Despite rumors of the harbor shuttering for construction, the Dana Point Harbor Partners is working to dispel misconceptions and bring more visitors to the waterfront with pop-ups, markets and live music.
Though construction on the marina began in August 2022, many harbor retailers are battling the misconception that construction on the land-side of the development is underway.
According to the Dana Point Harbor Partners, the commercial core aspect of the development is in pre-construction phases as it gathers the necessary permits and approvals. Construction of a new parking structure, the first phase of the commercial core revitalization, is expected to begin in early 2024.
Ahead of the commercial core revitalization, retailers who spoke with Dana Point Times shared how these rumors are impacting their businesses. Many also expressed the uncertainty they face prior to construction and fears of the new harbor being unaffordable.
Coffee Importers owner Jim Miller said he often gets calls asking if the restaurant is still open, what the harbor is like under construction and whether it is still open to visitors.
“I think we need to continue to get the word out that the harbor is open, because there is this public impression that we’re not,” Miller said.
Miller added that these questions are not coming from the locals who use the harbor every day, but from visitors who occasionally visit the harbor, and might not make the trip if they believe it’s under construction.
Susan Lieb, senior director of property management for the Dana Point Harbor, said the rumor that the harbor is closed is mystifying.
“It is so funny, because I hear that periodically,” Lieb said. “Nobody that lives here, nobody who frequents the harbor, I mean, thinks this place is closed.”
Lieb added that when the Harbor Partners took over management of the harbor, it worked to step up the marketing component.
“The marketing efforts that we’ve done on behalf of the tenants, that is the component that wasn’t here,” Lieb said. “These tenants, by the way, they’re the hardest-working people I’ve ever met in terms of retailers.”
“A lot are sole proprietors; they’re here every day. It’s their family and their personal livelihood, and they’ve been here for so long,” Lieb continued. “So, with their efforts with ours, I don’t see how you mistake it for being closed.”
To battle the misconceptions, the Harbor Partners has worked to promote tenant anniversaries, bring in pop-ups, live music and markets to activate the space, Lieb said.
On July 20, the Harbor Partners started a new music series, with performances on select Thursdays from 4-6 p.m.
Lieb added that when residents or visitors hear rumors about the harbor, she’d prefer they call or email to ask her directly.
“I’ve had tenants come in and say, ‘Well, I heard Disney’s coming.’ Absolutely not,” Lieb said. “‘I heard Cheesecake Factory; absolutely not. So, I’ll say, ‘Today is my truth’; I mean it’s a fluid project.”
CONSTRUCTION & LEASES
Though the long-awaited construction has begun on the marina, the commercial core component to the revitalization is still in “pre-construction,” Lieb said.
“In terms of the project being started, there’s so much work done that isn’t visible to the eye,” Lieb said. “We don’t have the wrecking ball out there, but we are obtaining our permits. We are creating our plans.”
The partnership—between Burnham Ward Properties heading the retail portion of the revitalization, Bellingham Marine upgrading the marina and docks, and R.D. Olson Development spearheading the hotel portion—allows for a unique coordination of construction for each development.
The construction is phased such that the retail portion will be under construction at the same time as the docks in front, so that tenants will be moving into the new buildings at the same time as boaters docking in new slips, Lieb said.
Miller of Coffee Importers was an early advocate for the harbor revitalization as a member of the Dana Point Harbor Advisory Task Force in 1998.
“The plan, it’s evolved quite a bit from the 2005 plan,” Miller said. “It’s a little bit bigger, but it still meets the parameters of the Coastal Commission, so I’m good with it.”
After working on the plan for more than 23 years, Miller added that he’s excited for construction to get underway.
Now that the harbor is managed through a public-private partnership, Lieb noted that lease terms will now no longer be public information.
“If the tenant decides to share their terms with someone else, then that’s their business,” Lieb continued. “But in the past, everything was public. A tenant could look up their deal, their neighbors’ deal; it was available. That won’t be the case moving forward.”
