August 30, 1997 - From the August, 1997 issue

Positioning a Great City to be the Architect of its Own Future: Mayor Beverly O’Neil

The City of Long Beach is fighting—and winning—an uphill battle to economic recovery after a decade of hard times. As the City evolves, issues of local control—land-use, in particular—are coming to the fore. TPR is pleased to present the following interview with Mayor Beverly O’Neil on the myriad forces impacting her City’s land-use decisions, and her secrets for successfully facing challenging economic and political times.


Beverly O’Neil: “The Aquarium will anchor one end, and the Convention Center and Shoreline Village will anchor the other."

Mayor O'Neil, let's begin this interview with a provocative question: Given how many people encouraged you to do so, how is it that you didn't run for Congress last year? 

I love being Mayor of Long Beach. This is a marvelous City. It has great potential. We are strategically placed at the center of the Pacific Rim. The objectives we have for the future give us some vision of what we would like to be. And for the most part, people are heading in the right direction for the City. Our crime is down. We have three new retail centers, and we are going to have a fourth this year. 

Things are looking pretty good, if we can keep some momentum going—if we can have the transfer of the old Naval Station land to the City. It's exciting every day. I have no aspirations other than this. 

With that out of the way, let's turn to a hot land-use issue, the proposed Cosco terminal facility at the former Long Beach Naval Station site. How do you find consensus when the Port and the City are pursuing the economic benefits of reuse as a container facility, and the preservationists and open space advocates are demanding that the old Naval Station be preserved in some form? What is at stake for the City of Long Beach and for the region if the Cosco facility is built or not built on the old Naval Station site? 

The Naval Station was closed by the BRAC [Base Realignment and Closure Commission] hearings in 1991, after which point we began a reuse study. We held about 15 open hearings and placed several full page ads requesting proposals for reuse of the site. In 1995, a City Council Committee approved the recommendation to build a marine terminal on this land. 

The Port then asked its tenants which ones would like to expand onto this newly acquired land. Cosco, who had been a tenant for 16 years, said they needed room for expansion. That is how they came into the picture. 

More recently, however, a local judge’s ruling that there was predetermination involving the Cosco proposal has thrown all agreements off the table. Right now it is still the City Council's intention to reuse the base as a marine terminal, but there is no tenant attached to it. And the local court has not yet issued a final judgment on predetermination. 

The Navy and the Department of Defense are combining the process for the Naval Station with that of the Navy Shipyard, which was closed by the BRAC Hearings in 1995. The Navy and the Department of Defense are saying that since the Shipyard land will have some Port use on it too, the reuse of the Shipyard and the Naval Station fall under one study. It's going to be a ten-month process—about the time it would have taken to complete the study for the Shipyard alone.

At the end of the ten months, what do you expect to be the result of the study? 

The Department of Defense assures us they realize that Long Beach was the City hardest hit in the United States by base closings. We have lost about 30,000 jobs with the closing of the Shipyard, the Station, the Navy Hospital and the housing. 

Procedural delays have held up reuse for a very long time. But we hope at the end of the ten months to have a decision that cannot be challenged.

With Long Beach having had extensive dealings with both the Coastal Commission and the Navy, could one say that Long Beach is or is not able to be the architect of its own future? 

Once we have a determination of the land use, yes. But we must think first of economic development. We have lost our major identity. We lost half of the employees at Douglas Aircraft as part of the downsizing in the aerospace industry, though hopefully that will be reversed to some extent with the merger of Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas. 

But after the loss of so many aerospace and Navy jobs, we have to do something to get ourselves back on track to continue being a comprehensive city. We have to have a new revenue tax base. 

The consensus is that Long Beach has done a superb job at reinventing itself, at promoting economic development. How difficult has the turnaround been? 

We are trying very hard. Changing the image of the City is very difficult. People were comfortable with what we were, but we cannot be that anymore. We have to have a new direction. 

We have assessed our assets. We are going to emphasize what we're calling "our three T's"—international trade, tourism and advanced technology. We're also expanding retail in the City, which until recently has been somewhat retail-poor. 

So we have assets, we just have to get them going. The transfer of the Navy land is crucial to our economic development. The City has had the same problems other cities have had with base closings—but even more so. When you're not in a crisis state, changes go languidly. But when you have a crisis, you have to form a new identity and a new direction. The energy comes from a necessity. 

