Berth 55's Rights
At 4 p.m. on Aug. 29, families from the west side of Long Beach and workers from the city's port began to roll into Berth 55 Fish Market and Seafood Deli for an early dinner before the storm. Men pulled at their beers; a local musician showed his friends his picture in the newspaper. Meanwhile, Mike Redlew, owner of nearby Long Beach Sportfishing, guided a tour of concerned citizens and the media in his fishing boat around the port in an effort to showcase alternate places for a fireboat station—and to guarantee the future of his business and that of Berth 55.
The port's handlers have asked these businesses to vacate in order to make room for the relocation of a fireboat station. "I can tell you my opinion," Redlew said. "If you want to replace a small business, and you know it's not going to sit well with the community, then you have to put something there that is inarguable. Public safety, such as a fire department, is inarguable. . . . They're going to use port security and the fire department for the basis because it's very unpopular to argue against."
After Redlew showcased alternate potential relocation sites, the diners moved the party to nearby Queens Wharf Restaurant, joining those already there for a community forum on the subject. Representatives from the port and city—including Fire Chief Mike DuRee, port executive director J. Christopher Lytle, members of the Long Beach Police Department and Vice Mayor Robert Garcia—were in attendance, all ready to talk about an issue that both sides can agree is vital to Long Beach but no one can resolve to everyone's liking.
When combined, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles function as the eighth-largest in the world, serving as a conduit for more than $140 billion in goods per year and creator of 316,000 jobs in Southern California. It's a representation of a global economic machine firing on all cylinders—but officials feel Berth 55 and Long Beach Sportfishing (which have occupied their spaces for years) are in the way of progress.
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In December 2008, the Port of Long Beach informed the businesses they would be placed on a month-to-month lease in anticipation of the 10-year Middle Harbor Project, "a $1.2 billion modernization of the shipping terminals on Piers D, E and F," according to the 2012 budget. Also, the port is working on Shore-to-Ship Power and the replacement of the Gerald Desmond Bridge, which is expected to finish in 2016. These renovations and projects would create more jobs and a greener port, according to city and port officials.
Everyone can like that. But in May, Berth 55 owner Lawrence Maehara received news he had 180 days to vacate the property in order to relocate a fireboat station under the Gerald Desmond Bridge to Berth 55's location, which, officials claimed, would provide a unique opportunity for landside- and waterside-emergency services. Maehara and Redlew appealed to the port, asking to cohabitate the property. According to them, plans for sharing the land were being discussed until July, when the business owners were given a drawing that did not features spots for their businesses. Instead, penciled in were plans for a corrosion-control center and another business.
"We did question why this private enterprise is getting priority over us, who have been there for 42 years," Redlew said.
Residents reacted angrily to this news, and the Aug. 29 meeting was a way to express their frustrations. Queens Wharf was packed; city officials, their sunglasses tucked into their collared shirts, stood against the wall, while the crowd—mostly dressed in shorts and T-shirts—ate fried shrimp and French fries. When Maehara finally took the microphone, the crowd erupted. "I really hope you realize how important this is to the community," he said, "and how important it is to me and my family and my employees who have been here a lot longer than I have."
Maehara held up a petition. "This represents 3,000 people that feel the same way that I do."
City officials tried to state their case, to no avail. As the meeting progressed, the audience learned that DuRee and Commander Robert Luman from the Long Beach Police Department had to leave early to attend a budget meeting. A few men and women stood up, shouting: "We want to know the truth!" "We don't have any jobs." "This is our facility."
Before he left, Luman—addressing claims that a fireboat couldn't respond quickly and safely from the Berth 55 location to the middle of the harbor—pointed out that drivers are trained and have safety at the highest priority. "When we're driving through red lights," he began, "you've never seen a police car just blow through—"
The crowd openly chortled and shouted, "Bullshit!" and, "Oh, yeah, you do."
Over and over, members of the audience asked why the city and port couldn't find a way to keep Berth 55 and still build a fireboat station. "I feel terrible about it," Lyttle said.
"Oh, yeah, I can see your tears," an older lady quipped in response.
That night, officials couldn't provide any answers that would suffice. Some community members were devastated, viewing Berth 55's struggle as just another example of big business swallowing up small-business men.
"I grew up and lived my whole life in Long Beach," said Paul Allen Collins, an architect on the Westside, into the microphone during the Q&A session. "What's wrong with what's going on right now is exactly what's wrong with the United States. Our government is making all these decisions and not listening to what the people want."
The meeting ended with no change to the port's current plans. Afterward, port managing director Douglas A. Thiessen struck a defiant tone. "Let me make it clear," he said. "This is a public-safety facility. There may be an opportunity for one or two of our contractors who work for us to also use that space. But there have been no guarantees given to anyone about who will use this facility."
But at least one politician offered a glimmer of hope for Berth 55 and Long Beach Sportfishing. Garcia—who represents District 1 on the City Council—stood on middle ground. "I would love to see some sort of compromise in which you could have both," he said after the meeting. "Port officials have said this is not possible. But I would love to see the businesses survive, as well as building the new stations."
This article appeared in print as "Their Berth Rights: Can community activists save two beloved Long Beach businesses from the wrecking ball of port progress?"
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