While the Queen Mary is arguably the most iconic fixture of the Long Beach skyline – and one of the most historic – she has hardly been treated like royalty. For decades, the city’s landmark fell into major disrepair. That’s all changing with new leadership and a long-term plan to transform the Queen into a major entertainment venue.
When real estate developer Urban Commons (UC) took over the Queen’s lease in 2016, the boiler room – a cavernous space utilized for its “Ghosts and Legends” tour – had been turned into a junkyard. “When I say junkyard, I mean junkyard,” UC Chief Development Officer Dan Zaharoni told the Business Journal during a tour of the ship. Steel, construction materials, drywall and old furniture were heaped in piles and inundated with black water. “It was six feet high,” he said of the mess. “There was standing water there for decades.”
Adam Grandorff, vice president of construction for UC, said there were six to 10 inches of rust sitting on the tank top, the lower level of the ship above which the fuel tanks are stored. “When a piece of steel rusts, it expands exponentially,” he explained. “It was like walking through a forest.”
Zaharoni estimated that Urban Commons removed nearly 1,000 tons of waste from the area. “We pumped out tens of thousands of gallons of standing water,” he said. This water had traveled down from the upper levels of the ship and collected on the tank top for years, corroding the steel beneath the neighboring exhibit hall. “Underneath that exhibit hall, these steel beams, [about] 24 inches thick, were completely rusted through,” he said. “It was about to collapse.” After conducting an X-ray of the entire ship – the first such procedure to be performed on the Queen – UC immediately shut down the exhibit hall.
Cleaning out and sterilizing the boiler room and exhibit hall, replacing rotten steel and coating the surfaces with anti-corrosion solution cost approximately $1.33 million, according to a September 2018 report from the City of Long Beach. That represents 5% of the city’s initial $23 million investment in the ship’s renovation, a sum that will be depleted by the end of this year. Such was the extent of the Queen Mary’s degradation that only seven of the 27 necessary repairs identified by the city have been fully completed.
These seven projects represented the most severe health and safety risks aboard the vessel. “We’ve gone a long way to making it as safe as it has been in decades,” Zaharoni said. He is also confident that UC can secure enough funding to complete the remaining repairs over the next few years. It may take longer than anticipated, Zaharoni said, “but it’s moving in the right direction.”
A major project that cost far more than originally projected was the update to the ship’s fire sprinkler system. The city fire department and a third-party contractor inspected the system and informed UC that the approximately seven thousand sprinkler heads needed to be replaced and the lines flushed out. Originally estimated at $200,000, the final price tag was $5.29 million. “We could see it was taking away from our other projects,” Grandorff said. “But obviously, safety first.”
Being escorted from one end of the 1,019-foot ship to the other and coming face to face with the many repairs in progress, the question arises: how was the Queen Mary reduced to such a state in the first place? “That’s a great question,” Grandorff said. “I can only speculate, and I won’t do that. The simple fact is, we got this thing and it needed help.”
According to Johnny Vallejo, business operations manager for the city’s economic development department, maintenance on the ship was deferred by its prior leaseholder for about a decade.
When UC pursued the Queen Mary lease, Zaharoni said, it did so with the understanding that the total cost of renovation, plus new construction for a new entertainment venue on the adjacent land, could run up to $600 million. The city’s $23 million investment was essential to making the first critical repairs, he said, but emphasized that it was just the beginning. “The city has been an amazing partner from day one,” he said. “The $23 million is a perfect example. They came up with a solution even though the city didn’t have the funds to fix the ship. They found a way to do it based on revenues that were generated from the Carnival passenger fees, which didn’t touch taxpayer money.”
Zaharoni credited Mayor Robert Garcia, City Councilmember Jeannine Pearce and the rest of the city council and staff for working with UC to restore the Queen. “They have been nothing but enthusiastic about helping us not only be financially successful but making sure the guests we have on here are safe and healthy.”
