A little over three years ago I discovered one of the Long Beach’s natural wonders hiding in plain sight in the middle of the 8th District: the 11.5 acres of rusticity that is the Will J. Reid Boy Scout Camp.
But that “is” may become a “was” in 2014, as last October the Boy Scouts of America sold the woodland wonderland to Integral Communities, a self-described “diversified real estate development compan[y].” And development is what’s on the company’s mind.
According to Ed Galigher, Integral Communities’ vice-president for acquisition and entities, the company is in the planning stages of developing the site into “residential, for-sale, single-family subdivision.”
Because the property is zoned “Institutional,” it will take a zoning change—something that can be effectuated only by a full vote of the Long Beach City Council—for Integral to get its way. Many residents are against such a change. But one of those who has the most insight into how things work in the City of Long Beach laments that the whole thing may be a done deal.
“The property is still zoned as ‘Institutional,'” says former 8th District Councilmember Rae Gabelich. “That means [Integral] were given the wink or the nod that [their plans] will go through and they will get [the necessary] zoning changes. […] I think it’s a terrible loss for North Long Beach, [in terms of] the recreational opportunities families had there. In lieu of what? For more housing? […] I think it’s a sad day for the community.”
However, Jeff Winklepleck, acting zoning administrator for the Planning Commission of Development Services, calls the current stage “very preliminary” and says that, although the City has indicated receptiveness toward Integral’s initial proposal, by no means is the matter a fait accompli.
“I would the [most] correct term is, ‘We’re not necessarily opposed to it,'” Winklepleck says. “Anybody can come and ask for anything they want, and we would still have to take them through the process. [… But] that is in no way an entitlement. That gets them feedback from the various departments, including Public Works, Building, Fire, Planning, [etc.], as to what sort of issues that they may be looking at. […] In general, [what Integral is proposing] is not out of character with something we would support. […] But at the same time, we always caveat it with, ‘Obviously you have a process you need to go through, [and] there will be public input, [along with] studies to verify what we need to verify regarding traffic and all the things that go along with that—and ultimately we may have a different recommendation. We don’t know.'”
Galigher says Integral representatives have met with neighboring residents “a couple of times” and heard their concerns.
“Obviously, the neighbors are concerned that [the land] is not going to be a Boy Scout camp anymore, [is not going to be] basically open space,” Galigher says. “But they realize that [the development] will increase [area] property values.”
Gabelich reports that during her eight years in office the City partly staved off the sale of the land by vowing not to allow for a zoning change, mostly because the area is inappropriate for a residential development.
“We were very clear with them that we were not going to approve of a zoning change,” she says. “They come back several times with, ‘Well, what if we did this? What if we did senior housing? What if we did housing for disabled people?’ So they hit the spots that would be close to my heart. But I said, ‘No. You’re not on a transportation corridor. It’s already a dense neighborhood that has issues now, so why would you build more [housing]? […] That was the only leverage we had: that we wouldn’t change the zoning.”
Winklepleck says that traffic is one of several studies that must be completed and reviewed before Development Services makes any recommendation, and that review of the necessary Environmental Impact Report (EIR) could take up to one year, though he guesstimates that the process to fully review what Integral is proposing will take nine months.
In the meantime, Integral has already completed some landscape work at the site, cutting the tops off of a number of trees. Galigher says the only work was to “old eucalyptus trees near power lines” at the perimeter of the property, some of which were diseased.
“They typically crack and break and fall,” Galigher says. “We don’t want any fires or any damage to the neighbors property and all that, so we just went out and trimmed a bunch of them.
Gabelich, however, is disbelieving of Integral’s claimed rationale for the work.
“I went down there, and I was devastated,” says Gabelich, who learned of the work from a neighbor and documented it through a number of photographs. “At first they said they were diseased. That [rationale for the work] is bullshit; it’s not true. ”
One 8th District resident who declines to comment on the situation is Gabelich’s successor, Councilmember Al Austin. Through his staff, Austin told Random Lengths News that he would rather not comment on the matter prior to the submission of Integral’s application. However, Winklepleck believes that Austin had at least some discussion with Integral prior to the company’s $6 million purchase of the property.
“I had heard there was some outreach from Integral to the council, [including] to Austin,” Winklepleck says.
Despite the City’s economic struggles in recent years, Gabelich believes that perhaps there would have been a way for the City to secure the property—or at least to force any sale to come with some preservationist concessions—were it not located in North Long Beach, an area she feels is often neglected by the City’s decision-makers.
“The City didn’t have the money to buy it. Not that there was ever a push for thing really to go in that direction,” she says. “But year after year we were in the red, so there was no conversation about buying any land. [Nonetheless], in my opinion, [the City] could have negotiated that a percentage of [the land] had to be reserved for recreation or that they had to do something to enhance…They could have done a number of things. [But] I think there could have been a much stronger push from the City Manager’s Office. They did not make that a priority. Not too many things in North Long Beach get made a priority downtown.”
Gabelich also feels that the City—including Austin’s office—could have done more to solicit community input prior to the sale.
“Whether [or not] Al knew enough to offer a community meeting or get input from the community at large, the City Manager’s Office certainly knows that,” she says. “Pat West, [who] worked in community development for all those years, he certainly knows that. [But] they dropped the ball.”
But Winklepleck notes that community members will have ample opportunity to make their opinions heard during the next several months, and that those voices will be among the factors that influence the ultimate recommendation Development Services makes to the city council.
“As we go forward, we will take into consideration all the different input that we have,” he says.
Still, Gabelich’s pessimism is almost palpable.
“We’ve lost another piece of Long Beach history,” she says. “[…] I think it’s sad when people aren’t looking at the big picture. When things get piecemealed together, that’s when you end up with blighted areas.”
According to Winklepleck, however, it is well within the realm of possibility that a year from now Integral could find itself an owner of a property that the company cannot develop as intended—and that there is recent precedent for such a scenario.
“That’s always a possibility, as our friends at 2nd+PCH can tell you,” Winklepleck says, referring to the ill-fated plans to develop a site at intersection of 2nd Street and Pacific Coast Highway. “Initially we let [the Integral] folks know that [the company’s proposed development] is something we might be able to support. […] But beyond that, there’s obviously no guarantees.”