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San Pedro’s historic Star-Kist plant building approved for demolition

Cannery workers pose in front of the French Sardine Cannery at Fish Harbor, Terminal Island circa 1939. French Sardine later became StarKist. (Los Angeles Maritime Museum Collection, Gift of Matt Matich).

Star-Kist cannery on Terminal Island in San Pedro. (Photo Courtesy of Anthony Pirozzi)

Exterior of the Star-Kist plant that once employed thousands in its tuna cannery in San Pedro. (Photo Courtesy of Anthony Pirozzi)

Inside the former Star-Kist plant on Terminal Island in San Pedro. (Photo Courtesy of Anthony Pirozzi)

In this June 30, 2008, file photo a Star-Kist brand product is seen on a grocery store shelf in Boston. (AP Photo/Lisa Poole,File)

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What remains of an erstwhile canning plant that had significant historic roots in San Pedro’s once-thriving tuna fishing industry will be demolished following a recent 3-1 Los Angeles harbor commission vote.

The Port of Los Angeles, which has been weighing the issue of what to do with the remote property since 2016, has conducted several studies, trying unsuccessfully to find a new operator that could continue a canning business there.

But the port ultimately concluded it is better suited for demolition to make way for a needed chassis depot and maintenance facility, since container shipping, not commercial fishing, is now the predominant money-maker in the port.

The vacant Star-Kist facility is also in serious disrepair, port officials said, and would cost about $37 million just to refurbish.

But the harbor commission decision last week to OK demolition, which had been protested, came with a Port of Los Angeles pledge to pursue other to memorialize the history of the plant, which hasn’t been used in decades.

Recalling the historic black-and-white images of hundreds of female cannery employees, in hair nets and white uniforms, who worked there through the years, Commissioner Diane Middleton described the plant as once the “largest canning facility in the world.”

“We absolutely want to preserve that history and we want to honor the cannery workers,” she said during the Thursday, Feb. 9, meeting. “What is the best way to do that?”

Middleton said she’s been working on one plan that could serve that purpose.

Two groups in town — the Harry Bridges Institute and the Southern California Pensioners for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union — are in discussions with Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn, Middleton said, to create a harbor labor museum in downtown San Pedro.

“There is going to be an opportunity for a tremendous memorial to the cannery workers,” Middleton said in her remarks.

The plan, she said, is for the museum to open somewhere in the downtown San Pedro district, “not far from West Harbor, the new waterfront development now under construction.

“We believe it should be part of a tourist attraction,” Middleton said.

The port said it will also consider several other options, including:

Renaming the portion of Ways Street in front of the main Star-Kist plant to “Star Kist Foods Way.”
Coordinating with the Los Angeles Maritime Museum to showcase the plant’s can seamer equipment, as part of the museum’s existing canning industry exhibit.
Installing a new monument or adding to the existing Fishing Industry Memorial on Harbor Boulevard.

Any of those actions would be brought back for harbor commission approval.

The cannery for Star-Kist operated from 1952 to 84, with the buildings on the 14-acre site constructed from 1947 to 1979, according to the port’s board report.

But none of the remaining buildings, including the main one, qualifies for National Register of Historic Places, the California Register of Historical Resources or as a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument.

The building “lacked the integrity to convey” the importance of the site’s historic significance, said Margaret Roderick, who consulted with port staff on the project. So many changes were made to the building in the 1970s and 1980s, she said, that it no longer held “sufficient integrity” to represent the historic story that unfolded there.

“There’s just nothing left,” she said.

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As it stands now, port officials said, the building is also a fire safety hazard that requires 24-hour security, costing the port $30,000 a month.

Anthony Misetich, a former honorary mayor of San Pedro and descendent of the family that founded Star-Kist, was among the leading voices in efforts to preserve the building.

While the best use for it, he said, would be as another canning site — the port said no viable canning businesses responded to several requests for proposals in 2016, 2018 or 2022 — a secondary use should be as a museum.

The location, however, would make a museum in that spot impractical and far from visitor-friendly, Middleton said.

“I couldn’t even find it,” she said of her visit to the site. “I’m a very practical person and this is in the middle of Terminal Island. You have to drive through trucks and traffic and you can’t even find the building.”

The building, Middleton added, is also in worse disrepair than the port’s photos indicated.

“If this were a house,” she said, “there’s no question it would be called a tear-down.”

Still, the decision to demolish the building didn’t come easy for some, including a few port staffers and Commissioner Anthony Pirozzi, who all had long family ties to the site.

“Full disclosure,” said Port of Los Angeles Community Affairs Advocate Augie Bezmalinovich, “Martin J. Bogdanovich (founder of the French Sardine Co. in 1914 that later became Star-Kist) is my great uncle, my grandfather (ran) the cafeteria at Star-Kist, my mother and father met at Star-Kist.”

Pirozzi, meanwhile, was the lone commissioner to vote against demolition; one commissioner was absent.

“I have a hard time with this, too,” Pirozzi said. “My family worked there and I’ve struggled with this, as you all know. But we need to see what we can do with this property to make it into the next phase of what we need to do in the port.”

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