ON THE PICTURE : Vacant land where the new Hilton hotel will be built. Photo courtesy of Ventura County Harbor Department
by Alex Wilson
As new Ventura County Harbor Manager Michael Tripp strolls along the shoreline of the Channel Islands harbor, he envisions some exciting upgrades on the horizon.
Plans to redevelop the dilapidated Fisherman’s Wharf shopping center, which have sparked controversy for many years, are getting a fresh start after widespread opposition from neighbors and Oxnard town officials sunk a proposal that included hundreds of apartments.
A new request for proposals from developers with ideas for Fisherman’s Wharf was released May 24, and Tripp insists a resort that serves visitors is preferred to one that prioritizes housing around the corner. Victoria and Channel Islands Boulevard.
The vacant and vandalized buildings that housed the Casa Sirena Hotel and Lobster Trap Restaurant on Peninsula Road were recently demolished after years of delays, to pave the way for a new Hilton hotel that will include restaurants and bars with views of the ‘ocean. And three proposals were submitted by the May 26 deadline to renovate or replace the once-popular Whale’s Tail restaurant that closed about seven years ago, with a similar seafood restaurant, Mexican restaurant or aquarium. Port officials will review all three proposals in the coming weeks.
Tripp sat down with the Ventura County Reporter for an interview about the latest developments at the county-owned port and his role in shaping its future.
“I always feel better when I’m here”
Tripp grew up in Santa Clarita and said his father had a small sailboat they launched from a trailer to sail around the Channel Islands harbor, which inspired an abiding love of the ocean.
“When I was very young, I was able to see this port. I loved boats for this reason. But the coast itself, I have always loved it. I don’t know what it is to ‘being near the water, but I always feel better when I’m here,’ he said.
Tripp graduated from UCLA in 1998 where he studied geography and environmental studies. He worked in the private sector before being hired by Los Angeles County, where he remained for 21 years. Meanwhile, Tripp’s work focused on the coast. He was the lead planner for the projects at Marina Del Rey, which Tripp says is similar in some ways to the Channel Islands port in that the land is owned by the county but leased to private companies. Tripp most recently served as chief of the planning division of the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors.
He described his return to port in the Channel Islands to work as a dream come true, and he wants other visitors to the port to create the same kind of fond memories he did as a child.
“I think it’s like an undiscovered gem, and one of the things I’d like to do is bring more people from outside of this area here so they can come and enjoy this place” , did he declare.
“The emphasis is on visitor service” for Fisherman’s Wharf?
But despite the idyllic setting, proposals to develop the Channel Islands port have been awash in controversy for years, particularly the fate of Fisherman’s Wharf.
Almost everyone agrees that the New England-style resort has lost much of its charm since it was built in the 1970s, but there’s disagreement over what should happen there in the future. The complex is half vacant, overgrown and peeling paint from buildings in need of major renovations.
Since the proposals that prioritized housing have drawn fierce opposition, Tripp said he wanted to chart a new course for the 10-acre parcel which currently has around 50,000 square feet of retail space.
“This property is dilapidated and does not meet the standards the Port Service tries to provide for residents and visitors,” Tripp said. “Past proposals have not come to fruition as there has been significant housing related to the revitalization of the mall. With housing sorely lacking in Southern California, I hope to see proposals submitted that put more of a focus on visitors.
Developer proposals are due on July 7.
Stephanie Lee is a tenant of Fisherman’s Wharf for 13 years who gives psychic readings at her business Harbor Psychic and has seen the center fall into disrepair.
“To see him deteriorate is sad. And I think we’re all a bit scared that they’re just building apartments,” she said. “We already have so many apartments, but we really have nothing to do in this small port. We have such a beautiful place, I think we should do something about it. This small region has a lot of potential for tourists.
Ethan Cryder works as an assistant manager at Hopper Boat Rentals, where people can take electric boats and other small vessels for a cruise around the harbor from a dock at Fisherman’s Wharf. Cryder said he thought the center could be renovated without tearing everything down, which had been previously proposed.
“Maybe make some buildings look better, paint them, bring back some restaurants,” he said. “I definitely disagree with having a lot more housing here.”
High hopes for the new Hilton hotel
The biggest recent change to the Channel Islands port involves the demolition of vacant hotel and restaurant buildings at the end of Peninsula Road, a highly visible spot jutting out into the middle of the harbour.
A rock revetment replacement project along this stretch of shoreline is set to begin soon, which should pave the way for the new Hilton hotel, restaurants and bars. Construction of the hotel and restaurant buildings could begin by the end of the year and take about two years, Tripp said.
When Tripp started in October, he found it distressing to see so many vacant, vandalized and dilapidated structures around the harbor. He said he was relieved to finally see the demolition of the old buildings of Casa Sirena and Lobster Trap.
“It’s a weight on my shoulders. When I was hired for this job, people didn’t believe that Casa Sirena was going to be demolished. Many of them challenged me when I went to public meetings. I telling them we were working with the developer and it was going to happen, and they were like, ‘Yeah, prove it.’ So I was very happy that it happened,” he said of the teardown and vacant space left behind.
The construction of the new four-story, 210-room hotel will be an important step in the redevelopment of the port, Tripp explained, saying, “It will signal that things are changing. There had been a rundown old hotel there for way too long.
He looks forward to seeing the new hotel and amenities that are easier to imagine now that the old buildings are gone.
“It’s a beautiful project,” Tripp said of the Hilton hotel, which will feature an elevated outdoor bar. “I can’t wait to stand on this bridge and look over the water when this place is finished.”