TPR spoke with Long Beach Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal on her role in advancing the City’s goals towards establishing a sustainable and economically viable future. Lowenthal addresses Long Beach’s leadership role in SoCal in creating long-term water strategies locally and regionally. Her other priorities are managing the Port of Long Beach’s relationship with the city and planning transportation. Both provide insight into how urban areas can invest in infrastructure to foster a livable city.
“Long Beach still has taken quite a leadership role. The mayor appointed me to represent Long Beach with the Metropolitan Water District about four years ago, and even though we have less than two percent of the collective vote in that consortium, we have demonstrated leadership when it comes to conservation and rate setting.” -Suja Lowenthal
Suja, in February The Planning Report carried the State of the City address by Long Beach Mayor Foster. We’ve done away with redevelopment since. As Vice Mayor, why don’t you opine on the state of the city and availability of any tools to continue to improve Long Beach. What do you have to play with?
I think we are entering into a new universe for municipal government, one that, I believe, will lead us to a better place. Government is stronger at the local level, and with redevelopment taken from us, I think it reaffirms that municipalities do have great opportunities.
We can look at the Long Beach courthouse development, which is the first time we’re seeing a P3 development in our city. It’s one that has proven that such development can be done well and quickly and in a way that balances resources between the public and private sector. Those are the tools I’m going to look towards first—the opportunities to partner with the private sector. The private sector has waited quite a bit for the public sector to provide subsidies and to be a strong partner. We’re seeing it with P3 Development over at the courthouse, and I’m hoping that it really sets the framework for how our city can go forward. That’s the biggest tool in our new toolbox.
That’s a great segue to an arm’s-length relationship by the Council to the harbor. Talk a about the port and its opportunities and challenges going forward.
The port is doing an amazing job in carving out it’s own future—it’s future as an economic engine but also as a strong base for the vitality in our city.
Look at the Middle Harbor project, for which I had the great privilege of celebrating the golden pile driving ceremony last Wednesday. It’s going to be the strongest demonstration of electrification that we’ve seen at least on this side of the hemisphere, and maybe beyond. The Gerald Desmond Bridge is another great project.
We look at the creation of jobs as one benefit that the port provides. In terms of getting us back on our feet as a city, I think we have tremendous opportunities for local job development. With Middle Harbor, 30 percent of those jobs have to be local between LA and Orange Counties. That’s a great start. It marks a great infusion of jobs, economic development, and then all of the port related jobs that come from that.
Our port is really going to serve as the force multiplier for our local economy.From their projects, as we all know, there is a lot of economic activity that emanates as a result.
There’s always been a tension between the port and the City. Thinking about who manages whom and through what constituencies, talk a about the natural tensions that exist between a proprietary entity like the port, which is a global entity, and the city’s needs.
That is a natural tension, but I don’t believe it’s one that is unique to our city. It’s natural in a sense that it’s a common tension that exists between ports and the municipalities in which they reside.
I believe we’re at a time where not only the city is clear about the port-city relationship, but the port is more clear. The port realizes—and we’re seeing this with the commission and also the leadership at the port—that it is an entity within the city of Long Beach. It may be an enterprise fund and its governing structure may be separate from us, but at the end of the day it is an entity of the city.
If the port wishes for the city of Long Beach and residents in and around this city to embrace its activities, then it really does need to participate. And it has been participating. I say confidently that if I looked back over my six-year tenure on the City Council, I can notice a difference. There is a different orientation toward the city. I think they realize that there is a symbiotic relationship, one that helps the port in what it does.
If you look at their clean truck program, their cold ironing, Middle Harbor, their green machines, everything that they’re doing is hand-in-hand with the city. There is a common narrative that I don’t think existed before, and that helps overcome this natural tension that can exist.
Let me turn to water. For more than ten years you’ve been involved with the issues of water supply, reuse, and recharge. Since Long Beach is at the end of the water basin here, apply your knowledge to your role on the Council and to your aspirations for where this is going. Where are water technology, water recharging, and water reclamation going in Long Beach.
Long Beach still has taken quite a leadership role. The mayor appointed me to represent Long Beach with the Metropolitan Water District about four years ago, and even though we have less than two percent of the collective vote in that consortium, we have demonstrated leadership when it comes to conservation and rate setting.
Conservation doesn’t receive as much attention as it should. It’s not the engineering solution, and water, just like any other city development, tends to focus on the engineering solutions. But conservation is something on which Long Beach has demonstrated clear leadership amongst the entire MWD family. Even before Metropolitan and the State of California came up with a mandate to reduce use to 10 percent by 2010 (now it’s 20 percent by 2020), we achieved that years before locally because the City of Long Beach and the Long Beach water department had established that as a soft goal for all residents. They really brought households along in seeing where the benefits lay. When I started at Metropolitan I asked our board to consider that being a requirement amongst all member agencies. If a member agency is going to apply for conservation dollars then it needs to demonstrate that its constituency is reducing use.