Lieb added that a lot of the mom-and-pop shops haven’t decided what they want to do in terms of staying in the revitalized harbor.
“The way that these leases are structured down here in the harbor are different than a typical retail lease,” Lieb said. “So, the issue will be more of going into a standardized retail lease; I think that will be the big change for these folks.”
Businesses in the harbor have been month-to-month for the past several years, offering more flexibility to both the tenant and landlord ahead of anticipated construction, Lieb said.
“It’s for the convenience of the tenant, as well as for us, because things change with the phasing and things like that,” Lieb said. “We would never just surprise them with a 30-day or a 60-day. There will be ample time letting folks know when we’re entering into a different phase.”
Lieb added that not being locked into a termed lease gives retailers flexibility, noting that the Harbor Partners intends to keep retailers open “as long as possible.”
“One really important point that I think needs to be made is that the majority of these folks, the retailers never received any significant increase in their baseline,” Lieb continued.
Retailers in the harbor are paying a rent based on a percentage of the sales they make.
“That’s a huge benefit to the tenant,” Lieb said. “Most of these folks are at the same rate they were back in 2018.”
The new leases are expected to go from a percentage of sales to a standardized retail lease, Lieb said.
“A lot of people forget that a month-to-month is not always a bad circumstance to be in,” Art Sea owner Mark Hansen said. “During COVID, it benefited many small merchants, if they chose to close, with no legal ramifications.”
Month-to-month leases require less investment in his store, other than just inventory, Hansen said. He noted that he’d like to remain open during construction if possible and speaks with Lieb regularly to plan inventory and learn about what’s new in the revitalization.
“Susan gives us the time frame to the best of her ability, because it’s changing all the time,” Hansen said.
Hansen added that he’s somewhat concerned about what it might look like to stay open during construction but is not worried about being able to stay open.
“I know that they’re going to do the best they can to—for lack of better words—quarantine construction and allow us to remain open, just like the harbor is open while slips are being taken out and put back in,” Hansen said.
Throughout Hansen’s experience working with the Harbor Partners, he said it has “been completely transparent and extremely thorough in explaining the process or the timeline until the timeline hits a speed bump, and then it’s like, ‘OK, we can’t control this, it’s been rerouted, here’s the new timeline.’ ”
“So, we just don’t ask for a timeline anymore,” Hansen continued. “We just ask for things that would affect us and then when they say, ‘Don’t worry about it right now,’ we just keep operating.”
THE AGING HARBOR
Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching Chief Operations Officer Donna Kalez said the sidewalks, docks and buildings of the 52-year-old harbor are largely deteriorating.
To residents saying they’d rather see a remodel than a full revitalization of the harbor, Kalez said the harbor needs more than a new coat of paint.
“People need to know that we went through a 20-year process just to get the plans where they are,” Kalez said. “It’s no more possible to just repaint my building. My building, all these buildings are falling apart.”
“I hear that all the time, people are like, ‘Just paint it,’ ” Kalez continued. “No, like when your house is falling down, you don’t just paint it. That’s not possible. That’s why we’re doing the revitalization, and it’s delayed.”
After years of working toward a revitalization of the harbor, Kalez said it’s starting to feel closer to coming to fruition.
Dana Wharf Sportfishing anticipates receiving new docks in the harbor, but Kalez largely expects the area will be similar to what it is now.
“All redesigned buildings, but we will still be in the same place,” Kalez said. “I believe that we will have more parking for all of our walk-in customers. We have a huge amount of people that come down to see the harbor.”
Kalez added that she anticipates staying open during construction of the land-side development—even if Dana Wharf needs to operate out of a trailer.
“When we started here, we worked out of a trailer,” Kalez said. “We were in the parking lot in a trailer. We could totally do that if we had to.”
Proud Mary’s Restaurant owner Steve Zdrakas noted that while he’d like to see the harbor stay the same, “I know it’s for the best, maybe more for the community, but hopefully we can afford the rent.”
