The planning documents produced by the City of Long Beach are meant to function much like the beacon of a lighthouse, guiding public and private investment in a way that promotes a positive future for the city, its residents and its businesses. In the past few years, several of these documents have been revised and new ones have been created to align with current and anticipated needs, as well as to engender progress.
The Long Beach Development Services (LBDS) Department is chiefly responsible for the creation and revision of these documents. “What I would say is they all have in common a more optimistic view of the city and its future than the planning that was done in the late ’80s, which was our last sort of big planning push in the city,” Christopher Koontz, advance planning officer for LBDS, told the Business Journal.
Christopher Koontz, advance planning officer for the City of Long Beach, said that recently revised and new planning documents that guide future development and projects in the city take a more optimistic view of the city than in previous decades. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Larry Duncan)
In the past four years, the city has approved the Mobility Element of the General Plan (focused on vehicular, pedestrian and bicycle planning), the Downtown and Transit-Oriented Development Pedestrian Plan (focused mostly on improving access and development around the Metro Blue Line) and the Midtown Plan (a guiding document for a portion of Central Long Beach).
Existing planning documents like the Southeast Area Specific Plan and the Land Use Element of the General Plan are currently being revised and are going through public input processes.
Koontz indicated that the recent push to revisit planning documents is reflective of changes in attitudes in the city.
“This is a city that grew very rapidly and then made some bad decisions in the late ’70s and early ’80s that led to some really poor development,” Koontz said. For example, he explained that during that time period, the city began allowing two-story apartment buildings to be built alongside single-family residences. But the guidelines for doing so were not fully thought through and resulted in a flurry of development of what’s often referred to as cracker box apartments.
Koontz explained, “What happened is the city lived with this legacy of those bad decisions. And because the city had made those mistakes, the public was very unwilling to accept any new development or any new ideas and just wanted to sort of clamp down on a program of don’t let anyone build anything anywhere. And it took a long time to overcome that.
“We had to rebuild trust, and we had to see some changes in society and in leadership. And we’re in a really special place as a city where we get to rethink all of that and kind of envision a brighter future.”
The Downtown Plan, approved in 2012, is often held up by the city as an example of how planning documents can engender positive change and economic growth.
“I think it shows, sort of from the business side, the power of [what happens] if the city gets the rules correct what the private market can [then] create,” Koontz said of the Downtown Plan. “Once we did the Downtown Plan and we did adaptive reuse – making it easier to reuse existing buildings – that was when downtown really took off.”
The Downtown Plan created “refined development and design standards aimed at achieving a high-quality urban realm,” according to a recent city report on the plan’s results. It also “encourages a proactive planning process,” one that streamlines permitting and entitlement processes to foster growth.
One aspect of the plan focused on allowing for more residences in the downtown area to support economic growth. “What [the city] realized is if you want downtown to be a destination and a successful place to do business, it also needs to be a place where people live,” Koontz said. The city expects 5,000 residential units to be built in downtown by 2035.
Because developers have invested in downtown and more people have moved into the area, downtown has “taken off,” according to Koontz.
Kraig Kojian, president and CEO of the Downtown Long Beach Alliance (DLBA), said the plan has “served as a strong template to be able to attract investment in our downtown.” The plan provides developers with a comfort level in investing in downtown due to the predictability it affords, he added.
“It really provides a roadmap to make the investment easier and I think more understandable,” Adam Carrillo, economic development manager for the DLBA, said. “It gives them a much better view as far as what the city is looking for in terms of potential development projects.”
“It’s a great Long Beach success story. And as we look forward and to the different plans we talked about, it’s really about replicating that success,” Koontz said.
“I think we have laid the groundwork to sort of continue the progress downtown north[ward] along Long Beach Boulevard,” Koontz said. “We adopted the Midtown Plan last year, so it’s sort of too early to tell what will come of that. But I think there is a huge opportunity there.” The Midtown Plan encourages new construction along Long Beach Boulevard toward Long Beach Memorial Medical Center.
The city recently won a grant from the Southern California Association of Governments to create a planning document for North Long Beach that Vice Mayor Rex Richardson has dubbed the Uptown Planning Land Use And Neighborhood Strategy (UPLAN).
“We’re going to be doing some specific work up there to see what we can do to change the zoning and bring new investment into the area,” Koontz said. “And there you have really strong community partnerships and people are really interested in bettering their community, so I think that’s actually a big opportunity site that you’ll see develop over the next couple of years.”
Planning documents are also about placemaking – a concept of development and design of public spaces meant to promote pedestrian use and a sense of place. The recently completed Downtown and TOD Pedestrian Plan, for example, “looks at all the Blue Line stations and once people get off the train, how can we improve their experience with everything from crosswalks and sidewalks to making sure there are trees,” Koontz said. “I bring that up not because any of those are huge projects but because those little pieces really make a difference.”