While business on the Westside of Long Beach is strong and demand for real estate remains high, some business owners think the city could do more to better serve the area.

“We’ve been here since 1974, so we’ve seen it all,” Mike Zupanovich, co-owner of Harbor Diesel & Equipment Inc., said. “It seems to be regressing rather than progressing.”


Zupanovich is also a member of the board for the Magnolia Industrial Group (MIG), a business improvement district that spans 24 blocks between Magnolia Avenue and the 710 Freeway, starting from Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) and heading south. When asked if the city invests enough into the area, he said, “Absolutely not. The city’s focus seems to be on social issues and not helping businesses by keeping the blight out of our neighborhoods and enhancing [the area] to attract new businesses and also to keep the area safe and secure for people who work here. It’s a mess.”

The Port of Long Beach has proposed the closure of the 9th Street bridge, which connects the Westside of Long Beach to the downtown area. Tony Rivera, pictured near the bridge, said if it is closed, the Westside would be cut off from downtown and that would create more traffic in other neighborhoods as people would have to use alternate routes to cross the Los Angeles River. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Larry Duncan)


There has been an influx of homeless in the MIG area, according to Zupanovich, due to its close proximity to the Los Angeles River, which, along with excessive illegal dumping in the area, has contributed to growing blight in the area. Though he did admit that anytime he has reported an illegally dumped item the city promptly removed it, he would just like the city to be more proactive rather than reactive.


“It comes to policing, which I know is a big sticking point for the city as a whole,” Zupanovich said. “The excuse always is ‘we don’t have enough officers,’ but with the problems we have, it needs to be policed.”


Bill Townsend, president of the MIG and president of INCO Commercial Realty Inc., agreed, saying one of the areas biggest issues has always been security. He explained that if the area is safe, businesses will want to be located there and employees will feel more comfortable at work.


“That’s really a key, and that’s been the success of the Magnolia area. We’re keeping it very safe. It’s one of the safer areas,” Townsend said “People do their business there and it’s very active. It’s a constant effort, and police have done a great job doing what they can.”


The business licensing process is another problem facing businesses wanting to enter the area, as well as already established businesses that want to expand, according to Daryl Phillips, president of Phillips Steel Company. Phillips recalled his company’s most recent expansion in the area, saying the process took 24 months due to a long permit process. He also said he had to pay $15,000 in fees for the $350,000 project.

Though his business, Santa Fe Importers, has seen a slight decline in sales, Vincent Passanisi said he prefers his Long Beach location to his other two stores in Irwindale and Seal Beach. Santa Fe Importers has been located at 1401 Santa Fe Ave. since 1947 and Passanisi said the area is unique and a hidden secret of the city. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Larry Duncan)


“I would really like to see some improvement in the building permit process, either new or expansion,” Phillips said. “It’s just an incredibly cumbersome and expensive process. I think the city has their best interest at heart rather than the interest of the business owners.”


Another concern of owners located west of the 710 Freeway is the Port of Long Beach’s proposal to close the 9th Street bridge, which is the main access point for Westside businesses to enter the downtown area.


“From the Westside, to go to the bank downtown it takes five minutes,” Tony Rivera, owner of Easy Roll Off Services, said. “Now they want to shut [the 9th Street bridge] down, and if they do, we’ll have to go to Anaheim or other streets, which would put a lot of traffic in the other neighborhoods. We want that bridge to keep connected to the whole city.”


Rivera added that officials should be working on unifying the city as a whole, not dividing it with bridge closures and freeway changes that would cut off the Westside from downtown and make the city less cohesive.


Other business owners from the area have voiced their concerns about the bridge closure, including Paul Collins, owner of the architecture firm PAC Design and chair of the Westside Project Area Council (PAC). According to Collins, currently he can get from his office to city hall in eight minutes. But if the 9th Street bridge is closed, he explained that time would at least triple, maybe even quadruple depending on the time of day.


“There’s definitely a majority of people here who do not want to see that close, and so far the proposals they have shown us are not going to help us out,” Collins said. “They might benefit certain groups, but they’re definitely not going to benefit the industrial Westside businesses.”


First District Councilmember Lena Gonzalez said she shares owners’ concerns regarding the possible bridge closure. She explained that the port has not presented details regarding the proposal to her, though she has made several requests. However, she expects to be hearing news soon.


Gonzalez said that the bridge closure, as well as changes to the 710 Freeway, will make it more difficult to travel between the Westside and downtown and that “any access points that we could keep open, in my opinion, would be the best option.” She added that she is not aware of the motives behind the proposed closing of the bridge.


Other projects that Gonzalez said her office is working on with regards to the Westside include a master plan for the Santa Fe corridor. The plan would also include parts of PCH and would improve the streetscape of the corridor with medians and other elements, as well as a possible traffic study on how the city can help alleviate some of the trucking issues in the area. Another project that will be moving forward soon is a rebranding of the Westside area.

Aside from serving up hot and cold sandwiches, pizza, pasta and salads, Santa Fe Importers also sells groceries for those who want to make their own Italian meals with authentic ingredients imported from Italy. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Larry Duncan)


“I’m going to be launching a neighborhood branding program that will be starting in the Westside,” Gonzalez said. “A lot of the businesses have talked about some sort of different type of branding – they want to see some identity to the Westside.”


She explained that Commune Communications, a local design firm, will go into different pockets of her district, beginning with the Westside, and conduct a full-fledged branding program. Gonzalez said she will make the official announcement for the program at this month’s Westside PAC meeting.


“We just have to continually be in communication with our constituents out there – I have most of the business owners and Councilmember [Roberto] Uranga has most of the residents. He and I need to be more present out there,” Gonzalez said. “I think together we’re certainly more powerful, and I definitely want to get out there a lot more with him and ensure that Westside residents and businesses know that they have a voice at city hall.”


Two other projects Collins thinks the city should focus on include the partially completed floodwater project and restoring the area’s alleys, both of which Gonzalez said are top priorities for her office, especially with the passing of Measure A. She explained her office should be getting reports on the cost of the floodwater project and can then determine how to fund its completion. Gonzalez said she would speak at a Westside PAC meeting soon to discuss the first Measure A projects that will take place in the area.


The MIG will also be seeing several street improvements thanks to Measure A, including Esther Street, which Gonzalez said has been the area’s biggest concern. This is welcome news to Townsend, who said there are many streets that need investment and that the city can’t “repave it and walk away for 20 years” because of the high trucking traffic that causes streets to deteriorate more rapidly.


Even with the challenges facing business owners and acknowledging that the city could better serve their community on the Westside, Collins said he thinks the city and the Westside PAC have a good relationship and he hopes it will continue.


Despite the area’s problems, Daryl Phillips said, “It’s really important to understand that we still operate successful businesses on this side of town, and it’s a good working environment. The location – access to the freeways and the port – couldn’t be better. I own a 100-year-old business, and we’re here not because of the problems that we have, we’re here because of the success that we have.”

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