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With Seizure and a Suicide, Redevelopment Struggle Takes Ugly Turns at Ports O’Call

[dropcap size=big]D[/dropcap]epending on who you ask, the Ports O’Call Restaurant either stood in the path of inevitable progress for 20 years, well past its time, or it was the crown jewel of the San Pedro port with the full support of the community.

Wrapped up in the debate over the restaurant, the suicide of a loyal staff member  drew a tragic link to a complex community struggle.

The 57-year-old ocean-front restaurant was seized by the city and locked down by L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies early morning Tuesday, July 17, to make way for a new mixed-use development project. Its giant fisherman statues were torn down and hauled away. Its workers, who arrived that morning expecting to prepare plates and drinks, were forced to carry food in their arms as they ran out in a panic. The restaurant's biggest community champion was threatened with arrest. And its owners, the Wislon family, who fought a prolonged legal battle to keep it open, were left powerless to stop the course of time.

An L.A. Taco investigation revealed that the scene itself played like a microcosm for a dramatic struggle between Ports O’Call supporters, land developers, and Los Angeles government officials. The saga involved years of false starts, dozens of community outreach meetings, lawyers, and a public political chess match. And it ended with the loss of 100 jobs, egregious name calling, and rushed legal maneuvering up to the very last-minute.

The night before the deputies came in unannounced, manager Jim Ryan, a long-time employee and familiar face in San Pedro, committed suicide.

Madeline Pelland, Ryan's sister, said in an interview that she spoke with Jim the day of his death.

“We would talk every week. ‘What’s going on with your restaurant?’” she recalled. “And Jimmy said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We are doing a lot of legal moves. We’ve bought some time.’ That was on Monday. He said it twice. I didn’t notice then, but it was a bit odd that he said it twice like that."

"It was the last time I spoke to him,” she added.

Ryan had been a Ports O’Call Restaurant managers for 15 years. That July 16, Ryan went home to his condo, pulled out his will, erased all the numbers on his phone except for his older brother’s, and shot himself in the head. He left no suicide note, Pelland said.

Pelland and her family were still trying to piece the events together and figure out Ryan’s motivation when the rumors started.

“I was pretty much catatonic. And then I read this article that heavily implied that Jimmy killed himself because of the restaurant,” Pelland recalled. “How can they make even that possible link? We are still trying to see for ourselves and make sense of it all. I find it hard to believe that one event was the catalyst. I’m sure it didn’t help his mental state. But I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure.”

Pelland said she was aghast that her brother’s death was being used to “lay blame at the feet of the politicians.” She said she would be first in line “screaming on the steps of city hall” if she believed the restaurant’s closure had anything to do with his death.

'They lied.'

The man responsible for the article, however, told L.A. Taco that he believed the closure played a big role. “I don’t know if he had a feeling it was coming or if he just saw the writing on the wall,” James Preston Allen told L.A. Taco. “But I’ll put it to you this way: it’s not like he had a terminal illness.”

[dropcap size=big]A[/dropcap]llen has covered the near year-long battle to keep Ports O’Call open and said he was nearly forcibly removed from the premises during the July 17 seizure. He publishes Random Length News, an alternative community newspaper that covers the L.A. and Long Beach Harbor area. In his article Restaurant Not the Only Casualty of Eviction, Allen writes that city officials, namely Councilman Joe Buscaino, “never realized the true human cost” of the rushing the San Pedro Market development plan through.

Allen pointed to the a 2009 environmental impact report which was at the time approved as the final plan to begin the redevelopment of the Ports O’Call Village, which included the restaurant of the same name. However, a 2016 addendum clearly shows that the village and the restaurant fell in the construction path of the new San Pedro Market.

“They lied. It’s not what we approved.” Allen told L.A. Taco. “They have been lying to the community and to business owners.”

According to Allen, James Ryan’s death is “a tragic and senseless” symbol of the maneuvering. “There were alternatives to the forced eviction of POC that were never considered once a decision by the port was made a year ago,” he writes in his article. “And, nothing that the community said seemed to make a difference, but his death does somehow seem symbolic of the battle between the port and the community and the closed iconic restaurant.”

