Economic Woes May Capsize Ambitious Plan For Queen Mary

 

After 76 years afloat, the RMS Queen Mary surely still draws stares from the cargo ship crews that call at the Port of Long Beach, where the Queen remains one of Southern California’s more incongruous tourist attractions. Having sailed the North Atlantic under the Cunard flag, the ship has, since 1968, served simultaneously as a hotel, museum, event venue, and elegant icon for an otherwise working-class Southern California port city.    

For all its high-class connotations, the Queen Mary is docked unceremoniously in a forlorn corner of the harbor. The ship and its surroundings have been the object of countless proposed redevelopment schemes, the latest of which comes courtesy of a new lessor with ambitions of turning the ship and her surroundings into a regional entertainment and tourism destination.

“It’s an icon with a long established association with the city,” said Joseph Magaddino, chair of the economics department at California State University, Long Beach. “More importantly, it’s one of the elements that fits into the overall tourist destination economy that Long Beach is trying to create.”

That effort now hinges on investment group Save the Queen (STQ), led by Orange County developer Jeff Klein, which submitted the winning bid to purchase the operating and development rights for $43 million in a bankruptcy court auction in November 2007. Though the previous operator had gone bankrupt in 2005, just seven years into a 66-year lease with the city, STQ pledged to bring the ship back to its art deco splendor while exploring development options for its 45-acre dockside parking lot. The plan, however, may have washed away in the current wave of economic uncertainty.

The Queen Mary currently attracts captive audiences who attend conventions at the downtown Long Beach Convention Center. But to become a major regional attraction, it would likely require the complement of a Universal CityWalk-style destination that plays into the area's maritime tradition while softening its industrial image.  

“The efforts of the Save the Queen group are to allow the ship to be a significant attraction as part of the overall development of the site, not to preclude the ship but to make sure the ship is an active part of development,” said historian John Thomas, who sits on the board of the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency and has consulted with STQ on the ship’s restoration.

Save the Queen has already invested a reported $6 million in aesthetic and functional improvements to the hotel, restaurants and ventilation systems. It has upgraded hotel rooms and has taken on a subcontractor to manage hospitality and retail operations. But restoring the ship may merely be prelude to something much bigger.

As recently as August, reports and statements indicated that STQ was considering everything from a marina, to an amusement park, to hotels, residences and retail, all of which may have been developed in partnership with Carnival Cruise Lines. However, no dollar figure was ever attached to these proposals – though presumably it would range into the hundreds of millions – and promised renderings and specifics have yet to materialize.

“I hope to see the Queen restored to its historic splendor,” said Long Beach City Councilmember Suja Lowenthal, whose 2nd District includes the Queen Mary. “And I expect a proposal for a project with international level architecture and vision.”

The redevelopment of the Queen Mary would likely fit in with Long Beach’s ongoing efforts to upgrade and market itself.

“The city of Long Beach and the people in the region would like to see that site developed,” said Professor Magaddino.

Bob Maguglin, spokesman for the Long Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that a revitalized Queen Mary would be “a regional draw.” However, STQ, after initial pronouncement and promises, has refused to make any further statements concerning its plans, financing or deal with the city. In fact, the developer has hinted that it may jump ship entirely.

“Due to potential changes in ownership we are holding off on all media inquiries related to entitlement discussions or status of STQ,” STQ spokesman Mike Murchison wrote in an e-mail message.

Likewise, representatives of the Long Beach Planning Department and Redevelopment Agency refused repeated request for interviews.

“As far as I know, this deal is going forward,” said Lowenthal. “I haven’t been advised otherwise.”

Afloat but permanently moored, the Queen Mary faces little danger of going the way of her big sister Titanic. Yet a cavalcade of operators, including Hyatt and Disney, have tried to make a go of the Queen Mary. Ultimately the lease has been batted about among several operators whose resources and commitment were not strong enough to realize a comprehensive development plan.

“The real potential is to take the property adjacent to the Queen Mary to see how that can be developed to provide shopping and entertainment,” said Magaddino.  

The seagoing monarch therefore represents an enormous land-use challenge—to whomever develops it. Long Beach has revitalized its shoreline with The Pike entertainment and retail complex, an aquarium and parks, to which the Queen Mary provides a handsome backdrop. But the ship sits across the harbor, with poor road, pedestrian and transit connections, and its immediate surroundings have all the charm of a cargo dock.  

“I'm hoping for an urban planning component to it. Right now it’s somewhat detached from downtown and the rest of the city," said Lowenthal, who has commissioned a study for a streetcar line. “One of the greatest hopes I have for it is for it to be woven into the fabric of our city.”

Save the Queen had contracted with a transportation consultant and planned to partner with the city to request federal funding to improve access and develop mass-transit service. Meanwhile, construction of a hotel, retail, or any other land-side buildings would also require approval of the California Coastal Commission as well as meet California Tidelands Trust restrictions. Ultimately, though, surmounting regulatory hurdles may be nothing compared with the challenge of raising capital.

“The fact that we've had a worldwide economic collapse has put a kink in the timeline, but the developer is still investigating options,” said Lowenthal. “I look forward to them presenting preliminary concepts to the city within the next few months.  At that point, the entitlement process would begin.”

Contacts:
Suja Lowenthal, Long Beach City Council District 2, (562) 570-6684.
Joseph Magaddino, CSU Long Beach, 562-985-5061.
Mike Murchison, Save the Queen, (562) 596-5835.
Long Beach Heritage: www.lbheritage.org.
The Queen Mary: www.queenmary.com.