Over two years after city staff presented members of the Long Beach City Council with initial plans to replace the demolished Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool, the battle for the beach continues. Supporters of the project see the new pool complex as an opportunity to bring the once-famous swim site back to its old glory. Opponents see it as a threat to the neighborhood’s natural coastline and sandy beach.

Belmont Plaza Pool Rendering
The most recent plans for a new aquatic center at the site of the historic Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool have been approved by the Long Beach City Council, but some residents question whether Belmont Shore is the best location for the project. (Rendering courtesy of the City of Long Beach)

Gordana Kajer, one of the project’s most outspoken critics, grew up in Orange County and still has fond memories of weekend trips to the beach with her father, who was a body surfer. “We didn’t go to the park, we didn’t go camping, we didn’t take family trips, but we did go to the beach every Sunday,” Kajer recounts. “The beach was our playground.” It’s those memories, she noted, that make her so passionate about protecting the sand beaches of her chosen home, Long Beach.

The city council during its January 21 meeting voted unanimously to approve an environmental review addendum reflecting updated plans for the Belmont Pool Revitalization Project. But the updates, which aimed to address concerns regarding building height, project cost and adequate protection from sea level rise, among other issues, haven’t done much to quiet a group of vocal opponents, including Kajer. “The second pool, the revised plan, is as problematic as the first,” she said.

In their comments to city council, Kajer and others expressed a number of technical concerns with the updated plan. “The whole notion that a sand beach should be paved over for a recreational use, like a municipal pool, to me is something that deserves a second thought,” she explained. Jeff Miller, another opponent of the planned pool, said he is worried that the structure would deteriorate the views enjoyed by local residents and restrict access to the city’s natural beach. “I value access to the coast and I really feel strongly that that access should be protected,” he noted.

Miller and fellow critics have sent appeals to the city council and the California Coastal Commission, opposing the project in its current form. The proposed project site falls under the shared jurisdiction of the city’s Local Coastal Program and the coastal commission, which means that plans for the project require a stamp of approval from the commission to move forward. That stamp of approval, a coastal development permit, is still outstanding following several requests for additional information and revisions issued by the coastal commission.

One concern expressed by the coastal commission as well as local opponents of the project is the risk posed by rising sea levels. “The site they’ve chosen is dangerous because of the increasing rate of sea level rise and the concern of vulnerability to that,” Miller pointed out.

In its most recent letter to city staff the coastal commission requested additional information on the city’s plans for the potential removal of structures threatened by sea level rise and other adaptation measures. Those concerns, according to Miller and Kajer, have not been adequately addressed in the updated environmental impact report.

Meanwhile, 3rd District Councilmember Suzie Price argued that the planned structures forming the new aquatic center would be the most resilient in the area with respect to sea level rise.

“When we talk about sea level rise, we want to make sure, not that there’s no buildings along the coast, but that those buildings are built in a way that they don’t get flooded,” Price explained. “If there’s flooding in that area, it’s not going to affect the pool because the pool is specifically designed [to be] consistent with Coastal Commission recommendations on elevation. It’s the hundreds and thousands of homes around the pool that would be my biggest concern.”

Price said she’s confident that the residents of those homes, her constituents, are generally supportive of the plan. “I am mindful that there are some residents who will generally oppose every development opportunity that’s presented to the district,” she remarked. “And while their thoughts are noted, I don’t believe that [they] represent the voice of the majority of residents.”

Local resident Lucy Johnson, for one, is thrilled. Vice president of Long Beach-based nonprofit Aquatic Capital of America, she hopes that the new swimming facility may bring back some of the international recognition once enjoyed by the Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool. “The old facility was iconic, it was known around the world,” she recounted. “It’s been my passion from day one to see Long Beach have that again.”

Once a competitive swimmer herself, Johnson said she’s worried about statistics showing that many Long Beach residents can’t swim. “We’re surrounded by water here, we have water all through the city. People have to know how to swim.,” she pointed out. “This is where the pools can be a great benefit.”

Miller and Kajer said they don’t oppose the construction of a new pool in general. Instead, they’d like to see an aquatic center built in a different location and they have just the place in mind: the Elephant Lot. The paved 13-acre lot near the Long Beach Convention Center is located across the street from the beach and was floated as a potential site for a Major League Baseball stadium, to house the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, just last year. “If it’s good enough for the Angels, it should be good enough for a municipal pool,” Kajer remarked.

In its December 6, 2019, letter, Coastal Program Analyst Dani Ziff requested a more in-depth analysis of several alternative sites, to include the massive Downtown parking lot as well as a site outside of the coastal zone and closer to underserved communities.

The updated report reflected a 2017 analysis of the Elephant Lot’s feasibility as an alternative site, word-by-word. In the report, city staff cited concerns over existing lease agreements with the Jehova’s Witnesses and the Grand Prix of Long Beach, and the need for additional parking, as grounds to remove the site from consideration. “This alternative site would not represent the highest and best land use for the area adjacent to the convention center, which should be reserved for convention or hotel uses,” the report noted.

But Kajer and Miller are not ready to let go of the idea just yet. “I think the best use of that site would be a permanent pool. It’s the ideal location,” Miller stated. “I can’t understand why the city will not consider it.”