Does Long Beach Development Entail Loss of Amenities?

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Nothing lasts forever. If you don’t believe me, keep your eye on the former Will J. Reid Boy Scout Camp, as 11.5 acres of nature in the middle North Long Beach are about to go poof, transformed into a gated community of 131 houses, with the “removal of all remaining vegetation [and] trees.”

Now the vacant lot on Pine Avenue at 7th Street—which has played host to the Long Beach Folk Revival Festival, Summer And Music’s first Bicycle Drive-In, the Green Prix, 1st District Councilmember Lena Gonzalez’s Dia de los Muertos celebrations, and numerous other community events over the last few years—is slated to meet a similar end. Recently sold to Global Premier Development, plans are to erect 23 storeys of market-rate housing on the lot and two adjoining parcels, with no preservation of the open space that’s been a unique amenity on Pine Ave.

Although perhaps you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone, 10 months ago several of the area’s major stakeholders and placemakers expressed appreciation for the lot’s value. City Fabrick‘s Brian Ulaszewski labeled the lot “a perfect space for placemaking.” Millworks’ Michelle Molina, who has helped put on several events there, said it created energy in the neighborhood. Even now-former owner Nima Nami spoke of what a “very unique and very attractive” asset the lot is to downtown, and how pop-ups and events were “an ideal use” of the site. Downtown Long Beach Associates’ Kraig Kojian echoed Nami’s enthusiasm for pop-ups popping up there, noting that numerous “concerned stakeholders” had conversed with Nami about the lot’s future, saying, “If they want to sell it, let’s find the right buyer to do something with it.”

So what happened? And was it inevitable? It depends who you ask. Mike Wylie, vice-president of Park Bixby Tower, Inc., which owns numerous North Pine properties, says that a little over two years ago he offered Nami $1.5 million for the property, on which Wylie intended to facilitate the development of a restaurant/catering space for Chef Paul Buchanan’s Primal Alchemy, a project that would have preserved at least some of the open space. But Wylie says that at the time Nami declined to sell at any price; and that when Nami eventually became interested in selling, he did not let Wylie know and was already deep in negotiations with Global Premier by the time Wylie found out.

Nami, who confirms that he sold the parcels to Global Premier for $1.4 million, disputes Wylie’s version of events.

“We talked about joining our properties together,” Nami says. “What I’ve been telling Mike for a couple of years is, ‘Let’s put our property together and bring in a developer and develop the entire block. But it didn’t go anywhere. […] Think about it. If anyone offered me $1.5 [million], I would have sold it for $1.5 [million], rather than $1.4 [million].”

While Wylie doesn’t oppose a residential development there on principle, as a neighborhood resident he is less than enthusiastic about “living in the shadow of a 23-storey building with 150 cars parked in my front yard” (Global Premier says the project calls for 199 parking spaces, all of which will be underground), and he laments the loss of the lot and the corresponding loss of opportunity.

“While I understand the need for density downtown,” he says, “having open space and having enjoyed the opportunity to get to know so many of my neighbors, it would be really great if we had that open space and combined it with the MADhaus to create a venue that can accommodate cultural activities and the gathering of neighbors and the community at large.”

While Kojian says the DLBA advocates high-density, market-rate housing projects such as Global Premier’s, he was hopeful that any development on the site would preserve the open space.

“There was more than one group looking at utilizing that space and creating an area where cargo containers could serve as pop-up retail, [while still preserving] outdoor space to be able to provide performances,” he says. “Quartyard in San Diego is a good example of that, and that’s similar to what we’re looking at doing—on a temporary basis, anyway—on the southeast corner of Ocean and Pine. I was hopeful at the time that those types of developments could come to some level of fruition and still maintain open space to be able to provide performances. I think that would have been the best of both worlds. Now, obviously, 156 full-time residents [i.e., the number of units in Global Premier’s planned project] is an attribute to our downtown as well; it’s just a matter of how we want to prioritize metro development. [… A project like Global Premier’s] is what the market is bearing, and it’s what the property owner can do based on the Downtown Plan. You know, you get torn between what you feel you should approve and allow versus how long you can maintain that amenity. Because an amenity is just that: it’s an add-on. But that [forthcoming] development, that’s permanent. So I think what we have to do is find and take advantage of [amenities like the lot] as long as they last, knowing that an amenity may not last as long as a development will. That’s why we’re looking at the southeast corner of Ocean and Pine as that next opportunity—for the next few years, anyway.”

