Completion of four huge construction projects led the news of 2019 in Long Beach.
Pacific Visions, a $53 million expansion at the Aquarium of the Pacific, started the openings on May 24. The two-story state-of-the-art exhibition center boasts a theater with a 180-degree screen, a series of interactive displays and exhibit space capable of hosting widely differing exhibitions.
The entire expansion is dedicated to envisioning how people will prepare for and react to global warming and sea level rise — the passion of aquarium president and CEO Jerry Schubel. After Pacific Visions opened, Schubel announced he will retire in 2020.
A project 10 times bigger than the aquarium's, the $520 million Long Beach Civic Center, completed its first phase at the end of July with the opening of a new City Hall, Port of Long Beach headquarters and a joint civic chambers to conduct meetings of the City Council, Harbor Commission and other policy-making groups.
The July 29 opening was the culmination of three years of construction after almost three years of negotiations and design work. The civic center was created by Plenary-Edgemoor Civic Partners in a public-private partnership with the city leasing the City Hall building for 40 years from Plenary-Edgemoor. The Harbor Department paid outright for its 11-story headquarters — a twin to City Hall, at least on the outside.
A new Main Library also is part of the Civic Center deal, and opened at the corner of Broadway and Pacific Avenue on Sept. 21. After some controversy, the new building was named the Billie Jean King Main Library, and the tennis legend was on hand for the opening.
One more public component of the Civic Center — a rebuilt Lincoln Park — will wait until demolition of the old main library and likely the old City Hall before there will be room to recreate the park. Plenary-Edgemoor also has the right to build two mixed-use high-rises on the property.
The final major completion in 2019, opening in October, was the 2ND & PCH retail center in east Long Beach. Anchored by a giant Whole Foods store, the center is designed to attract upscale clients with boutique retail and eclectic restaurants.
It took two decades of controversy and fights to get to the Oct. 24 opening. The former site for the SeaPort Marina Hotel is in the Tidelands, meaning the state Coastal Commission has permitting authority, and sits on the busiest intersection in Long Beach. Property owner TakiSun and developer CenterCal opted for the retail center that is allowed under current zoning after mixed use development plans were turned away by the Coastal Commission at the urging of environmental activists.
Those activists also delayed reconstruction of Marina Drive between the center and Alamitos Bay Marina with a fight over palm trees as homes for nesting Great Blue Herons. Parking issues for businesses and boat owners along Marina Drive continues to be an issue.
Homelessness And Affordable Housing
For the second year in a row, Mayor Robert Garcia called homelessness the number one issue facing Long Beach. The lack of affordable housing was a close second, and was intertwined with efforts to alleviate homelessness.
In late January, city officials announced purchase of a piece of property in north Long Beach to be used for year-round emergency and transitional housing, along with supportive services. The council approved a $5 million contract in December to install the first phase — modular housing units — with a target to be open by June 2020.
Developers were urged to build affordable housing, and multiple projects are underway. While there was talk of inclusionary housing ordinances or building incentives, nothing was passed for builders.
Instead, the council focused on rising rents and evictions apparently designed solely to make upgrades and raise rents further. A tenant protection ordinance required landlords to help pay moving and new apartment rental costs if rents were raised by 10 percent. Those rules were revoked in December after very similar statewide protections became law.
While some big projects were completed in 2019, others made incremental progress.
At the Port of Long Beach, the replacement for the Gerald Desmond Bridge took on its final shape, with cable stays stretching down from its tall towers and the traffic deck connecting. The bridge should open in 2020.
On the east side, the Community Hospital of Long Beach was leased to a partnership — Molina, Wu, Network (MWN) — hoping to reopen the historic facility as a smaller hospital with an emergency department. Licenses and inspections were still pending at the end of the year.
A new, smaller design for a Belmont Beach Aquatic Center surfaced in June and started approval processes in December. The center is supposed to replace the Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool, which closed in 2013 and was demolished in 2014. The new design moves the complex north up the beach, and has all water elements outside, including a diving well designed to be able to host Olympics-level competitions.
The smaller design would cost $85 million to build. It still needs approvals from the City Council and state Coastal Commission.
In addition to the Marina Drive construction flap, city officials took serious criticism for two other street projects designed to make things safer and/or more convenient. A plan to improve parking around Retro Row on Fourth Street by charging was stalled by complaints the paid parking stretched into residential areas. The city responded by shrinking the area to the business district.
More complex, and controversial, was a major "road diet" on Broadway, primarily between Redondo and Junipero avenues. The reduction to one traffic lane in each direction, with addition of protected bike lanes and other street features was the target of large protests led by business owners.
While the complaints have yet to result in major changes, the controversy has led to the City Council candidacy of Robert Fox in the Second District and continued bad publicity.
In what has become a bit of a tradition in Long Beach, First District Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez left the First District for higher office, winning a special election to the state Senate in the 33rd District. Another special election took place to replace Gonzalez, and Mary Zendejas easily outdistanced a large field. Zendejas made history with her election as the first physically handicapped person on the City Council.
Second District Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce found herself in hot water again, when an investigation found she had violated conflict of interest policies by working for Daniel Zaharoni, the development manager for the Queen Mary’s operator, Urban Commons Queensway. One of Zaharoni's companies involved marijuana production, and the Queen Mary is in Pearce's Second District.
Last year, Pearce was censured for activities connected to her former chief of staff. Investigations into the conflict of interest issue are continuing at the state Fair Political Practices Commission and the District Attorney's office, and Pearce announced in November that she would not run for re-election. But because of changes in the municipal election dates, she could be in office through November 2020.
Two longtime Long Beach Unified School District board members, Jon Meyer and Felton Williams, announced they would retire, and Long Beach Community College Trustee Doug Otto said he would run for Meyer's school board seat.
In July, the City Council voted to put a plan to extend a 1 percent sales tax hike indefinitely on the March 2020 ballot. And in October, another proposal was added to the ballot to increase Transient Occupancy Tax (hotel bed tax) by 1 percent to support arts organizations in the city.
In November, the Army Corps of Engineers released the results of a three-year study of San Pedro Bay with the conclusion that the breakwaters protecting the bay — and essentially eliminating waves — should not be altered. Advocates for eliminating or lowering the breakwater said they were ready to continue the fight, but jurisdiction remains in the hands of the federal government.
There were many more news stories in Long Beach in the course of 2019, and the Grunion was there to chronicle them all. We plan on being here in 2020 as well.
So thanks for reading, and Happy New Year.