In terms of ground water management, we are just over 40 percent ground water, I believe, in terms of our use. However, we rely on an entire portfolio of water management that I think stands as a beacon of what other cities are following and should follow.
Having chaired these organizations and now being in a leadership position with the City and MWD, I wonder if you could comment on the governance challenges of the following: Central Basin Water District, the West Basin Municipal Water District, the Water Replenishment District of Southern California. How well aware is the public of these entities, and how well are they managed in the absence of public attention?
I don’t believe the public is aware enough, and unfortunately it’s not of their own doing. It’s a very complicated governance structure; there are many agencies involved.
You have the mothership of wholesalers, the Metropolitan Water District, which is the largest municipal wholesaler in the United States. Then you have some wholesalers such as Central Basin and West Basin. You have the Water Replenishment District managing groundwater, which is totally different from retail agencies delivering water to the tap.
No, the public has no idea how this works, and unfortunately what the public does notice is litigation, when there are lawsuits over who should control what in the Basin. That’s how the public becomes aware of their public resources and how their rate dollars are being spent. What I can say confidently is the Long Beach Water Department as a retail entity serves its constituency well. I think we stay true to the basics of what really matters to the constituents—conservation and rates aligned delivery, as opposed to huge public affairs and expenditures.
Can you have good governance in the absence of public awareness and understanding? I don’t think so. I think that’s the beauty of democracy. We are not a direct democracy; we certainly are a representative democracy. When the public is unaware of what happens between elections, I do think it’s rife and problematic. I can’t imagine how the public is served when the greatest amount of money is spent deciding who controls what.
What Long Beach transportation initiatives have you advocated?
With my background in urban planning, I’m delighted to be a Councilmember at this time. Having that planning background and having the opportunity to serve in a city like Long Beach is tremendous opportunity. It’s an urban planner’s dream come true. In terms of transportation, I’ve been able to shepherd and spearhead our bicycle revolution.
We’ve always had people cycle in Long Beach. There are the spandex cyclists that will bicycle no matter what infrastructure is available, and then there are those who cycle out of necessity, to get to work and all of that. Our political movement that has produced actual bicycle infrastructure for cyclists and non-cyclists alike.
I know you’re aware that we’ve recently been upgraded to a Silver Cycle Bicycle Friendly City by the League of American Bicyclists. I started with the downtown, which is in my district, not because it is in my district, but because I know that that is where you have to solidify the backbone of any infrastructure. Now we’re broadening and deepening the infrastructure programs throughout the city. There were grants available to do this, so even in the worst economic times we were able to lay down infrastructure.
I think MTA had a heart attack when I suggested six months ago to consider a short reroute of where the Blue Line ends in the downtown. Right now where it ends is not where downtown vitality is—it doesn’t capture city hall or the courthouse. I’d like to push through that. It is a huge endeavor, but with the right development, maybe with the civic center redesigned, it is possible.
The pension challenge is great for all municipalities and government entities these days in California. Talk about what consensus is available or not available on that issue in Long Beach.
I think there is a consensus that life as we knew it in the public sector has changed. If we talk about Long Beach as a whole, not just governance, the reality has settled in on having to do things differently. I do think that public employees are aware of it too; we’ve had public employee groups come to the table with their own pension reforms. I don’t know if that was even an option years ago.
I’m very optimistic and proud that we are all aligned in what needs to be done for the survival of our city. People enjoy Long Beach because there is a balance here. This city does not want to see pension reform come through ballot or through a state initiative. Workers and residents should take charge of their own destiny and I do think there’s some consensus there.
Lastly, the TED conferences have come to Long Beach, and you’ve spoken a couple times on plastic bags and on the art of listening in cities. Talk about value of those TED conferences and the input you’ve shared in speaking at them.
I think TED is an example of how Long Beach is on a global map. We are a big city, but there’s something in our DNA that is appealing to TED, or, say, to bicycle experts from Amsterdam. We are big enough to explore these great ideas, but we are also small enough to make them a reality. When you’re too big a city, the political structure and the governing structure become liabilities. That’s not who we are; we’re big enough to be that playground for all these ideas to come on stage live and in full color. But we are sized to actually make those ideas a reality. It’s that uniqueness that really allows us to be progressive and forward thinking in city making, and I see my job as a councilmember as being a city maker. The fact that I have a planning background helps in that.
At TED this year I was invited to speak on the TED Wish, which is City 2.0, the future of cities. What does a future city have to be in order to be relevant to its residents today and going forward 50-60 years? If we believe that 70 percent of people in 2050 will live in urban centers, then the future of humanity will depend on cities done right, on urban centers done right.
I’ve also had the opportunity to speak at the UN and World Bank on stormwater management and litter management—critical issues to getting our urban centers right. City 2.0, the city of the future, will feature a burgeoning population with limited resources. Again, I think it speaks volumes to the kind of city we are. Long Beach is called upon as an example because we are well sized, progressive, and bold enough. We won’t necessarily try to be the first at something, but we do want to be the best at some things.