Long Beach has for years now been struggling to reactivate the Downtown area.
Post-pandemic, thousands of square feet of office space that used to be populated with busy workers remain vacant. According to a recent report from the Downtown Long Beach Alliance, office space vacancy is up to 24%, an increase over last year.
Many downtown restaurants and other businesses for years relied on daily traffic from nearby offices, but the rise of remote work and other factors mean that the contingent of daily commuters will likely never return, nor will the business they brought with them.
And now, even with new apartments filling up, Downtown still feels empty. Just ask the business owners who continue to struggle with a lack of consistent foot traffic and safety concerns for the patrons they do have amid highly visible instances of crime and homelessness.
Last year, city numbers showed that Long Beach’s unhoused population surged 62% since 2020 and it continued to increase this year as well. The mayor recently told us property crime is up even though violent crime is down, and business owners have been more frequently turning to the media for help after some shops have suffered repeated break-ins.
As much as city leaders are trying to address these concerns, one of the biggest factors is flying under the radar: the Downtown area was built for cars, not people. For the people to come back, that might need to change.
When most of Downtown Long Beach was office space, it made sense for the city to focus on getting people in (and out) of the area quickly and easily. Like most other American cities we did that by making driving convenient — at the expense of other transportation options.
“We focus too much on cars and it takes away from pedestrians,” Alan Pullman, Senior Principal at Studio 111 told me. “I think we should double down on making our streets good for pedestrians.”
Pullman’s Studio 111 is a Long Beach-based Urban Design and Architecture Lab that says the “core” of their practice is “the repair of existing cities and the return of flourishing neighborhoods,” according to their website. And they have experience in Long Beach as well, with projects like the Lincoln Park Activation, which took the city’s oldest park and revitalized it as part of the city’s revamp of City Hall and the Billie Jean King Main Library.
But Pullman also noted that, with multiple six-lane roads like Ocean Boulevard and Shoreline Drive bisecting the area, crossed by high-traffic corridors like Atlantic and Alamitos avenues, some of the streets around here aren’t exactly welcoming.
“If you go to the Aquarium, you should be able to walk to Pine for lunch. But right now, that’s not really a pleasant walk, I don’t know if I would like to do it,” Pullman said.
And he’s right. If you wanted to walk from the Aquarium of the Pacific to a restaurant on Pine Avenue (about half a mile as the crow flies) you’d essentially have to cross two highways, including one where a pedestrian was killed crossing the street just a few weeks ago.
“We have a great waterfront,” said Pullman. “We need to be able to get there and around to the rest of the city more easily and comfortably.”
That’s the same problem facing somebody who gets off of an A Line train at the Downtown transit center with a plan to walk to our waterfront or the beach. The more uncomfortable that is, the less likely people will do it.
But on the other hand, when an area is walkable and people-friendly, people show up. Just take a stroll down Second Street in Belmont Shore to see what I mean.
And that walkability leads directly to patrons at local businesses. The car-free streets of the COVID era, which were created to let restaurants survive when indoor dining wasn’t a possibility, turned out to be a boon for all involved. Streets that were closed to vehicles, and open to people, saw far more consumer interest, according to Bloomberg’s CityLab.
Even here in Long Beach, there was a brief period of time during the pandemic when streets like Pine Avenue were closed off to cars and open to people. The Open Streets Initiative, which closed the street to vehicle traffic from First Street to Fifth Street, was a resounding success.
“We want them to do it again, and do it right,” Jon Sweeny, owner of the newly opened Altar Society Brewing on Pine Avenue told me.
It’s not exactly a new concept; cities around the world are reclaiming space that was devoted to cars and giving it to people, with outstanding results.
“For us, the street should be where you meet people, eat at outdoor restaurants, where kids play, and where art is exhibited,” Hanna Marcussen, Oslo’s vice mayor for urban development, told the BBC back in 2019.
We don’t even have to leave the country to find evidence of this approach. San Diego has been an outstanding success story among post-pandemic downtowns, and I broke down why in a video on Instagram earlier this year.
They did it by focusing on turning the area into a people-friendly space that feels like a neighborhood. The Gaslamp Fifth Avenue Promenade — eight blocks of car-free plazas — really ties the whole area together. You can take the trolley Downtown and walk around, enjoying the city without ever having to cross a highway.
Long Beach has done it in the past; just look at our extremely popular Beach Streets events when roads are closed to cars and open to people.
It doesn’t take much to get everybody out and about; all we need is the freedom and space to do it.