We have been innovative. The Aquarium of the Pacific is being backed with $117 million in revenue bonds. Some people said we would not be able to sell those bonds, but they sold in three hours. We also won a $40 million guaranteed loan from HUD to do the Queensway Bay re­development project. The redevelopment of our Downtown and of our waterfront are great steps forward, and they are happening without any additional City revenue. 

Can you update us on the City's Queensway Bay plan and the negotiations related to the area around the Aquarium. 

The Aquarium will be completed in June of 1998. Right now, it's on schedule and on budget. The land surrounding it will be the Queensway Bay Project. Dredging has begun in the area for what we are now calling Rainbow Harbor. 

The Aquarium will anchor one end, and the Convention Center and Shoreline Village will anchor the other. In between will be shops, entertainment and restaurants, similar to the Baltimore Inner Harbor. It's plan has been completed by Ehrenkrantz & Eckstut out of New York, and the infrastructure should be in place when the Aquarium opens. We have signed with Oliver McMillan, a developer from San Diego, to develop the Queensway Bay once the infrastructure is in place. 

As to the status of the Downtown redevelopment effort, is the City's Plan a model for other cities that are trying to energize their own downtowns? 

It is a model because Downtown has gone from lower-than-zero to probably 80% popularity. Being a Navy town, our Downtown had a lot of locker clubs, some bars and some movie houses not showing first-run movies. The area was not frequented by the citizens of Long Beach even though the Downtown had been, many years prior, the center of town for our City. 

We have since redeveloped Pine Avenue. Now we have restaurants, shopping and theaters for blocks. It has turned into an absolute Mecca for people who want good food and entertainment, and who want to feel safe in a great pedestrian environment. 

We used to have a lot of people hanging around the Downtown area keeping others away. But that has been lessened. We now have Downtown guides, people who are constantly alert to whether people are just hanging around or whether they are actually going to eat or go to a movie. 

Let us segue to the Port and the role that the Port plays in the City's economic life, and whether the competition with Los Angeles is a healthy one in your opinion.

Competition is always healthy. Los Angeles and Long Beach have been competing for years, and it has probably worked to the advantage of the shippers. The combination of the two Ports is the third largest in the world, and Long Beach is the leading cargo container port in the United States. We see about 3 million 20-foot cargo containers each year, and it is growing as we speak. The value of the cargo going through Long Beach during 1996 exceeded about $83 billion. 

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Cargo coming through the ports reaches its destination quicker if we don't have strikes, but the ports are crucial to the growth of the economy. That is well-recognized, especially because we are in such a strategic site with regard to the development of the Alameda Corridor. 

The Alameda Corridor: There has obviously been great promise but setbacks as well, triggered by internal disputes with the corridor cities and others. What are the prospects of the Alameda Corridor project happening in our lifetime?

The corridor will happen in our lifetime. It's scheduled for completion in 2002. And there have been many dramatic movements forward. When I first became Mayor three years ago, I attended the signing of the Santa Fe, Union Pacific and Southern Pacific rail lines. Some people I spoke with said that they had been discussing the possibility of the three working together for nine years. 

All of a sudden, we have the railroads saying they will work together and the Ports saying they will work together. Of course there have been lawsuits from some of the cities that will be affected by this rail line. But there have been marvelous strides in the last three years. 

The signing of the $400 million federal loan last February from the Department of Transportation and having the President recognize this as the largest private-public partnership in the history of this country are certainly dramatic moves to show how much commitment there is for completing the Corridor. 

Do you have an opinion on how the Corridor Cities could benefit from the development of the Alameda Corridor? 

They have great benefits from the development of the Alameda Corridor. The more cargo we carry, the more construction jobs that will create. 

Additionally, people think of port jobs only as dock work. But there is much more—the jobs on the water, lawyers, CPAs, advertising people, sales people. There are estimates that one in nine jobs in Southern California is related to international trade.

What role do you as Mayor of Long Beach want to be playing in regional infrastructure projects like the Alameda Corridor, MTA, and the L.A. river.