[dropcap size=big]A[/dropcap] senior department head, who declined to be identified because the official was not authorized to speak, told L.A. Taco that restaurant owner Jayme Wilson is responsible for the ugly scene that took place on July 17.

“He knew for twenty years, three years, one year," he said. "He is the one that needed to do something to help them. Instead he went to court. And he booked wedding and quinceñeras and birthdays. For what? To pull on the heartstrings of the community.”

Wilson’s legal case did revolve around getting more time. After losing its final battle to thwart the eviction in May, the restaurant requested a Superior Court judge to allow to keep parts of Ports O’Call open until September to fulfill already booked events and help pay off debts. The restaurant filed for bankruptcy protection in June.

At the time, co-owner Wyatt Wilson told L.A. Taco that he expected a large portion of his 100 out of work employees to retire. “As far as I understand it, the developer chooses who gets to stay and we weren’t chosen,” Wilson explained in June.

“It does feel a little like we are being picked on and we’re not quite sure why,” he said.

RELATED: It’s Last Call at Ports O’Call ~ Scenes From the Final Days at L.A.’s Waterfront Village

Ports O’Call had amassed a groundswell of community support in the process, including a Facebook group and a statement of support from San Pedro’s three neighborhood councils. Wilson had hoped at the time that a last-minute reprieve from Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office would save the restaurant.

According to an official in the city’s economic infrastructure office, doing so could have killed the project altogether. Speaking on background because he was not authorized to go on the record, the official said the plan to redevelop the port had crossed several mayoral administrations and dated back 20 years with numerous false starts.

'San Pedro had become a sleepy little town.'

“The 2016 lease was momentous occasion and if we lost that we would have heard about it,” he said. “Business owners were notified formally in October 2017 that they would have to vacate by March 1st in order for the city to meet its legal obligations to the developer. We were pretty clear that these things were happening, and that included clearly letting people know the resources that were there for jobs, and relocation options for the businesses.”

Anna Bahr, Garcetti’s deputy press secretary, told L.A. Taco the new San Pedro Market will ultimately be better for the community with double the number of jobs.

“The community of San Pedro has been advocating for the redevelopment of Ports o’ Call Village for more than two decades,” Bahr explained. “The city has engaged in years of extensive communication with businesses and employees affected by the redevelopment, including community meetings and job placement resources, to ensure that the neighborhood will thrive."

Councilman Buscaino’s Communications Director Branimir Kvartuc told L.A. Taco that the added jobs were only part of the reason Buscaino made the San Pedro Public Market a central point of his election campaign. Creating affordable housing and battling homelessness was the other main long-term benefit of the plan, he said.

“San Pedro had become a sleepy little town,” Kvartuc said. “Before the San Pedro Market, no housing developers wanted to come to San Pedro. As soon as we signed that lease, suddenly downtown San Pedro is a hot market.”

According to Kvartuc, problems like homelessness and gentrification all stem from a lack of housing in Los Angeles. He believes the city will need to build half a million new housing units in the next 10 years to solve its affordable rent issues.  “It all comes down to density,” he said. “It’s about really building housing at all income levels: homeless housing, low income housing, affordable housing and market level housing.”

A development with 375 housing units is going up across the street from where the San Pedro Market will be, Kvartuc added. But those are all market level housing.

Allen said it’s this type of “future promise” that the city uses to justify economic gain, like it did with amending the original 2009 timeline.

“Why it changed is still a mystery,” he wrote after Ryan’s death. “But it comes with the loss of 150 good-paying jobs now and on the day before, with the eviction imminent, the suicide of the general manager Jim Ryan.”

“No matter what you think or say about the new market, the point is that it’s happening,” the senior department official said. “I bet more people want it that don’t.”

Ryan’s sister Madeline Pelland said she is going to reserve judgment on the whole thing. She believes her brother was quietly hiding a terminal illness. The last phone call he made was to a doctor's office, she said. She's waiting to hear back.

“He did what he loved,” Jim's sister said. “Jimmy wouldn't want to be remembered as a victim. He’d probably be like, ‘How goofy.’”

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If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “help” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

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