From a distance it appears as though the Queen Mary has one freshly painted, bright red and black stack. Up close, though, it is apparent that the paint is peeling. And the other two stacks remain unpainted, dulled to a light pink. It’s a visual representation of the complications of revitalizing and caring for an immobile, historic vessel – an effort that is, in some ways, like navigating unchartered territory.
Under previous leaseholders, the ship was neglected to the point that it developed structural issues, thousands of leaks, and a myriad of other problems of the sort that are bound to crop up when an aging metal ship sitting in water isn’t given the care she needs. When Urban Commons took over the ship and surrounding property in 2016, the lease with the City of Long Beach was structured so that lease payments, as well as passenger fees from Carnival Cruise Lines operations, would go right back into caring for the Queen. The city issued $23 million in bonds to fund the most necessary initial repairs. Since then, Urban Commons has been, by the account of Urban Commons’ chief development officer, Dan Zaharoni, doing its best to bring the Queen back to her former glory.
“It’s an 82-year-old ship that’s sitting in water out in the sun,” Zaharoni said. “We’re not only trying to maintain a ship, we’re trying to maintain history. And when you do that, unfortunately you sometimes don’t have access to some of the tools and resources you would in a normal situation.” He added, “We believe it is manageable, and we believe that the problems we have encountered have been something that we can handle.”
That one painted stack, for example, was a bit of a failed experiment. It was painted last fall, and work to paint the other two stacks was halted to allow them to remain visible during holiday events like Dark Harbor and CHILL. “By the time CHILL was done, we started noticing some real problems with that paint – defects and imperfections,” Zaharoni said. “We didn’t want to continue painting until we figured out the problem.” After consulting with the paint manufacturer, Zaharoni is confident that the issue has been identified and will be corrected. Paintwork on the next two stacks will begin within 30 to 45 days, after which the first will be repainted again, he explained.
One of the first projects Urban Commons tackled was repairing leaks on the ship. “We knew there were 2,000 leaks. We didn’t expect there to be another 500 after we finished that,” Zaharoni said. Dealing with these leaks – a problem Zaharoni expects to be ongoing due to the historic nature of the ship – has proven to be one of the bigger maintenance challenges.
“Inside those walls, you can’t just go in and replace all the pipes, because to do so, you’d have to basically destroy the rooms and the common areas and all these historic places that you can’t touch,” Zaharoni said, noting that Urban Commons is not allowed to do this, nor would the company advocate for it.
An independent contractor hired by the City of Long Beach to oversee maintenance of the ship has noted both progress and problems aboard the Queen Mary in months-worth of reports provided to the Business Journal by the city. One area of issue noted was the exhibit hall – long closed to the public, the hall has had flooding, leakage and rust problems for years. Urban Commons made headway on the area, but, as the inspector detailed in some reports, work seemed to stop for a time, and rust cropped up again even after a rust inhibitor had been applied.
But the reports don’t tell the whole story, according to Zaharoni. When the city issued the $23 million in bonds, only $11 million was initially deposited into an account for Urban Commons use. “But the $11 million ran out before the [remaining] $12 million of bond funds showed up. So between sometime around Thanksgiving of last year and late January of this year, there was no money coming from the city,” Zaharoni said.
Johnny Vallejo, property services officer within the Long Beach Economic Development Department, confirmed this. “There were some delays on some of the work that was being conducted. That was primarily due to, or partly due to, the city’s internal financing mechanisms,” Vallejo said.
When it comes to the issue of recurring rust, Zaharoni said it turned out that the rust inhibitor wasn’t applied correctly in certain areas where the rust was thicker than had been originally thought. “The rust in certain areas had built up thicker than the amount that the inhibitor could penetrate,” he explained. “You have to scrape the rust off and you have to get down to the metal, or at least close enough to the metal, so that the rust inhibitor can penetrate. It’s so difficult to scrape the rust off down there at the hull, not only because of the lighting and the area, but you know, the hull is fragile. It’s 82 years old. You can’t get too aggressive in the rust removal.”
Despite some hiccups, progress is being made throughout the ship, both by Zaharoni and Vallejo’s accounts. According to Zaharoni, finished projects include improvements to Sir Winston’s Restaurant & Lounge, replacement of teak flooring on the M Deck, the repair and refurbishment of the ship’s executive offices and replacement of one of the ship’s expansion joints. Repairs to infrastructure that is part of the Ghosts & Legends Tour – which includes boiler rooms, gangways and some structural components – have also been completed.
“The biggest repair that everybody is waiting for is the structural stability of the ship, which is the hull and the tank top and the girder system,” Zaharoni said. After consulting with engineers and conducting extensive structural testing, Urban Commons has determined that it should take about $50 million to make these structural repairs. An earlier marine survey of the ship commissioned by the city found that it would cost $289 million.
“That marine survey, you should know, was three or four people who walked around the ship and made visual observations for about a week,” Zaharoni said. “They just walked around. The Queen Mary staff told them what was wrong, and they made estimates based on what they saw. We have recently discovered, and the city has approved, that the amount of money and time it is going to take to stabilize the ship is pennies on the dollar compared to what the marine survey and some of the previous estimates were.”
Zaharoni said he expects this structural work to be completed within six to nine months.
Despite progress on the Queen Mary, Zaharoni noted that news of any problem seems to get far more attention from the press and on social media. “We do everything in our power to be a steward of history and we just wish that the successes that we have were as celebrated as the misses that we encounter,” he said. Structurally, the ship is in “the best shape it has been in years,” he noted.
As for upgrading the hotel rooms and common areas onboard, Zaharoni said Urban Commons has been courting a number of major hotel brands before proceeding. “That has really been the hold up. Not because we didn’t want to move forward, but because we have been speaking with every major national brand you can think of,” he said. “That’s not done yet, but we feel like we’re very close with one of them and we’re working in that direction.”
It will take at least five years before development of the land surrounding the Queen Mary starts to come to fruition, according to Zaharoni. “The entitlement process is long and arduous. And that’s not something we’re happy about, but that’s just the way California is, especially when you’re dealing with a historical structure on the water,” he said. “We believe entitlement process alone will continue until about 2020. And then construction will take about three years as well. We’re anticipating a grand opening of around 2023.”
According to Vallejo, Urban Commons is upholding its end of the bargain with the city. “I truly feel like Urban Commons is doing a very good job, particularly as compared to the history of the ship,” he said. “I believe Urban Commons is definitely adhering to their obligations under the terms of the agreement.”