Long Beach is the second largest city in L.A. County. And the City of Los Angeles is so big it's hard for other cities to relate to their problems. But many of these smaller cities have a real relationship with Long Beach. We are part of the Gateway Cities, an organization of Southeast L.A. County cities that truly represent the gateway to the Pacific. Doug Drummond, a member of our City Council, is the chair of that organization. 

The Gateway Cities formed a council of governments and are beginning planning processes on transportation and economic development issues—a Gateway Cities partnership. 

None of us can live alone. We are not islands. We are trying to form regional partnerships with respect to crime, transportation and economic development. The Gateway Cities are working together with a regional approach. 

What are your thoughts on the current State/local fiscal relationship? Twenty years after Proposition 13 and most recently after the passage of Proposition 218, is Long Beach operating under any particular constraints that you wish you were not?

We would like no unfunded mandates from the federal or State governments. We would like to get back some of the money that was taken from the cities by the State about four years ago—that did much to create the budget crisis we have had over the last four or five years. The Mayors of the 10 biggest cities in the State of California have implored the Governor to return that revenue to the cities—it's revenue we had come to depend on. A small amount has been offered, but it's only a token compared to what was taken away. 

What has the consequence been for a City like Long Beach of loss of control to the State of tax revenue collection? 

When you put another level of administration into the allocation of funds, you have lessened the amount you distribute. The City of Long Beach gets $36 to $37 million in property tax revenues, which does not even cover the costs of our Fire Department. Not that we are going to get all the revenue back, but the shift has made a real difference in how we determine our future. Of course people are happy with that. They want to be asked anytime something is going to cost more.

But now we have proposition 218, and there are many restraints on the use of government funds and the raising of funds. While I don't like it, you have to maintain and develop a little more trust so that people realize you are doing the best you can with what you have. It would be nice, though, if you could have just a little bit more to add back some of the services that you have lost along the way, such as park supervision. We used to have many people working at our parks, which were open from the crack of dawn until after dark, with lights. Now use is restricted. 

Some of the things we need we cannot continue to offer, and have not been able to for the last four years. 

The hot topic of the recent U.S. Conference of Mayors in San Francisco was an ongoing debate about Federal Housing Reforms. As Mayor, what is at stake for our cities in this debate and what does the current fad of devolution of responsibility from the federal level to the states mean for a city like Long Beach? 

We could talk all day on that. Long Beach is an older city. And we depend on the federal government for guidance and assistance in rehabilitating our existing assets, and in creating more development. Federal housing programs were a big discussion item at the Conference, as were empowerment zones.

Incidentally, we in Long Beach would not believe that we were not chosen—along with Los Angeles—for an empowerment zone designation. Together, we were practically the reason empowerment zones were implemented. Interestingly, there was not one city west of Denver that received that designation. We are very interested in the second round of empowerment zone designations as well as the Home Ownership Initiative. 

“…. [A]n urban agenda for the new century”, a just-completed HUD report circulated at the San Francisco Mayor’s Conference said, “must begin with the premise that cities matter…” It goes on to say central area of cities are home to 42% of all US jobs, but 45% of America’s poor live in these areas. Just 47 city-based school districts are educating huge numbers of tomorrow’s minority workforce, nearly 40% of African Americans and 32% of Latino children. Your comments on the report’s assertion and facts, please. 

We, as a country, are paying attention to inner cities, where the majority of the population is, but not most of the wealth. You can see this in changing initiatives in public schools, the Homestead Initiative and home ownership programs. We have already started with that in the City of Long Beach—providing the types of housing and jobs that are necessary. The thrust of many discussions at the Conference of Mayors was why do we keep taking green fields away for our growth, when we have downtown brownfields whose development would bring much-needed jobs to central areas? The initiative to create cities as productive centers of population is going to be a big job, but it has to be done. 

Let's end with the L.A. River, which empties into your harbor. What is Long Beach's interest in what happens to the L.A. River? 

All the cities along the L.A. River see it go by—they see it when it doesn't have any water, and they see it when it's full. We in Long Beach, though, are very, very sensitive and concerned about what happens when it reaches the Port and our City. After the first rain, it seems like we get every couch anyone has thrown out along the channel. 

It's so serious that the opening needs constant dredging due to all of the silt and the dirt it brings down and all of the things that are thrown in the River. It's not just the big items—everything small and big ends up on our beach.

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