While Brian Ulaszewski, one of Long Beach’s strongest facilitators of creative placemaking, sees the value of increased density downtown, he advocates a mindfulness of the history of Long Beach development, which is rife with projects that, pace Kojian, were decidedly impermanent, coming and going at a net loss for the community.

“New apartment complexes and office buildings supported by ground-level retail [which Global Premier says may or may not be part of the project] and community amenities will support the living conditions that existing and new residents are looking for in downtown Long Beach,” he says. “[… But] it is important to be mindful of retaining the existing residents, small businesses, and cultural assets that make Long Beach special. Most of those vacant lots were once buildings, and their destructions decades ago displaced residents and businesses. The new buildings developed on those lots should consider that history of displacement by helping to address the emerging pressures. […] With this growth, we do need to be mindful of how infrastructure adapts the expanding population of residents, workers, and visitors. This includes new park space, community amenities, and expanding transportation options, among other accommodations.”

One developer who questions the overall wisdom of Global Premier’s site plan is Scott K. Choppin, founder and CEO of Urban Pacific Group of Companies, which recently acquired a parcel at 7th Street and Pacific Avenue, on which Urban Pacific plans to build a boutique housing community of 30 to 50 units. Choppin regards the loss of the lot as a loss for the community—including his future residents and 7th/Pacific.

“From what I know, the lot has been a public benefit,” he says. “As a developer, I support that kind of amenity in areas we develop. One of the things we do when we go into a market is look at what I call the underlying social fabric or amenity fabric. We’re looking for things that give us a signal that there’s the kind of people and the kind of economic activity that we want to see, that indicates to us that that’s the kind of place we want to invest capital and build housing. We look for things like what was happening on that lot, [such as] events that are able to attract people to downtown. […] From our perspective, what was happening on that lot was an important signal.”

Choppin, who approached Nami years ago about acquiring the 7th/Pine property, also questions whether Global Premier’s site plan is economically viable.

“To me, I ask the question whether the economics makes sense to build a rental high-rise property at 7th and Pine,” he says. “Now, I love 7th and Pine. I think that location can support really great housing, as evidenced by our interest in the 7th/Pacific site. But the economics of a 23-storey tower, which means they’re probably going to go four storeys underground [for parking], you can only imagine the expense for that.”

(Choppin proved at least somewhat prescient regarding the expense. Between my interview with him and the publication of this article, Global Premier Vice-President of Operations Gina McKaskill confirmed that, in an effort to reduce the expense of the project, Global Premier submitted an alternate site plan that placed parking off-site, but the City rejected this version.)

It seems city officials may be reluctant to weigh in on whether Global Premier’s planned development comports with their vision for downtown, as Councilmember Gonzalez, Mayor Robert Garcia, and the Department of Development Services all declined to reply to questions for this article. Michelle Molina, who has helped put on the Green Prix and several other events on the site, also declined to comment on the project.

For his part, DLBA President Kraig Kojian focuses on the influence that can be brought to bear on the development of public property.

“You can’t tell a private owner he can’t develop it, right?” Kojian says. “You can tell him, ‘Here’s what you can do under the Downtown Plan.’ […] But [city-owned] spaces are different, and I think we should be more diligent to activate and utilize public-owned spaces in a very unique manner. That’s why we’re trying to push different concepts, concepts that the City might not be 100% comfortable with, especially when it comes to a commercial element of public space. I’m talking pop-ups and maybe a beer garden on public space. That’s really unique, at least in this city, unless you look at the beaches. […] I’d like to see more public space be activated and utilized as incubator space […] with performances as a drawing mechanism to downtown. […] We can do some really unique things with art and performances and other uses of public space. That’s where I think we have a lot of leverage.”

But there is no doubt the City has influence over private developments. For example, it took a change of zoning—which the city council recently approved by a unanimous vote—to allow Integral Communities to move forward with its plans to turn the former Will J. Reid Boy Scout Camp into a housing community. And while a zoning change is not required for a project like Global Premier’s, presumably the City could disincentivize development that fails to preserve existing amenities (whether or not the lot deserves that designation).

Of course, what do I know? I’m just a writer. But I’m also a resident, and as such, I would love to see Long Beach grow without killing off its most unique amenities in the process.

(Image: Taylor Crawford performs on the lot during the inaugural Long Beach Folk Revival Festival, November 2013.)

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