BERTH 55: IT’S THE PEOPLE VS. THE PORT FOR THE HEART OF THE HARBORBy Sean Belk
The noonday sun glistens on the water of the Long Beach Harbor. It mixes with the tunes—from the Rolling Stones to the Beach Boys to old-time jazz—that echo from a set of speakers hanging from the rafters of a small eatery. Workers on their lunch break and regulars from the neighborhood file in for plates of grilled fish, barbecued shrimp and deep-fried oysters. On Berth 55, it’s been this way for more than 40 years.
But what feels like just another day in this a small commercial zone in the Port of Long Beach—nestled amid fishing vessels and overlooking towering cranes—could be one of its last.
After four years of planning Port officials have decided to build a new, relocated fireboat station on the site of Berth 55. Four months ago, the businesses that have operated at Berth 55 since the early 1970s—the fish market, the restaurant, the sportfishing enterprises—were given 180 days to be off the premises. That’s Oct. 16.
Port officials say they had no choice. The shuffle of waterfront geography was made necessary by construction of the new Gerald Desmond Bridge and the ongoing Middle Harbor project, and they insist Berth 55 is the only acceptable place to relocate the fireboat station.
Not surprisingly, the owners of the businesses on Berth 55—most famously, Queen’s Wharf restaurant and Long Beach Sportsfishing—don’t consider the Port’s decision acceptable.
Most revealingly, however, is that their customers don’t, either. They are protesting the decision, claiming that the demise of the frozen-in-time businesses on Berth 55 represents the loss of an important piece of Long Beach culture.
Together, the business owners and some loyal patrons have launched a campaign they hope will persuade Port officials to reconsider their decision—to save what the activists describe as a piece of the city’s identity and the last surviving public access point into
“There’s no other place where the public can come, sit on the water or see what’s going on down here,” said Larry Maehara, who has owned the restaurant and fish market with his family for 23 years. “This is it. So, once this is gone, it’s over.”
Maehara said his customers initiated the campaign and insisted the businesses fight to remain open. Neighborhood groups—the Long Beach Central Project Area Council, which includes the Wrigley Association, Magnolia Industrial Group, and Neighborhood Advisory Group; the Westside Project Area Council (PAC); West Long Beach 90810; and the West Long Beach Association—are also coming forward to protest.
But the centerpiece of the grassroots effort is the Berth 55 Community Forum, scheduled for Thursday at Berth 55, beginning at 6 p.m. Organized by the aforementioned community groups, the forum is intended to provide people with information and an opportunity to express their opinions.
Before the forum, Long Beach Sportfishing is providing free cruises of the harbor starting at 4:30 p.m.
“We all believe there are plenty of [other] options to what is being proposed [by the Port]” said Lee Adams, coordinator for Westside PAC, and among the leading proponents of the community forum. “Their proposal wasn’t even in the EIR [Environmental Impact Report] for the Middle Harbor project.”
“This is comparable to closing the Municipal Auditorium,” she contends. “Berth 55 is a Long Beach treasure and the neighborhood is in love with it.”
Fred Chapman, who has worked in port construction for 27 years, said Berth 55 is a “good place to get lunch.”
“They’ve got good food,” he reasoned. “It seems like there is some place they could go—they don’t take up much room.”
“People have been coming back for years and years,” he said. “Their parents brought them here and now they bring their kids here. It’s going to be a real big loss.”
Although the Port of Long Beach has yet to start plans for the new fireboat station, spokesperson Art Wong said the current businesses are not “compatible” with the Port’s development, which includes expanding a nearby railroad track that would impact parking. Wong also said the Berth 55 location is the only viable one for the fire department to access both the harbor and Westside Long Beach neighborhoods in emergencies.
Wong said attempts to relocate the sport fishing vessels have so far been unsuccessful and the restaurant owners may not be considering the option. As for the loss of the Port’s public access, he said there areplenty of access points along the Queen Mary, in addition to plans for a new bike and pedestrian path along the new bridge.
Christopher J. Lytle, the port’s executive director, is scheduled to attend the public forum this week to address any concerns, Wong indicated. “We’re going to take the opportunity in the forum to just let people know that we appreciate the Maeharas, the tenants and the
sport-fishing people, but given the kind of development that we are planning … continuing these kinds of uses is just not compatible with what we need to do to move forward.”
Maehara counters that the Port should not discount the quality of life that the businesses provide. “Instead of the port taking this away from the community, they should be enhancing it. What’s more Long Beach than sport fishing and seafood? This is a part of what people come to Long Beach for. This should be the Port’s soul.”
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