical requirement of the California Environmental Quality Act, which - in a very abbreviated form - requires that feasible alternatives be adopted as alternatives to the demolition or substantial alteration of historic places.
The next critical step of our National Treasures campaign is to ensure sure that the Port's final Master Plan is consistent with these commitments. Discussions are ongoing with Port staff on how draft documents can be improved to promote added opportunities for new uses in now abandoned historic buildings. That document is likely to be released this summer.
Written by Brian Turner, Project Manager
Prior to the 20th Century, Americans hardly ate one of the most abundant fish off of the California coast: the albacore tuna. But by 1950 tuna fish had become a staple in the American pantry, and the U.S. was the world’s top producer. The famed creature even earned a place on the official seal of Los Angeles County. But how? And why?
The recipe can be found in the historic cannery buildings of Fish Harbor, a once thriving industrial center on Terminal Island at the Port of Los Angeles. Starting in the early 1900s, Wilbur Wood of the California Fish Co. first experimented with the canning process, eventually finding a way of making the red flesh of the tuna turn white and develop the texture of chicken. While a rawer version was a delicacy to immigrant communities such as the Japanese and Italians, the canned white fish made it more palatable to a wider variety of consumers. Add to the mix increased wartime demand for a douse of quick protein and a good public relations campaign - and, viola, an industry was born.
For a variety of reasons in the last few decades, the tuna canning industry that had been born in LA ran aground. While albacore are still abundant off the Southern California coast, global tuna stocks have declined by over 90% since 1960. And while conservation of Blue Fin Tuna is a critical priority, it is important to note that canned albacore is still a “best choice” in the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Guide.
The last major tuna cannery on the U.S. mainland closed at Terminal Island in 2001. Now, though several buildings associated with the era remain, they are empty and used only sporadically as filming locations. The National Trust and LA Conservancy have been working to convince the Port of LA that these historic places are assets worth keeping. A draft of the Port’s Master Plan Update proposed to keep the cannery facilities available for commercial fishing operations, but also gave a somewhat sobering account of the economic viability of such uses. Given these uncertainties, advocates are urging the Port to expand allowable uses and give the buildings a chance to survive in the near term – perhaps until a once-thriving industry will again take shape.
In our recent comments on the Draft Plan we also urged the Port to recognize two additional historic resources in Fish Harbor related to its canning industry history. Among them are Canner’s Steam Plant, a cooperative steam-generating facility that made canning operations more efficient. We are also pushing for greater recognition of the footprint and remaining historic buildings associated with a the once-thriving Japanese American fishing village. Its residents, whose fishing skills were instrumental to the growth of the canning industry, were evacuated in 1942 following the Pearl Harbor attack, incarcerated against their will, and never returned.
For more information about the origins of tuna canning in the U.S. don’t miss the LA Conservancy’s page on the subject. And for you true tuna connoisseurs, check out Andrew F. Smith’s new book: American Tuna: The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Food.
Written by Brian Turner, Project Manager
The Port of LA recently released a Draft Master Plan Update, accompanied with an Draft Program Environmental Impact Report, as required by California State law. The revision of this plan will guide future development in the Port for years to come. A key objective of the National Trust’s campaign to save Terminal Island is to ensure that there will be a future for the maritime heritage in the area.
At a hearing last Wednesday, Port staff accepted public comments, a critical opportunity for preservation advocates to address their concerns. I spoke on behalf of the National Trust and was joined Adrian Fine with the LA Conservancy and a group of history buffs aligned with our cause. We will follow up by providing testimony at the next meeting of the Board of Harbor Commissioners on April 4, as well as with formal written comments on the Draft plan due April 8.
A focus point of our advocacy efforts is to convince the Port to expand allowable land use classifications for key historic resources. The Draft Plan, for instance, bisects the remainder of the historic Japanese American fishing village into two separate land use categories – one that only permits container terminals and one solely focused on commercial fishing. We are urging the Port to keep what remains of the village intact and allow for a variety of uses that respect its historic character.
Another concern the preservation groups relayed was the proposed land use designation of the Southwest Marine Shipyard historic district. This former Bethlehem Co. shipyard played a key role in manufacturing the ships that led to the Allied victory in WWII
The proposed land use classification for a majority of the district is “break bulk” which will limit reuse opportunities in the area. Futher, the land use categories do not respect the boundaries of the district, and even bisect existing historic buildings. Clearly the Port could make a much more concerted effort to secure a future for these buildings.
