With a population 470,000, national population rank of 39th, and home of the largest port complex in the country, the City of Long Beach keeps a disproportionately low profile nationally. It also keeps a literally low profile, with much of the city limited to two story buildings. Over the past year, though, residents made a great deal of noise about the city’s first update to its Land Use Element since 1989 and failed attempts by planners to promote more mid-rise development.
While the plan accommodates growth and cites a host of progressive goals, community opposition to upzoning led to vicious political battles and, ultimately, the adoption of a scaled-down Land Use Element, in the preliminary form of “PlaceType and Height” maps, on a 8-1 vote March 6. “PlaceTypes” refers to the plan's characterization of land uses; it is designed to de-emphasize specific uses and focuses on the form and character of the city's neighborhoods and districts.
The council adopted an accompanying Urban Design Element and directed staff to prepare a programmatic environmental impact report. It was a contentious end to a process that lasted over a decade.
Years ago, the Long Beach Planning Department laid out a series of goals meant to update its 1989 general plan and modernize the port city, known for beachy middle class homes on the southeast side (contributing to the nickname “Iowa by the Sea”) and for impoverished, largely minority neighborhoods in its northern half (celebrated as the infamous “LBC” by native Snoop Dogg). Those goals became more progressive with the recession of the late 2000s, which put the planning process on hold. The process resumed in what was, essentially, a different world several years ago, as sustainability and transit-oriented urbanism became more ingrained in planning orthodoxy.
“I think it brings our land use element into the 21st century by including a lot of new best practices in land use that were not even on the table when our element was last done in 1989,” said Linda Tatum, Planning Bureau manager at Long Beach Development Services.
The plan is designed to achieve the following goals, according to the Planning Department:
All these goals may indeed by included in the new Land Use Element – but the scaled-down proposal was adopted only after a hugely contentious process over the last few months, during which opponents personally attacked the city’s planners. A Facebook group, “Say No to the LUE” led some of the most public opposition.
Managers of the “Say No to the LUE” Facebook group declined to comment for this article. A notice on the group’s page reads, in part, “We forced our representatives to admit their failure to reach the citizens they are supposed to represent, causing them to vastly scale back an overly-ambitious and idealistic LUE, and replace it with one that allows for more modest and pragmatic growth.”
Planning Department staff released an initial proposal in November. It recommended increases in residential density but limited those increases to roughly 16 percent of the city, largely on low-rise commercial corridors. For many residents, it was too dense and covered too broad an area.
Ultimately, the Planning Department whittled down the LUE, and the City Council shrank it further to result in the maps adopted last week. Council members amended the LUE in the meeting leading up to the vote in fine detail, chopping certain lots zoned for five stories down to three and others from four stories to two.
“The map came back to planning commission, who kicked it down a little bit. Staff also kicked it down a little bit in response to the feedback from a significant number of outreach efforts,” said Tatum.
The LUE is designed to encourage significant housing and commercial development in the City’s Downtown core, invests in future housing opportunities along the Blue Line light rail, and identifies areas for modest growth throughout the city. Downtown, where the majority of the city’s dense development is expected to occur, was not included in the plan.
This comes against the backdrop of a housing crisis that is particularly acute in coastal cities. Long Beach’s formidable size gave it the potential to absorb a great deal of the region’s growth. Tatum said, though, that the city focused primarily on its own needs.
“We know that the city doesn’t exist in a vacuum: everything from the housing crisis to traffic impacts are regional,” said Tatum. “You think about those things, but what’s happening with the regional housing crisis doesn’t in and of itself drive the city’s determination for what we recommend at a local level. We respect the needs of our city, so that was our primary focus.”
Original drafts accommodated a generous amount of new housing. Tatum insists that even with the downzoning, the city has zoning capacity to meet its Regional Housing Needs Allocation. The city’s current RHNA allocation calls for the addition of on average 780 units per year. In the past three years, the city has added 300, 150, and 675, respectively.
