Clay Sandidge, a local businessman, stood in front of a projector screen at The Grand event center a couple of weeks ago, speaking to the button-down and blazer-clad members of the Long Beach Commercial Real Estate Council, and pitched an ambitious idea known as The Wave — an aerial tramway that would connect the city’s downtown to its waterfront.
“This is not new to the city of Long Beach,” Sandidge told his audience.
While the scheme may be unfamiliar to many long-time residents, Sandidge’s opening salvo was correct: This concept is not new.
Over the past decade, the idea of an aerial tramway has popped up from time to time. But now is the opportune moment to revive the idea, Sandidge said, because of the downtown’s growth and Mayor Robert Garcia’s announcement last month that the waterfront is next in line for revitalization. In his pitch, Sandidge said a gondola system could enhance the growing skyline and give Long Beach some bragging rights, should it beat Los Angeles to the punch.
Sandidge’s speech highlighted some of the benefits the tramway could provide, like attracting tourists while lightening traffic congestion. It also got into some of the nitty-gritty: an aerial tramway could transport “upwards of 4,800 people per hour,” with about 2,400 people travelling in each direction. He said the gondola system would have four stops, although “there could be as many as six.” The first four would be near:
• the half-mile span between the Queen Mary and Hotel Maya;
• the Aquarium;
• the Visitors Bureau;
• the Metro station at Pine Avenue and First Street
“Just imagine going over the water,” Alex Bellehumeur, a fellow tycoon of Sandidge’s, told the Queen Mary Land Development Task Force two years ago, the last time the project surfaced. “Eighty, 90 feet up there and looking out over the broad span of downtown Long Beach.”
Six years before that, yet another local executive, Randy Woolwine, told Long Beach’s Tidelands and Harbor Committee that if members wanted to take a gondola trip from City Hall to the Queen Mary, “We could make a direct path over there. The bus route for that is probably three times as long as the route that we’re taking.”
During that 2010 meeting, then-Councilman Garcia sounded a note of interest: “I think, clearly, anytime that anything comes forward that’s innovative and that would make our city stand out, I think it definitely grabs the attention of us, and it certainly did of me.”
While the three dreamers — Sandidge, Bellehumeur and Woolwine — all represent different companies, they, along with folks from a few other corporations, have long been intertwined and motivated by the idea of creating a system that could redefine Long Beach and its skyline.
The current iteration of The Wave’s development team, Sandidge said, has remained more or less the same over the years — with their dedication to the cause assuming an almost altruistic tint.
During the 2016 Queen Mary Land Development Task Force meeting, after Bellehumeur clarified that the proposed development team members did not necessarily have to be tied to the project and other companies could bid to replace them, one of the task force members asked him, “What’s in it for you?”
To help the city, Bellehumeur replied.
“I am not in this for money,” he said. “So you can write it down, and if you find that somewhere in the future, ‘Here’s Alex, and he wants 25, 30 percent of the project, because of the two decades that he’s put into it,’ then you can (say something), and I will be humble enough to step aside.”
Even before the development team had settled on an aerial tramway as the winning idea, the same players tried to push a monorail funicular system that would serve the same area between downtown and the waterfront.
That version of this Sisyphean project was the closest to come to fruition in 2008, when Urban Innovations had secured $4 million in federal grants to kick it off. But access to the Queen Mary has always been a vital element of the plan, so when the ship’s operator Save the Queen, LLC, went into default in 2009, the deal was scrapped and the grant funds were returned.
But rather than throwing his hands up and considering the project a loss, Bellehumeur went on to tout the team’s ability to win grant funding once as evidence that it might be able to do so again.
“The funding of this project was doable then, and it’s doable now,” he told the task force in 2016.
These days, Sandidge has taken the helm as the project’s lead spokesman. He said in a phone interview this week that while his team is pushing the same basic idea it’s had for at least a decade, everyone involved is aware that they’re more or less starting from scratch.
While prior presentations have suggested the grassy space off the Hyatt Regency as a stop location, Sandidge is less committal. He said the locations could be negotiated, but wherever they end up, “you don’t need a huge piece of real estate.”
He estimated each stop would require between 10,000 to 20,000 square feet, although he said some of that could be spread vertically, depending on the space.
As for a timeline, Sandidge said the first priority is to get “everyone on board” and get financing in place. To that end, he has meetings set up with city staff and council members over the next few weeks. He said that like previous iterations of the proposal, it would be ideal to find grant opportunities so Long Beach itself won’t be stuck with the bill.
Assuming all of those things fall into place, Sandidge said he would anticipate a two-year permitting process and probably another year after that for construction. So once everything is green lit, it would be three to four years before the tramway could be up and running.
“I’ve always supported innovative ways to connect people across the city, in particular trying to come up with a great way to connect folks to and from the Queen Mary Island back into the downtown,” he said. “This has been discussed for many years, and I think, obviously this proposal is a great idea to look at.”
And even though Garcia said it’s a little too early to discuss timetables, he did agree with Sandidge that now — with downtown flourishing and the waterfront expected to follow suit — is the time to revisit the tram.
“We’re developing the Queen Mary Island into a really great entertainment space and a place that really respects and focuses on the ship,” Garcia said. “And we have more people in the downtown. There’s more density. There’s restaurants. There’s more attractions. So figuring out that kind of connection is certainly very timely today.”
“The idea has some energy,” he added. “This is not a pie-in-the-sky concept.”