Finally, we urged the Port to expand reuse opportunities by providing more permissible uses where historic resources are concentrated in the Fish Harbor area. Currently many historic buildings are vacant and in critical need of repairs and environmental clean up. To give these buildings new life, the Port should use its authority under the Public Trust doctrine to promote and incentivize needed rehabilitation work.
Written comments on the Draft Program Environmental Impact Report and the Port Master Plan Update can be submitted until April 8, 2013 and should be sent to:
Director of Environmental Management
Los Angeles Harbor Department
425 South Paloes Verdes Street
San Pedro, CA 90731
Written by Brian Turner, Project Manager
In 534 CE Justinian, an influential Roman jurist, proclaimed that some things cannot be owned. It was kind of like a 6th Century version of Paul McCartney’s “Money Can’t Buy Me Love.” Along with the air, rivers, and seas, the Justinian Code stated that the seashore was “incapable of private ownership.” In the ensuing years, seashores around the world to be filled in for industrial development, but the legal principle still applies to any place below the natural high tide line.
In 1215, the Magna Charta affirmed Justinian and offered a management strategy for these “submerged lands” that remains the law of the land in the U.S. today. Under English Common Law, the sovereign served as trustee for the public in its use of tidelands. In the U.S., each state is a modern day “sovereign.” In California, the buck stops at the State Lands Commission, which determines whether uses are compatible with this concept, known as the Public Trust Doctrine.
At Terminal Island this legal backdrop has consequences for historic buildings. The iconic canneries, tangible remnants of the pre WWII Japanese-American community, and shipbuilding facilities at the site are built on fill. The Port of Los Angeles manages them as trust assets. And you and I are trust beneficiaries; we co-own a public trust easement in these places.
The rubber hits the road in the Port’s search for the right tenants. A dedicated, long-term user is critical to the care of any historic site. There is no lack of demand for waterfront real estate at Terminal Island, but, the Port has prioritized long term tenants whose operations are related to the “traditional” uses of navigation, commerce and fisheries. An RFP recently issued for the historic Chicken-of-the-Sea cannery, for instance, required that “majority of the overall area and business use must be water-dependent or water-dependent related.”
Preservationists want the Port to expand its view of what is a permissible use of Port property in the historic buildings at Terminal Island. Several are in disrepair and lack tenants. And the Port has done little proactively to address serious maintenance needs for vacant properties. There seems to be constant pressure for these historic treasures to be cast away in favor of large container terminals.
As plans for a new Port Master Plan move forward, our advocacy will stress that the preservation of historic places related to public trust uses is critical. At its core, the Public Trust Doctrine is meant to protect an evolving concept of what the public values in submerged lands. In 1962 in the landmark California Supreme Court case of Marks v. Whitney, for instance, ecological conservation was found to be a valid public purpose. The court noted that public trust uses "are sufficiently flexible to encompass changing public needs."
Today, a critical and largely new compelling public interest is the preservation of the assets of our industrial heritage. Our goal is to work with the Port and our partner the LA Conservancy to ensure new life for the historic resources at Terminal Island, and champion revitalization of a largely forgotten landscape. As plans move forward for a new Master Plan, we will be encouraging the Port to permit sufficient flexibility for uses in historic buildings, recognizing that their adaptation and re-use in a changing world is squarely in the public interest.
Jenny Rubin on November 29, 2012
Both of my grandparents served during World War II and were based at Terminal Island. It is also where they got married while in the US Navy. It is a place of historical significance that should be restored and preserved for future generations in understanding California's important contributions to America and the war effort. It would be nice to be able to honor these veterans for their important contributions to American history.
Mary Owens-Allen on July 16, 2012
I drove my father, Warren Owens to Terminal Island back in the '60s. He was a retired CWOII Naval Officer and got medical treatment on the USS Hope Hospital ship. Also, my mother and I took my little one, Ingrid, shopping at the PX on Terminal Island in 1968. It used to be a beautiful spot, especially where the USS Hope was moored.
Mary Sanchez on June 23, 2012
I think that Terminal Island should be saved by using the existing buildings and making it into something useful like museums and parks and restaurants. There is so much history associated with this place! Here in San Diego, the city has been doing the things I mentioned and it has been a very good thing for the city! We care very much for our city and we want to keep it looking the best we can!
Linda Dishman on June 06, 2012
The story of Los Angeles is shaped by Terminal Island — from immigrants starting new lives in a new country to our role in shaping the defense of America in WWI and WWII. Too few Angelinos know about this place, its troubled history, and the people here that helped build this city.
B. Turner on June 06, 2012
As one of the most historically important shipping terminals in the country, the Port of Los Angeles has the responsibility to be a role model for honoring the contributions of the diverse communities that helped to build and define what our city is today.