“We feel that the LUE that was adopted by city council last night…can indeed accommodate the city’s regional housing needs allocation,” said Tatum. She added that the LUE does not specify a number of units, in part because the map includes many mixed-use parcels, and the ratio of housing to commercial space that will be developed on those parcels is unpredictable.
The November draft of the LUE says that the plan accommodates a population “expected to reach 484,485 by 2040 a 3.2 percent increase from a population of 466,255 in 2012.” Tatum said that those estimates come from the Southern California Association of Governments. By contrast, the California Department of Finance estimates that the state will grow more than 15 percent in that same time period.
New housing, though, is not necessarily the priority of many of the stakeholders who commented on the LUE.
Many of the LUE’s amendments reflect the level of public participation in Long Beach and were designed to appeal to individual activists and neighborhood groups. The city’s directory lists 79 official neighborhood associations, many with ultra-specific constituencies. The city’s Wrigley neighborhood alone has five neighborhood associations.
Early drafts of the LUE inspired the formation of new neighborhood coalitions and the strengthening of others, many with a strong slow-growth ethos, in a similar pattern to those seen in many other built-out California cities. With each successive proposal, many groups retrenched their opposition, with city council members following suit. Long Beach realtor and Executive Director of the city’s Council of Neighborhood Organizations (CONO) Robert Fox threatened to run for mayor against incumbent Robert Garcia if demands were not met.
Ultimately, Fox and CONO agreed to support a late version of the LUE.
“We had stakeholders on both sides, and that tells us that we did something right,” said Tatum. “Everybody got something of what they wanted.”
Josh Butler, executive director of advocacy group Housing Long Beach, noted that “everybody” is a relative notion.
“Only Long Beach's White and Caucasian populations are majority homeowners, and they dominated the conversation. Long Beach's diversity was not represented,” wrote Butler in an email. “Having the voices of the underserved community would have been of great assistance to counter the anti-growth voices that dominated the conversation.”
Butler said that the LUE, in any form, is essentially ineffectual in the absence of effective citywide programs to promote affordable housing, such as an inclusionary housing requirement.
“With no built in component requiring affordable housing be included in market rate developments, the City left themselves in a position, wherein which the community does not believe that future growth will benefit them, and another half of the city who believes that future growth will hurt them,” wrote Butler. “The City placed themselves in a lose-lose situation.”
Tatum said that housing, including affordable housing, falls under the city's housing element, not its land use element. She noted that the Planning Department's housing staff is currently drafting recommendations for the city's housing policy.
The adoption comes after a contentious fall. In November, city staff recommended the reduction of permitted heights and densities across 686 acres that it deemed would have impacted single-family neighborhoods. In December, the Planning Commission voted to recommend those changes. Still, some groups, including “Say No to the LUE” remained wary of the plan, and some council members indicated that they would not vote for it until the last-minute changes.
The debate challenged the leadership of Garcia, who has enthusiastically promoted the city as a progressive place that constitutes more than just cranes and containers. He struck a conciliatory tone in a statement following last week’s vote: “I’m proud of the community and the City Council for adopting a responsible and forward-looking plan that protects residential neighborhoods and invests in our future,” said Garcia in a statement.
The Facebook group’s post invokes the vitriol of some of the discussions, saying, “There are vultures out there, not just politicians, but advocacy groups, lobbyists, special interests, unions, etc, who are all waiting for you to fall into irrelevance and disenfranchisement, so that they can push through their agendas and buy and sell Long Beach.”
Whatever developers’ agenda may be, city planners intend for them to pursue it in a more attractive fashion. Tatum said that she considers the Urban Design Element to be one of the more innovative aspects of the general plan update. And one that may placate anxious residents.
“Addresses it at a fairly granular level….to make sure that new development is compatible and contextual,” said Tatum. “For residents who have concerns about higher density and multifamily built up against single-family residences, it’s important that they know that that is something we gave a lot of thought and attention to.”
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