The coming year could shape what becomes of the largest undeveloped parcel of oceanfront land in Long Beach, the so-called “elephant lot” named for its prior use by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
The 13-acre Downtown parcel has been heralded as one of largest opportunity sites in all of Southern California.
Its location along the waterfront in the heart of Downtown could make it a prime target for future development, but a combination of regulations and uncertainties of what can physically be built on the site have stalled concrete plans. For now, it remains a surface parking lot used to create turns for the annual Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach and a staging area for film crews.
City officials are optimistic that a plan for collecting community input, identifying potential uses and addressing the regulatory approval process for the parcel the parcel could be put together fo City Council consideration by the end of the year. City officials hope that will build public momentum for the site to finally be developed, said Long Beach Economic Development Director John Keisler.
“Something big and fantastic is going to happen down there,” Keisler said.
Keisler said progress on the site has been slowed in recent years by a number of issues including the discussions with the Los Angeles Angels in 2019 that put the city’s process to seek out a build for the lot on pause, and more recently by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But there has been interest in the site, Keisler said, and now the city needs to start its process to figure out what it wants to have developed there.
In 2018 Mayor Robert Garcia announced a revisioning of the PD-6 zone, the planned development section that includes nearly every city parcel south of Ocean Boulevard in Downtown, and a commitment to develop the lot. The 18-month visioning process was supposed to begin in January 2020 but that was quickly upended by COVID-19.
“One of the most important parts of this economic recovery is to create a vision and to create hope and that will create momentum with regards to private sector investments,” Keisler said.
Engaging the public through a visioning process will be one issue, but there are other obstacles to moving forward.
The city doesn’t know how much the land is actually worth because a formal appraisal of it has yet to be completed.
A study has also yet to be completed that would assess the seismic resilience of the land—it’s made of infill—and the effect the water table below could have on potential projects.
Sergio Ramirez, a deputy director for the Economic Development department, said the budget deficits incurred by the city have postponed those analyses that he hopes will serve as the foundation for a planning document.
“Right now we don’t have any funding that could be made available for what would be really needed,” Ramirez said.
That could change with the infusion of federal funds expected to hit the city’s coffers in the coming months, with city leaders pledging over $83 million to backfill those deficits. Still, Ramirez is optimistic that there will be interest in the site.
Ramirez said the new skyline being erected could help draw interest to the site that has always been a source of intrigue. He said the city is uniquely positioned to see the same level of development interest as before the pandemic as the economy recovers from a year of economic shutdowns.
The site had been a point of longtime interest, with large management-giant Oak View Group, headed by Tim Leiweke, showing interest. With the Long Beach Convention Center’s operating agreement up for renewal this year, and a backlog of repairs and maintenance at the Convention Center totaling over $80 million, development of the lot could be used as a piece of a new management contract.
Keisler said the city is analyzing if the Convention Center, one of the largest economic drivers for the city, has everything it needs to be a full-service, modern attraction, but added that the development of the lot is not necessarily linked to the management contract.
“They’re not connected in the sense that one cannot be developed without the other,” Keisler said. “But to do a good development we’ll have to consider that they complement one another.”
Whatever developer ends up wanting to take on the elephant lot might have to accept that building housing may not be an option.
The land is part of the state Tidelands area, which means it’s governed by a public trust doctrine issued by the State Lands Commission that requires the land to be used for public purposes. Restaurants, stadiums, hotels, convention centers and airports have been interpreted to meet that doctrine over the past few decades, but something like housing has not.
Private housing units would not meet that standard without some kind of waiver from the state or a land-swap that would require the city to turn over a different parcel to public control.
A spokesperson for the California Coastal Commission said in an email that while the commission does grant coastal development permits on Tidelands land, it has generally interpreted the law the same as the Land Commission, resulting in housing rarely being approved for Tidelands development.
But the state’s worsening housing crisis could potentially change that, said Christopher Koontz, the city’s deputy director of Development Services.
If housing is now an issue of statewide concern, perhaps at some point in the future the Legislature or State Lands Commission could change policy to allow housing uses or Tidelands lease income to be used for affordable housing, Koontz said in an email.
If a developer wanted to build housing at the site there is the possibility that a land swap could mitigate the general ban on building housing in the Tidelands. A swap was something that was considered during the negotiations with the Angels, whose owner, Arte Moreno, sought to build a stadium with a housing and shopping district around it.
Those plans ended in December 2019 when the Angels and the city of Anaheim announced they had struck a deal to keep the team in Orange County through 2050.
In the midst of recovering from the pandemic, the city now expects to engage the public in a discussion of how best to use this coveted parcel of land.
“Even though it might take some time to get it right, with the planning process and the waterfront, the fact that we’re able to engage the community in a public contestation about this development long term, that will create momentum on its own,” Keisler said.