August 1, 2001 - From the August, 2001 issue

Long Beach Mayor Offers Keys To City's Successful Rebirth: Density, Diversity & Development

The cyclical nature of the real estate market is undeniable. Yet when a city experiences the kind of devastating downturn witnessed in Long Beach in the early 90's, even real estate gurus look to hedge their investments. However, with a new formula and a clear vision, Long Beach has rebounded and again is experiencing an economic renaissance. While there are many factors that this revival can be linked to, a strong Mayor with a clear vision is primary. TPR is pleased to present Long Beach Mayor Beverly O'Neill, who tells us why her city was able to rebound and how she charted plans on continuing its prosperity.


Beverly O'Neill

Mayor O'Neill, let's start with your now-aging State of the City message delivered at the start of 2001. Give our readers some insight now 8 months later into the current state of Long Beach. What long-term factors are driving your agenda? And what decisions do you need to make to remain successful?

In 1995, we were notified that the remnants of the U.S. Navy presence within the boundaries of the City of Long Beach were leaving. And with them went the hospital, the housing, the station and the shipyard. That, combined with the Boeing-McDonnell Douglas merger and the slowing California economy, translated into a loss of 50,000 jobs. Those drastic happenings forced us to change our plans for the future and embrace new economic drivers such as international trade, technology and tourism. It was this altered focus that provided the City with the current resurgence it is now experiencing.

The downtown core is probably our greatest success story. We now have four hotels currently in the planning stage and of course Queensway Bay should break ground this year. Those two projects coupled with the recently constructed Aquarium of the Pacific and our new agreement with Carnival Cruises-who is leaving L.A. and coming across the Harbor to dock in Long Beach-is really stimulating our downtown economy.

We are also finding that the East Village is seeing new life and becoming a haven for artists. Camden has started construction of The Park at Harbor View which will bring hundreds of new condominiums and apartments to the City. Other downtown residential developments, some of which are under way, will add an additional 900 apartments, condos and lofts.

And lastly, we're beginning to find that the parcels left behind by the Navy are situated in prime locations and are helping to create a number of economically viable projects throughout Long Beach. One of those sites has been turned into a big-box shopping area while others have been used to create joint-use sites including housing, a high school, community college classrooms and a project for homeless veterans.

Let's jump into one of those specific projects. TPR has covered the trials and tribulations of Queensway Bay for a number of years. It was recently approved by the Coastal Commission, but where it is now? And what's the timeline for the next year or two?

They have said that they are going to break ground this summer. But they've said that for a number of months now, so who knows. This time seems like it might be the real deal though. They are through all the major hurdles and with the Coastal Commission's approval it may actually happen.

We're currently waiting for a final decision from the State Land's Commission, which will meet this month. They had some specific concerns about the trade-off between this kind of retail/commercial development versus the creation of public open space along the waterfront. So we're waiting on their decision. In the end, that final approval will really determine whether they will break ground this summer.

Let's take a step back and examine some of the driving factors behind these large developments. One wonders whether cities really have the tools left to implement small-scale, neighborhood-centered revitalization ideas as opposed to big-box developments. Do you have the resources, regulatory authority and incentives to really follow through on a holistic redevelopment agenda?

The ERAF shift caused the City of Long Beach to lose approximately $15 million annually. And we've never recovered that. That causes us to wait with baited breath to see what is happening with the state budget because when there's not enough money at the state level, it comes from city coffers.

Long Beach, as well as cities across the state, feel that we have been taken advantage of. We've been struggling. And there are some things that we cannot do until we have solved the State/local fiscal relationship or we become more solvent.

Is the drive toward the big-box retail in Long Beach a way to make up for that loss?

The only way that we recoup some of the losses from our tax base is with retail. With established projects like the Towne Center and projects currently in planning or construction like Queensway Bay, we've found that big-box development has been wildly successful. It has allowed us to replenish some of our tax base and provide the services that our residents demand.

Let's turn to another area that has recently begun to greatly affect the fiscal stability of cities: energy. About a year-and-a-half ago, there were major challenges between Edison and the city. They were resolved. Now we have this fiasco at the state level. What's the impact on Long Beach? How are you going to handle your energy needs?

