Tuesday, February 1, 2011

LA City Council Reverses, Backs Port on Shipyard Plan, Calls for Alternative Site

The Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday voted to backtrack on an earlier threat to force Port of Los Angeles officials to continue working with a Long Beach firm seeking to redevelop and reopen a shipbuilding yard at the port.

The Council voted unanimously to affirm the port's decision late last year that severed ties with Gambol Industries. The move comes one week after a Council committee voted to overrule the port decision.

Gambol has been trying for over a year to move forward with a $50 million plan to re-develop the shuttered South West Marine shipyard along the port's main channel into a modern ship repair facility. The firm, which claims it has a solid business plan that would create up to 1,000 of union trade jobs at the proposed facility, has garnered support from some trade unions, local officials and residents desirous of the promised jobs. However, the plan has also faced stiff criticism from the port, shipping industry, and longshore unions who fear the plan will delay ongoing port development.

In 2009 and under pressure from Los Angeles City Councilmember Janice Hahn, whose district covers the port area, the port's governing board signed a memorandum of understanding giving Gambol exclusive negotiating rights for the South West marine site. After nearly a year of consideration, the port's five-member governing board voted to end negotiations with Gambol over the project in December 2010.

Port officials have questioned the efficacy of the Gambol plan since before the signing of the MOU and warned that the shipyard plan could seriously delay an ongoing Army Corps of Engineers dredging project in the port's main channel. Numerous terminal development projects at the port, which faces the specter of serious competition with the expected opening of the Panama Canal's larger locks in 2014, hinge on the deeper main channel.

Port staff has spent more than five years planning and permitting the dredging project, including the use of South West Marine's two slips as a location to deposit the main channel dredge material. According to port officials, finding another location for the dredge material could take years. The Army Corps told the City Council in a Jan. 31 letter that the possible delays in finding a new location for the dredge material could range from 24 to 36 months and require a new Environmental Impact Report.

Hahn, who heads the committee that last week vetoed the port decision to severe ties to Gambol, failed to garner enough votes on the Council to move forward with forcing the port to work with Gambol. Instead, she changed the proposed agenda item shortly before the Council meeting to support the port's earlier decision.

However, Hahn also included two additional items, one of which could lock the port into making a home for a shipyard facility at the port. A second portion of the agenda item calls on port officials to "designate a location for a shipbuilding and repair facility for large vessels at the Port of Los Angeles with the understanding that this action shall in no way delay the Main Channel Deepening Project."

While the port was given no time frame in which to find a location, it is clear that the port is being asked to identify a spot, not just look for one. This would eliminate the possibility that the port could investigate the matter and find no suitable location for a shipyard at the port. However, because the MOU with Gambol is now expired, the port could look at other possible operators. The port could come back and report to City Council that it has identified a location – Al Larson's Boat Yard, a ship repair facility across the street from the South West Marine facility. The owners of Larson's have in the past talked with the port about expanding and upgrading their facility.

Port Executive Director Geraldine Knatz told the Council that the port is planning to create a master plan for the long-range development goals of the Terminal Island portion of the port. She said that the search for a shipyard location could be conducted while putting together the master plan.

The Council also asked Knatz to report back within 30 days on how the port plans to preserve the WWII-era buildings at the South West Marine site. The city wants the buildings saved for their historical significance.