Progress on ship repairs continue above and below. In addition to cleaning out the boiler room and exhibit hall, UC has replaced the rusted and leaking sewage tanks with new PVC tanks that connect to city sewage. Every day, workers are strapping on respirators, crawling into the side tanks between the boiler and hull, and scraping away the rust. Afterwards, the steel is coated with a rust inhibitor.
During the heavy rain of January 2017, the roofs of the executive offices and Sir Winston’s restaurant were destroyed. “It was like a river in Sir Winston’s,” Zaharoni said. “It was terrible.” Repairs to replace the rotted teak and steel in the ceiling, as well as the structural damage to the restaurant, took five months. During that time, UC also waterproofed the deck to prevent further leaks. These repairs coincided with repainting the Queen’s three funnels.
Many of the repairs UC has undertaken are hidden from view, Zaharoni said. “It’s not sexy. It’s stuff nobody sees.” Such projects included replacing the expansion joints, electrical and storm drain systems, heating, air conditioning and ventilation.
Returning the Queen to her former glory has proven be a more challenging task than expected, Zaharoni said, but he emphasized Urban Commons remains undaunted. The developer’s mission is to transform the ship into the centerpiece of a dynamic waterfront attraction. Its proposed Queen Mary Island development would offer locals and tourists 500,000 square feet of retail and entertainment, including a new boardwalk and a boutique hotel. A six-story parking garage would be constructed between Harry Bridges Memorial Park and the dome. The ship’s current parking lot would be converted into a dynamic space for live music, restaurants, street performances and a village of pop-up shops made out of shipping containers.
Zaharoni pointed to UC’s partnership with Goldenvoice, a music festival operator, as the first stage of the Queen’s commercial transformation. This year, the Queen Mary hosted 10 days of concerts at its four-acre events park, with each night averaging around 15,000 guests, Zaharoni said. Next year, UC hopes to increase the number of concerts to 15 or 20. If those concerts sell out, Zaharoni said, it could mean a wealth of new exposure, and commercial potential, for the city. “Those people are eating at the restaurants across the bay, they’re staying at the hotels.”
Negotiations are also underway to bring even more music programming to the Queen by utilizing its several ballrooms, sports deck and smaller rooms for more intimate performances.
Urban Commons has also created a home for new kinds of shows, like magician Aiden Sinclair’s “Illusions of the Passed.” Located in the newly-christened Revenant Room in Forward B deck, the space was formerly a glorified “storage closet,” Grandorff said. The room now features curios, magical oddities and a bar serving such supernatural concoctions as Smoke and Mirrors (hickory smoked bourbon) and the Lady in White. Having opened in September, the show has garnered rave reviews and packed seats, Grandorff said.
Zaharoni said that UC’s mission onboard the Queen is to expand her entertainment offerings so that visitors are compelled to return again and again. It’s not a museum, he said. “We have great food, we’re doing concerts, we’re having live events, we have exhibits all the time. It’s even a great place to have a conference. It’s a place to experience life.”
UC is in talks with Doppelmayr Garaventa, a leading manufacturer of urban people movers, about the possibility of building a cable car that connects the downtown shoreline to the Queen. Doppelymayr has previously built such a gondola over the River Thames in London, England. Zaharoni said the gondola could work in concert with Long Beach Transit’s AquaLink bus in transporting people to and from the ship.
Zaharoni said that UC originally proposed a grand opening for Queen Mary Island in 2026. Achieving this timeline is dependent on obtaining subleases for Queen Mary Island and construction. Once that happens, he said, the Queen could become an entertainment destination on par with Universal Studios. “As a developer, it’s Holy Grail stuff,” he said. “The road to get there is arduous and challenging, but once it’s done? Not only does the development become something way beyond real estate, but for the City of Long Beach . . . it’ll take it to a different level.”
At the end of the day, Zaharoni said, the community of Long Beach owns the Queen Mary. “This should be the community’s place to gather and dine and create memories,” Zaharoni said. “That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to create pockets here on the ship that’s going to give them something to do on a Tuesday and a Wednesday and a Friday night.”