Environmental justice and equitable use dominated the discussion of state Coastal Commissioners Thursday, Feb. 11, regarding approval of the Belmont Beach and Aquatics Center in Belmont Shore.
Ultimately, the project was approved on a 10-1 vote. The no vote came from Dr. Shelley Luce of Santa Monica. She is the CEO of Heal the Bay.
Several commissioners said they were concerned with the complex's location in an upscale, primarily white neighborhood in a time when equitable use is so important. While city officials had already agreed to a new study with more community outreach to show how the rest of the city could access the aquatic center, the commission argued there should be a more concrete plan before approval.
"How do we bake equity in here?" asked Commissioner Effie Turnbull-Sanders of Los Angeles. "Frankly, I would have expected to see a more robust outreach… To support this project, I'd have to see more from the city to promote equity."
Coastal Commission South District Director Steve Hudson said the condition could easily be amended to require a complete equity plan be approved by the Coastal Commission before construction instead of approval by the executive director. That change was added before the vote began.
Commissioners then turned to whether the pool complex was a coastal-dependent use and why other sites weren't chosen. The complex is planned to replace the Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool, which was demolished in 2013, and city staff argue it is a replacement, not a new facility.
Coastal Commission staff agreed that a pool is not generically a coastal-dependent use, but also said the use is allowed.
"It ultimately comes down to a judgment call for you," Hudson said.
Commission Chair Steve Padilla argued that the location by the ocean was a plus, and could be considered an equity plus by bringing inner city children to the ocean when they wouldn't otherwise come.
"I'll put this as delicately as I can," Padilla said, "but there's also a long history of advocates coming from communities of privilege. And they go to communities of color and say we can't do this project or that… This is a citywide asset."
The "Elephant Lot" parking lot next to the convention center downtown — the preferred site of those who appealed the Belmont Shore location — was discussed at length. Commissioner Roberto Uranga, who also is a Long Beach City Council member, said that economic considerations made the downtown site unusable, and city manager Tom Modica added the parking at the site would have to be replaced at great expense, and the lot is more susceptible to sea level rise than the Belmont Shore location.
As designed, the complex includes seven water features (including making the current temporary pool a permanent part of the complex), with an Olympic-level diving well, and a water play area for youngsters. The complex has been moved back from the water line to a point where even high estimates of sea level rise wouldn't reach, and cost has dropped to about $85 million.
"A lot of the discussion was about equity, and we're totally supportive of that," Modica said after the hearing. "But we really couldn't go out and talk about what we could do until we knew we had a project. Now we have a project, and we can go to the community."
Modica said that work would begin on final construction drawings as well as completing the financing along with the equity planning. That likely will take a year before construction can begin.