We were really hit twice with this energy crisis. We run our own gas department and have been purchasing gas from El Paso Gas at border prices. But last December, January and February we were forced to pay up to five times more per month than we had previously. Our constituents' bills climbed from $40 to as much as $400 in some cases. It was obscene.

The natural gas companies are in lawsuits regarding the price gouging that we felt happened during that time. So we have seen a slight lowering of prices. They're somewhat back to normal, but we're still worried about the rest of the summer.

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On the other hand electricity was not as bad because we had long-term contracts in place with Edison until this year. But that electricity was generated by natural gas, so despite the cap the price went up. That caused our citizens to become irate, and even worse, forced some of our older residents to choose between heat and food.

To combat that, we just finished a long, laborious and acrimonious contract negotiation with Edison. During that time we really debated whether or not we should look to other providers of energy, but because we've been with them for thirty years, in the end we did manage to come up with an amicable contract. But we still have some outstanding issues with them that we are currently discussing.

Another issue affecting the stability of a city is population. The census has recently been completed. What are the changes projected for Long Beach?

Long Beach has been noted as the most diverse city in the United States, not because we have a majority-minority like Los Angeles, but because we have no minority and no majority. Long Beach's population consists of approximately one-third Caucasian, one-third Hispanic, and one-third African-American and Asian.

In reformulating our mission after the Navy's leaving, that diversity has really become an asset and overall strengthened the city. But when our minority populations first began to transform, we found it very difficult to accommodate those changes.

How have you overcome those difficulties? How do you, in such a dense metropolis, accommodate growth? Where do you find housing? And how do you link the schools, parks, and the libraries to concentrate the amenities so that added growth is tolerable?

It's going to be very difficult for Long Beach because we're totally surrounded by either ocean or another city. We're going to have to be much smarter in the way we plan for growth. And simply stated, since we cannot sprawl outwards we only have two options: 1) Go up and add density, or 2) Go into areas that are presently zoned commercial, retail or industrial and change the zoning to housing. And as we've found here in Long Beach, neither of those options are popular with our constituents.

As this growth relates to schools, the greatest impact on our schools came in the beginning of the ‘90s when the majority of the our city's growth came from immigrant families new to the United States. It wasn't just a matter of the numbers it was a matter of assimilating so many cultures into the school district. Our schools were the first hit because young people must go to school. They don't have to go to parks and libraries, but they are required to go to school. So our schools went through a real transition during that time from four languages to fifty languages.

The impact on our parks has been strong, but we've coped by approving more library projects and increasing the number of hours and attendants available in those structures. So overall, whether it be housing, schools or open space I think we've been able to maintain the high level of quality of life.

Another factor in maintaining or improving quality of life is the Alameda Corridor. What does it mean for Long Beach and Southern California? How does the current configuration affect your city? And what is the timeline?

The Alameda Corridor is absolutely amazing and will ease the traffic and gridlock leading to the port. But with the projected growth of the Ports of L.A. and Long Beach, it won't alleviate congestion. What we're finding is that if the Alameda Corridor hadn't been in production, all roads leading out of Long Beach would be at a standstill. So we have to continue to upgrade the freeways and arteries coming in and out of Long Beach to handle the enormous growth we're seeing at the Port.

When I became Mayor back in 1994, we had just begun to coordinate the cargo traffic coming off the port with the region's rail lines. That has taken years to effectively manage, but it is crucial to a multi-modal transportation plan and the future viability of our import and export economy. We're really in the vanguard of ports around the nation. Many don't even have on-dock rail on the drawing board, let alone in the ground.

That's a very knowledgeable answer, Mayor O'Neill, and it sounds much like a platoon answer for re-election despite your city's term-limits. Is there a third term in your future?

Long Beach passed a campaign reform bill a number of years ago which added term limits to the city. However, there is a provision that allows an incumbent to run for additional terms if their name does not appear on the ballot. So I'm planning on testing that provision and will run as a write-in candidate for a third term as Mayor of Long Beach.

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