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Our Home Port

As Dana Point Harbor prepares to undergo major renovations and we enter the most transformative period in our harbor’s history since its creation, I have found myself asking two questions more and more frequently and with increasing degrees of unease. How much of our harbor’s legacy is infused in the walls of the buildings we are about to tear down? How do we identify, and capture, the charm and character that define our beloved harbor and safeguard them for the future?

It’s real this time. After more than 20 years of planning, promises and false starts, the County of Orange and its development partner are about to embark on a $300 million revitalization that will involve razing the shops and restaurants and hotel, ripping out our marinas, and rebuilding them. Our elected leaders, the County staff managing the project and the developer all promise to protect our harbor’s character through this enormous project. But what is that character exactly? How do we define it? How do we preserve it?

I have a powerful kinship with this harbor. This harbor and I grew up together—we’re the same age—I’ve spent my whole life here. The ocean, boating, this harbor, define who I am. But now, we’re about to redefine our harbor. It invigorates me and also scares me. I know this kinship with our harbor is not mine alone; I share it with thousands of others who make Dana Point Harbor central to their lives. And this fusion of harbor and community makes the revitalization project a profound undertaking, and places enormous pressure on the County and developer to get it right.

I despise waiting in lines, yet, there is one place in this world that I am delighted to find a line out the door—Coffee Importers. There is camaraderie in that line. Often, there are friends in that line. And it’s so pleasing to see our little independent coffee shop thrive in a world of Starbucks. That’s the character of Dana Point Harbor. As is Harpoon Henry’s lounge when Phil Shane plays. As are the fish and chips on the Jon’s Fish Market patio after a day on the water. As is a summer sunset dinghy cruise, stopping to visit fellow boaters to offer cheers and discuss nothing of consequence. So, how much of this charm and character rely on the physical attributes of our harbor, and how much are carried in the culture of the people—the community of our harbor? It’s touching and comforting to believe that the character of our harbor resides in its people, regardless of what we may do to the hardware.

As a young kid, before embarking on the Sum Fun or the Fury for a day of fishing, we’d often grab a sunrise breakfast at Proud Mary’s. Back then, it had the aura of a locals-only breakfast joint. Order at the counter, maybe choose a donut from behind the glass, and wait for your number to be called. Then in 2007 a fire took down Proud Mary’s and it was rebuilt with a new vision. It was more elegant, more refined, a fancier menu, longer hours, table service and a new vibe. I still enjoy it and often recommend it to out-of-towners, but the rebuild unarguably altered the character of what it was before. Then there was the evolution of The Jolly Roger to Waterman’s Harbor, which resulted in a similar shift in the culture of a physical space. Both serve as examples that renovation can indeed alter the character of a place.

There’s little doubt that renovation is needed. The buildings are decaying and the docks are literally crumbling into the water. Renovation can bring about exciting new ideas, a better use of space, enhancements as to how we experience our harbor, but what is the best balance between a refresh and a rebirth? Which characteristics of our existing harbor do we protect and carry forward, and which might be better retired to fond memories and nostalgia? These are questions that will challenge the County, their developer, and all of us over the next few years.

I have been privileged and rewarded, and often frustrated, to play a part in planning our harbor’s revitalization.  I am motivated by a sense of duty to help shepherd our beloved harbor into the future and pass along to my kids a harbor they can be proud of, and where they can raise their kids with a love of the ocean and pride in their home port. This is a duty shared among so many of us with a kinship to Dana Point Harbor.

James Lenthall is a lifelong Dana Point resident and boater, and presently serves as president of the Dana Point Boaters Association and as a director on the board of Dana Point Yacht Club.

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