The sound of dozens of people hissing filled the Whaley Park Community Center as Amy Bodek, director of Long Beach Development Services, began her opening remarks during a city-sponsored evening community meeting regarding the proposed Land Use Element.
With 200 people filling the community center to capacity on October 4, the fire marshal requested all those not in a seat to vacate the building, as a tent was set up outside with 300 seats and speakers to allow them to listen in on the discussion. Several people initially refused to comply, holding up the meeting for several minutes. At its peak, both the community center and tent seating were full, with more people standing outside and in the foyer.
More than 600 residents attended a Long Beach Land Use Element meeting October 4 at the Whaley Park Community Center to learn about proposed building heights and density. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Brandon Richardson)
“I think it’s been executed very poorly in communicating with citizens,” Jane Nadeau, an 8th District resident, said. “Now that there’s enough social media out there saying five-story buildings are going to go up in residential neighborhoods, they’ve got everyone angry.”
On September 30, the city held the first of four community meetings to inform residents about and get feedback on the proposed maps for the Land Use Element of the city’s General Plan. The first meeting was a workshop style setup, with booths dedicated to particular topics so that residents could ask more specific questions. Community organizers were not pleased with the setup and quickly hijacked the meeting, calling for a town hall-style discussion.
Learning from the experience, city staff altered the October 4 meeting from a workshop to a town hall – microphones and all. After 4th District Councilmember Daryl Supernaw gave brief comments asking for the crowd, which gave him a standing ovation, to remain civil, Bodek gave a brief PowerPoint presentation. From there, Bodek, along with Advance Planning Officer Christopher Koontz and Planning Bureau Manager Linda Tatum, fielded questions and an onslaught of criticism – and some personal attacks – for nearly four hours.
“Nobody in that room believes the crap that the planning people are coming up with. They don’t believe them or agree with them, and they don’t have confidence that they are going to wrap people’s concerns into the next set of maps,” Steve Pond, 5th District resident, said. “I did like that they are letting everyone say what they want. Some good things, some bad things.”
Like the majority of those in attendance, Pond is a longtime resident of East Long Beach and vehemently opposes the proposed building heights in his suburban, residential area. Pond lives in the Stratford Square neighborhood across the street from a Kmart. This large, fully built-out retail center on the corner of Bellflower Boulevard and Spring Street is designated for five-story development under the current Land Use Element maps, while current buildings stand around two stories tall.
Echoing similar concerns as many others throughout the evening, Pond said he fears the commercial center would be replaced by housing, particularly low-income housing, which would detract from the residents’ quality of life by increasing already excessive traffic, noise and air pollution and removing amenities.
Nadeau said she opposed the maps because taller buildings across the city, particularly in East Long Beach, would take away from its small-town vibe, which is a major part of its charm and appeal. However, she noted that residents in attendance at the meeting should recognize that the maps are a work in progress, still to be amended, as Bodek pointed out and that people should give constructive feedback rather than attack the messenger.
The foundation for the building height increase is based on state estimates for population growth in Long Beach, as well as state-mandated goals for housing construction. According to Bodek, the state mandate for Long Beach was to create 7,000 new residential units between 2013 and 2021. She explained that the city has fallen short every year so far to stay on track to reach that goal.
This information spurred shouts from the audience about not wanting outsiders moving into Long Beach, keeping it locals only and focusing on existing communities first – not unlike comments from President Donald Trump on immigration.
“I’ve lived here 63 years, and Long Beach has changed so much. And it’s just going to get worse,” Lou Smith, a 5th District resident, said. “If they wouldn’t have made this a sanctuary city, maybe the people wouldn’t have come.”
A follow-up question asked what would happen if Long Beach did not adhere to the development of state-mandated housing. Bodek responded that the city would be deemed ineligible for state grant funding, which many departments rely on. Many residents did not think this a price too steep to pay, as shouts of “So what?” and “Lakewood did it!” rang through the center accompanied with cheers.
California Senate Bill 35 also was a hot topic of the night, with residents asking what it meant for the city. Tatum went over the key points of the bill, much to the displeasure of the crowd upon learning some of the finer details.
Amidst shouted complaints of potential impacts to Long Beach, Bodek reiterated that SB 35 is a state bill, which Long Beach officials had no part in creating. Former Harbor Commissioner Rich Dines then asked why the city council’s state legislation committee did not take a stand against the bill as some surrounding cities did, which garnered shouts of agreement. The committee consists of Councilmembers Al Austin as chair, Lena Gonzalez as vice chair and Stacy Mungo as member. It hasn’t had a meeting since January 10.
While the overwhelming majority of those in attendance oppose the proposal, a couple of members of the crowd saw value and welcomed the change.
“I’m generally supportive of creating higher density in the city. You look at where the city needs to be in 2040, and that’s a higher-density city,” Mike Clemson, a 35-year-old 4th District resident, said. “The city needs more transit, less parking. The city needs more biking options. The city needs more walking options.”
Clemson acknowledged that most of the 4th District and 5th District are not built out to be highly walkable areas and that they remain car dependent. However, he said a certain level of compromise is necessary to advance the city in a positive direction rather than remain stagnant. He explained that he understands why residents in such areas would oppose any increase in density but that the city must begin to figure out how to adapt those neighborhoods for inevitable population growth by examining robust transit systems citywide.
In September, councilmembers Supernaw and Mungo came out against the proposed maps, as did Mayor Robert Garcia. Each made it clear that increased height and density were not welcome additions to the single-family residential areas of East Long Beach.
“This is a planning commission item, and we typically do not comment on something prior to it coming to council. I broke with protocol on this issue because of the sentiment and just how upset my constituents were,” Supernaw said. “It’s an emotional item. People have a lot of passion about this. That’s a good thing. They are very protective of their neighborhoods. I don’t think you can really avoid the passion, so that I don’t mind. But I would like to keep it civil at all times.”
The final two community meetings are scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday, October 14, at the Best Western Golden Sails Hotel near Marina Pacifica, and 6 p.m. Wednesday, October 18, at the Expo Arts Center in Bixby Knolls.
For more information on the City of Long Beach General Plan Land Use and Urban Design Elements, visit www.longbeach.gov/pages/city-news/long-beach-general-plan-update-is-here.