“They’ve got to do what they need to do to pay their bills,” Zdrakas continued. “Everybody thinks landlords are rich—they may be, but some of them aren’t. Things have changed, interest rates have gone up, supply chain issues; it was supposed to start March of 2020.”
Zdrakas added that not having a termed lease has made it challenging to plan.
“Without a lease, you don’t have a business,” Zdrakas said. “If you don’t have a lease, you have nothing to sell. You can’t plan anything month-to-month.”
Jon’s Fish Market owner Shala Manseur echoed the sentiment, stating it’s hard to invest in one’s business without a longer lease term.
“We would like to take out loans to help revitalize our own inside of our businesses so that we can have some sort of equity in the business and a reason to put that money in,” Manseur said. “You need time to do that, 10 years or more; it’s got to be 10 years or more.”
Manseur noted that while she hopes for a longer lease term, she feels positively about the revitalization overall.
“I think the Harbor Partners stepped in and they participated and they helped the entire time that they’ve been here,” Manseur said.
During the pandemic, the Harbor Partners helped Jon’s Fish Market extend its outdoor dining and replace its aging benches with new outdoor tables, Manseur said.
“Having a 43-year-old business, making it through the pandemic, tripling your business through the pandemic, I mean, thank you, Harbor Partners,” Manseur said. “They gave me all those tables out there in the courtyard; are they charging me extra rent? No.”
Discussing Jon’s Fish Market’s future in the revitalized harbor, Manseur said she never expected the revitalization to be easy, but she’s confident the Harbor Partners will go above and beyond to facilitate a smooth move during construction.
Despite the pandemic, Zdrakas said his business has done well.
“We are packed, the parking lots are packed always, at least during the weekends and summer,” Zdrakas said.
Construction on a new parking lot is expected to start in the first quarter of 2024, Lieb said.
Zdrakas said he’s concerned about displaced parking spots while the new lot is under construction.
“There’s going to be issues with parking, but you know what they say, ‘You got to break a couple eggs to make a souffle,’ ” Zdrakas said. “So, it’s going to happen. So hopefully it works out for the best. That’s the way I look at it.”
AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
Though no leases for spaces in the revitalized harbor have been signed yet, some businesses raised concerns for whether new rents will remain affordable for the mom-and-pop shops that have occupied the harbor for decades.
“We all know the new harbor was going to be expensive, but my main concern now is, from a $318 million project to today of $400 million, how much more expensive is it going to be?” Miller asked. “That’d be my only concern. Will it be affordable for a small merchant?”
What makes the Dana Point Harbor unique, Miller noted, is many of the shops and restaurants are owner-operated, with the owners on-site nearly every day.
“You don’t have absentee owners,” Miller said. “We all know each other, we’re all friends … we all support each other.”
Miller added that after 44 years, he hopes to see his daughter take over the business, making Coffee Importers a third-generation business in the harbor.
“I’d really like that opportunity for my daughter to continue Coffee Importers for the next 20 years,” Miller said. “She’s an excellent pastry chef.”
Though Hansen expects rents to increase, he expects an increase in foot traffic and customers will support Art and Sea.
“I know the new lease is going to be more expensive, but I think it should be reasonable. When the harbor is a draw, there’s more parking and more restaurants,” Hansen said. “I think it’s going to be appropriate, but it’s hard to say.”
Growing up around the harbor, Manseur lamented that she didn’t capture enough pictures over the years, when Proud Mary’s used to be an ice cream shop and Turk’s Dana Wharf was a Pool Hall.
“I have some old pictures and I cling to them because it was a different time,” Manseur said. “Just looking at the surroundings and there was nothing here. Sure, I have those memories, but it will never be like that. That’s a part of growing up and acceptance.”
“I don’t want any angst in my harbor,” Manseur continued. “Everything I’ve ever enjoyed was there and everything I ever want to be is going to be here. It might look different, it might feel different, it might act different, but damn if I’m not going to enjoy it.”