The office building at 6615 E. Pacific Coast Hwy. at the Marketplace retail center is slated to be redeveloped into a mixed-used apartment building with hundreds of units. Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Three major housing developments are coming to southeast Long Beach, near the Los Cerritos Wetlands, as city officials push for more units to address the ongoing housing crisis.

While the projects have seen some pushback from the local community, city officials say housing needs to be built in every area of the city, and the sites of the three projects lend themselves to higher density and traffic than other alternatives in the area.

The three developments, which will bring a combined 1,353 units to the area, are slated for properties currently occupied by commercial buildings, including retail and office space. The redevelopment is made possible through the city’s Southeast Area Specific Plan and the city’s Housing Element, which identified the parcels as suitable for high-density mixed-use residential projects.

The largest of the three developments is to be located at what is currently the Marina Shores retail center at 6500 E. Pacific Coast Highway. The project includes 670 units in two five-story buildings as well as 4,000 square feet of retail space.

Across the street to the east, at 6615 E. Pacific Coast Highway, a 380-unit, six-story building with 4,800 square feet of retail is set to replace an office building. The project includes 71 affordable units.

To the south of Marina Shores, at 6700 E. Pacific Coast Highway, a 281-unit building with 3,390 square feet of retail space also is slated to replace an office building. The development by Holland Partner Group, which also is six stories tall, also includes affordable units.

Community pushback

But as is the case with most affluent areas with high levels of ownership, the prospect of increased density has seen some pushback.

“Am I happy about it? Not particularly,” Elizabeth Lambe, executive director of the Los Cerritos Wetlands Trust, said of the forthcoming residential developments. “The community in general did not want these heights.”

Still, the projects are so far faring better than past attempts at housing development in the area.

Before being transformed into the 2ND & PCH retail center, for example, a 12-story condominium tower was proposed for the site of the former SeaPort Marina Hotel. Outcry from residents and environmental groups put an end to the ambitious proposal in 2016.

For Lambe, protecting the wetlands is a top priority when it comes to considering any new project. City officials, though, have been responsive to those concerns and included safeguards when approving the SEASP that is now guiding the new construction.

“I was really heartened during the SEASP process,” Lambe said, “by how often people brought up the importance of the wetlands.”

Students from Starr King and Bixby elementary schools tour the Los Cerritos Wetlands Friday, Aug. 12, 2022. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Southeast area residents and environmentalists, though, are still concerned about the impacts of increasing the population of the area—namely, traffic congestion as well as air, noise and light pollution that could negatively affect wetlands wildlife.

Lambe said the idea of extending Studebaker Road through the wetlands has been floated in the past—a proposal that she said would be devastating to the wetlands. But Third District Councilmember Suzie Price, for her part, said such a proposal would be “dead on arrival” and would never pass the various levels of approval it would require.

“No matter how many times we say it, people don’t want to believe it,” Price said. “That will never be approved by the Coastal Commission because it would disrupt a very sensitive habitat.”

Balancing needs

Since 1969, local governments have been required to create housing elements that identify both projected housing need and sites suitable for development as part of the Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA). Under the current cycle of RHNA, Long Beach needs to build over 26,502 units between October 2021 and October 2029, including 7,141 very-low-income, 4,047 low-income, 4,158 moderate-income and 11,156 above-moderate-income units.

Despite its efforts, however, the city continues to develop significantly fewer units each year than is required by state law. The problem is not specific to Long Beach, of course. Every city across California has for decades fallen woefully short of state goals for new housing development.

While most of the city’s new construction in recent years has gone up in Downtown and Midtown, state officials pushed Long Beach to identify further development opportunities in other parts of the city.

With that in mind, the Pacific Coast Highway corridor in southeastern Long Beach seemed like a prime location.

As for traffic concerns, the intersection at Second Street and Pacific Coast Highway is already one of the busiest in the city, particularly since the development of 2ND & PCH, which increased usage of Marina Drive as an alternate route.

The new residential projects, though, could still result in increased usage of Shopkeeper Road on the backside of the Marketplace, Price said. The street currently dead ends behind the retail center and would need to be extended through several parking lots to allow for easy through-traffic.

The three projects in question, as well as any other development in the SEASP area, also require Coastal Commission approval, Price noted.

Lambe said she and the organization will be keeping a sharp eye on the projects and will engage with developers and government agencies every step of the way to ensure the wetlands are protected.

Working together

The three projects make a meaningful impact on the city’s housing needs, Price said, adding that the mix of one- to three-bedroom units is much needed. She said she is happy all three projects include ground floor retail space, which will improve walkability in the area.

District 3 residents have been worried about mixing densities, Price said, meaning they wanted to keep apartment buildings out of single-family neighborhoods to avoid traffic and parking issues. For this reason, Price said the Pacific Coast Highway corridor is an ideal location for these projects.

The developers, for their part, say they are open to working with the city and community members, Price said, adding that her office already has connected the groups.

George Elum, managing director for the Holland Partner Group, said the firm plans on following SEASP to the letter since the community provided input during the process. He said meetings with stakeholders have been positive so far.

In early conversations, people were worried about parking counts, Elum said. So the firm increased the number of parking stalls to 477 for its 281 units, exceeding what is required by law. A portion of the parking will be reserved for free public use.

Some community benefits, however, already were included in the plans, he added.

“Adjacent to the river we’ll be creating a little park and restoring the bike path,” Elum said. “And on the ground floor we’ll have a bike repair room and a bike wash.”

When it comes to traffic mitigation, Elum said the firm had to pay a “pretty significant” traffic impact fee.

The two other developers, Onni Group and Carmel Partners, did not respond to interview requests.

Third District resident Dorothy Johnson said one of the developers (she did not recall which) already had met with residents.

“We are very happy they did,” Johnson said. “They showed us pictures of the building and it was lovely, they seem to have an interest in helping the wetlands—they seem to us to be very genuine.”

Johnson, who has lived in the area for decades, still has concerns about traffic and parking, but she said she thinks the project she was shown will complement the area well. She said the area is not used to density, which she acknowledged has created a somewhat selfish mentality around development.

While some residents simply will never be happy to see new, dense developments in their neighborhoods—especially if they own—Price said the onus of creating housing is on every district. In recent years, the vast majority of new housing has been created in or near the Downtown area.

“I believe that we should be taking on the burden citywide instead of just pushing it out into a particular area,” Price said. “That’s what the Southeast Area Specific Plan was designed to do—add on that additional density where it makes sense. Saying things like ‘We don’t have vacancy in our district’ is not an option.”

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Business Journal.