Designing with Authenticity: Embracing the Grit of the LA Harbor

Urban waterfronts are messy places. Whether they retain the trappings of the working places that they all once were, or they have been prettified into people places for strolling, shopping, dining and play, they all bear witness to a past that has left its mark in some significant way—a past when access to water was key to the siting, building and success of American towns. The new Downtown Harbor of the LA Waterfront in San Pedro, CA is an example of a people place, literally carved out of the industrial fabric of the country’s busiest working container port. Its location, its form and its design details are all dictated by its existing working context. A fireboat station, busy tugboat dock, Police boat docks, Maritime Museum and an active rail line surround and penetrate the Harbor project. The usual ins and outs, odd shapes and layers of leftover remnants of infrastructure that are typical for any waterfront site, are made even more challenging when real work is happening all around, but this makes the place come alive and give it real meaning for every type of visitor. The Downtown Harbor is predicated on a design philosophy that values the history of a place and attempts to tell its stories through design. Unlike so many beach towns and faux harbor villages that dot the coast throughout the LA basin, this place feels real because it is.

Meant to embody the goals of a much larger waterfront promenade project that has been in development for more than ten years, the Downtown Harbor marks the one place where the city street grid of San Pedro actually reaches the water’s edge. It is key to reconnecting a town and its people to their waterfront, a connection long severed by major industrial uses and barriers.

The Downtown Harbor is a perpetually moving place for events and festivals, boating, strolling and learning. Container ships and Cruise ships pass by blocking out the horizon, tugs come and go, and sailing classes practice in the new harbor cut while the historic Red Car trollies clatter behind.

Last Friday evening San Pedro came down to the Harbor to celebrate its opening with music, drink and games for kids. The space was designed as an amphitheater on the harbor and a band on a barge made perfect use of it – the acoustics were remarkably good. All the pieces—and there are a lot of them—came together into a public space that feels unified if not all together tidy. The newly constructed promenade is simple in design and materials, rather than add to the clutter they create a setting for it, and establish a hierarchy for the myriad of historical artifacts, multiple uses and the constantly changing theater of the working harbor. Early on in the design process, the people of San Pedro described their town as gritty, and they wanted that grit reflected in the design of the waterfront. After much debate about design of every element of the landscape, the new promenade is perhaps simpler than some would have liked. However, given everything around it and everything that happens within it, it seems just gritty enough.

Alma DuSolier and Todd Kohli worked on this and a half dozen other waterfront open space projects for the Port of Los Angeles in the 10 years prior to leaving EDAW/AECOM. 

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