What will the future of Downtown Long Beach look like?
By Matthew Sousa
Known as the Long Beach Downtown Plan, the proposal has been met with great enthusiasm and deep skepticism by residents, businesses, developers and neighborhood groups within and surrounding the 725-acre project area, roughly 1.25 square miles in some of the city’s most densely populated neighborhoods.
The goal is to streamline future development and remove some individual environmental reporting requirements in an area bounded roughly by the Los Angeles River, Ocean Boulevard, Anaheim Street and Alamitos Avenue in an effort to change the face of downtown through the next 25 years.
Buildings as high as 150 feet, about 13 stories, would be allowed along a corridor between Pacific and Elm avenues and Seventh and Anaheim streets. Current laws allow for structures of about five stories in that area.
The plan also allows the city to rezone hundreds of acres north of the shoreline of what are now a mix of residential, industrial and commercial sections into more simplified, largely mixed-use residential-commercial areas.
Critics say it could end up displacing roughly 25,000 low-income residents as developers remove or “rehabilitate” older existing homes, apartment buildings and businesses to make way for new living complexes, offices, restaurants, shops and hotels.
“We’re not anti-development or absolutely opposed, as some are incorrectly claiming, but the question and concern is what will happen to the roughly 75 percent of low and very low-income people currently within the area,” said Susanne Browne, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation who has helped lead a wide coalition seeking to modify the plan. “As proposed, this could very likely have significant and long-term impacts on traffic, air quality, affordable housing, decent jobs, parking and a whole range of other issues.”
“It seems like a massive ‘gentrification’ of downtown Long Beach, and we’re concerned about existing as well as future residents. Where will they go if they can’t afford high-rent apartments or they land in what we believe will be one of the low-wage service industry jobs likely to be created in the future?”
A study by economists David Rosen and Associates, funded through a grant by the California Endowment, found 30 percent of residents in the area, or about 10,000 people, live in households earning less than $15,000 per year.
Overall, about 24,000 people in the area have household incomes of $50,000 or below for a family of four.
The new plan would create corridors with similar zoning laws, allowing streamlined future planning, supporters say.
“There are many communities throughout Southern California that compete for high-quality, smart development, and this plan will improve downtown’s ability to contend for those types of investments,” said Kristopher Larson, DLBA vice president and chief economist. “To remain competitive, we must have a sensible regulatory framework with low barriers to entry to help attract investment.”
In a nutshell, the downtown plan seeks to create the conditions for up to 5,000 new residential units, 1.5 million square feet of office space, almost 400,000 square feet of retail space, 96,000 square feet of restaurants and nearly 1,000 new hotel rooms.
Supporters point to downtown San Diego, which developed a similar master plan several years ago that has been largely successful.
“It sets the stage for downtown to fortify its role as a thriving employment center and neighborhood by creating the opportunity for more than 7,500 new permanent jobs, $500 million in new wages, and a 30 percent increase in the average household income of downtown residents annually,” Larson said.
Many of the neighborhoods that would be included in the Downtown Plan are plagued by blight, high unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, difficult parking and other issues created largely during the 1970s and 80s, when city planners permitted developers to build an influx of box apartments, liquor stores and other questionable projects.
Still, skeptics are concerned that given the very low existing open space in the proposed project area, the most vulnerable will be pushed into other neighborhoods - likely North, Central and West Long Beach to make room for these ambitious goals.
They are advocating for the city to consider including local hiring provisions during construction and when permanent jobs are created, as well as have developers pay $10 per square foot of new construction into a fund to subsidize affordable housing.
“Thirty percent of (Downtown Area Plan) work hours should be performed by Long Beach residents and 10 percent of all (downtown area) construction and permanent work hours should be performed by low-income Long Beach residents, those earning up to $50,400 for a family of four,” Brown said.
But supporters again stressed the plan is simply a framework for future growth, not a cure-all for the city’s ills.
“Part of the problem has been a clear understanding of development standards by developers, and the update of the downtown community plan will help simplify and clarify the parameters and standards,” said Don Darnauer, a longtime resident and activist with the North Pine Neighborhood Association.
“The plan is just a guide to development, not about jobs or pay scales or type of housing, but what type of architecture, the appropriateness of heights, types of construction material, allowable building uses, parking, historic preservation, rehabilitation, etc,” he said. “How much housing and the type a developer designates is not something that can be dictated by neither this plan, nor how much they are willing to pay construction workers.”