Terminal Island Freeway Removal Project To Face More Scrutiny Before City Takes Action

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A rendering of the Green Terminal Island Freeway project. Photo courtesy of Meléndrez.

The fate of the city-owned portion of the Terminal Island Freeway, specifically regarding whether or not it’s feasible to decommission the space and transform it into park space, lurched another step forward Tuesday night, when the Long Beach City Council voted unanimously in favor of further traffic and environmental impact studies.

The vote moves along a process that was initially proposed by advocates nearly a decade ago and was kickstarted when the city won a grant from CalTrans in 2013. The grant was part of an environmental justice initiative that provided it with the funds to hire a firm to come up with concepts for a potential freeway removal. That bid was awarded to Los Angeles design firm, Meléndrez, the same firm commissioned for the Bixby Park redesign.

The Terminal Island Transition Plan, or the “Green TI” as heralded by proponents, would remove the portion of the freeway between Willow and PCH and replace it with a more pedestrian-friendly and pollutant-free park zone in an area of the city that is deprived of valuable green space.

Supporters of the plan say that the estimated 11,000 vehicles (about 6,000 trucks) that utilize the TI don’t necessitate its further existence as a roadway, as traffic volume has dissipated in the wake of the Navy leaving the city and other, more efficient roadways have been introduced or expanded. Opponents of the plan argue that removing the stretch of road could have dire consequences on port businesses and surrounding communities if trucks are forced onto surface streets.

However, after nearly two hours of debate between community members and activists pushing for a more green entity to be installed in the city and an “unprecedented” coalition of labor unions and port businesses voicing opposition to the removal of vital infrastructure for port-bound goods, the council decided that more information regarding possible impacts on traffic, health and the economy were needed before they could take a side in the matter.

Seventh District Councilman Roberto Uranga spoke at length of his community and the health benefits it would serve for such a park space were installed—nearly 25 acres if the project were to commence—but noted this plan is still in the infant stages of what’s projected to take another 7-10 years before a possible completion date.

“This is just a conceptual plan that addresses some of the concerns that West Long Beach residents face, and many of us in other parts of the city take for granted,” Uranga said. “We want clean air, we want better mobility, we want our schools to be clean, we want our schools to be safe when kids go outside to play, we want to lower particulate matter.”

The biggest causes for concern, voiced by both sides of the issue and the city council, was the lack of in-depth studies, like how traffic would be impacted, and the absence of an environmental impact report. Because the plan is still in its conceptual phase, it did not require those, but those studies will be required prior to any kind of vote to approve the project. Uranga’s motion calls for some of those deeper studies to commence and for a status report to come back in six months.

“The recurring theme that I heard tonight from both sides is that it’s incomplete,” Uranga said. “There are still a lot more things that need to be accomplished.” 

The west side of the city is disproportionately impacted by respiratory disease, with those living in the areas affected by the port experiencing asthma at a rate twice the county-wide average.

Advocates like urban design firm City Fabrick, which most recently fought for and won a battle to convert the city’s most dangerous intersection near the Museum of Latina American Art (MOLAA) into Gumbiner Park, say that the underutilized freeway can have its traffic diverted to other local infrastructure projects like Union Pacific’s Intermodal Container Transfer Facility or to the more heavily trafficked Alameda Corridor, just a mile to the west of the TI.

City Fabrick founder and executive director, Brian Ulaszewski, noted that while the possible removal of the TI Freeway would not only represent the smallest in the country and first in Southern California, it would not be an unprecedented project. He pointed to projects like Portland’s removal of the Harbor Drive Freeway (25,000 vehicles per day) in 1978, a freeway that now serves as a bustling waterfront park along the Willamette River that runs through the heart of the city.

To Ulaszewski, projects like Syracuse’s removal of Interstate-81 and New Haven’s removal of Route 34, both of which served approximately 75,000 vehicles per day, stand as proof that the TI removal plan is viable.

In defending potential harm to the port and port businesses, he pointed to San Francisco’s removal of the Embarcadero and Central Freeways in San Francisco that served some 150,000 vehicles per day, and more notably, its financial district.

“That is their economic engine,” Ulaszewski said. “That is the economic engine of the Bay Area.”

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Bird's eye view of rendering with Pacific Coast Highway (left) and Willow (right).

Union and port representatives voiced separate views of the success of other city’s freeway removal projects. Elizabeth Warren, executive director of Future Ports, said that while those projects may have been bigger, the fact that the TI runs through one of the largest ports in the world really makes it a non-relevant comparison.

“Even though other freeways that have more traffic volumes have been decommissioned as we saw in the presentation, none of them have been running through a port complex like we have here in Long Beach and San Pedro,” Warren said. “It’s the largest port complex in the western hemisphere, not just in the United States. Comparing our Terminal Island freeway project to other projects, we feel is more like comparing apples and oranges and not really relevant in this case.”

Pilar Hoyos, the senior vice president of public affairs for the Watson Land Company, a company with several properties along the TI that was involved in the public outreach process leading up to last night’s presentation, said the unintended consequences of such a plan could result from the idea that Long Beach would be losing efficiency in the way it transports goods to and from the port complex. She said those feelings could affect the city’s competitiveness to attract port clients, if they feel the infrastructure is lacking.

“When you close down this major infrastructure, or even send a message that you’re considering doing it, those start to impact decisions,” Hoyos said. “And those decisions have serious implications in terms of jobs.” 

When dollars and cents were put aside and the residents of West Long Beach had their turn at the microphone, several challenged the council to think what a day in a their lives would be like if they had to live in such close proximity to the TI Freeway and the emissions from the trucks that utilize it. Others alluded to the feeling that the city was not investing in that part of town, something that could not only have impacts on physical health, but psychological health and development.

They also pointed out the disparity of park space from East Long Beach (16.7 acres/1,000 residents) and West Long Beach (1 acre/1,000 residents). The National Recreation and Parks Association’ standard for a healthy city requires a minimum of 10 acres per 1,000 residents, making the West Side “park poor.”

Former Seventh District Councilwoman Tonia Uranga, wife to the man who currently sits in that seat, said that it's always been an idea that the TI was inappropriately placed. While she noted the two biggest desires identified by a survey given to members of public regarding the project were jobs and clean air, she said there must be an effort by the council to identify mitigation for the pollution caused by the port and the TI. If they don’t, she warned that a lawsuit could be on the horizon, as the community continues to take the brunt of pollution effects caused by the city’s largest economic driver.

“You have to give something to the community that has taken all the negatives of the port and port-related businesses and give them something,” Uranga said in her support of further study. “I say give them some hope. At least let them know that you’re talking about it and thinking about it.”

[Editor's note: A previous version of this story listed Willow being the street on the left side of the rendering and Pacific Coast Highway on the right. It has been corrected to show the actual layout of the streets.] 



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