Photos by Asia Morris.
Mayor Robert Garcia’s third State of the City address Tuesday evening began very much like the previous two for the man who prevailed in 2014 and took the reins of the city from former mayor Bob Foster, making history along the way.
There was the glitz and glam of the reception, the city proudly displaying one of its new battery-electric buses in front of the Terrace Theatre, the pre-speech performances by Musical Theatre West, and of course, Garcia’s clean, interactive backdrops that illuminated his points while he spoke to a capacity crowd.
But once the introductions ceased, Garcia dived into the deeper topic of this country's diversity. He compared himself to author of God Bless America, Irving Berlin, noting that both he and the Russian native immigrated to this country with their families at the age of five, and both their families fought to overcome the obstacles that stood between them and succeeding in America.
Like Vice Mayor Rex Richardson in his introduction of the mayor, Garcia took a not so subtle dig at President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric, stating that what makes America great is not divisiveness, fear or anger but respect, kindness and love of country and constitution. The mayor vowed that Long Beach will remain a city open to diversity.
Or as Richardson put it, Garcia knows that the values of inclusion and diversity and equality are as essential to Long Beach as the Queen Mary and Snoop Dogg.
“And no matter what happens elsewhere, I plan to vigorously defend our values and the civil rights of our people,” Garcia said. “You see, Long Beach is already great.”
The mayor took the night to highlight the many accomplishments attained by the city during 2016, including a historic investment in the city’s infrastructure and public safety networks made possible by a voter-approved sales tax increase in Measure A & B. He outlined the $150 million investment plan that the city council has approved to be carried out over the next 3-4 years, over half of which will go toward street repairs citywide.
Garcia then took time to call on the Long Beach City Council to approve the restoration of the paramedic Rescue 12 engine in North Long Beach, something that had been the subject of dispute when the council last explored which resources would be brought back into the fold with Measure A funds.
The addition of Rescue 12 could reduce response times in Long Beach, ones that have dropped dramatically since the recession forced the city to cut staffing levels and shutter multiple fire response resources. Since 2005, those times have increased to the point that the Long Beach Fire Department is only meeting national standards for response times in just 21 percent of calls.
Another development that could have an impact on the city in terms of public safety but not chip away at its Measure A revenue or the general fund is the development of Garcia being elected to the Metro Board last week. The mayor announced that next month he’ll advocate for Metro to contract with the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) to provide for up to 30 new officers—that Metro will pay for—to police the Blue Line stops in the city. The LBPD currently has no jurisdiction over those stops.
“One of my top priorities along with bringing new revenues to our region is improving safety on the Blue Line,” Garcia said.
The mayor, circling back to a promise made during his first state of the city address, noted that the city was over halfway to his goal of building 4,000 new housing units in the city by 2024. Structures like The Current, the Edison Lofts and other projects that broke ground last year will change the city’s skyline and create density in the downtown district and have contributed to the 2,300 units built or planned to be completed so far.
However, those developments have largely been on the high-end of the rent spectrum with many charging upward of $2,000 per month for a studio apartment. Garcia acknowledged that while the city has definitely benefited from these new developments, and will continue to do so, it must do more to ensure that the housing market is affordable for a variety of income levels.
He cited the fact that such developments have been implemented or completed, along with recent retail developments are a sign that the economic prospects of the city are trending up. Garcia said unemployment is down but so too is homeownership in the state, reaching depths not seen since the 1940s. The cooks, hotel workers and retail workers in the city deserve an opportunity to also live in this city Garcia said.
“Our city should be a place for everyone,” Garcia said.
He said that with the demand for housing being greater than the supply and the cost of land being so high, it’s become very difficult to build new housing. Much of the city’s growth will be focused in downtown and central Long Beach as much of the rest of the city is built out. In February, a special meeting of the city council will reveal findings of multiple meetings held last year that sought to address the growing housing issues in Long Beach.
Staying true to his assertions in 2015 and 2016, Garcia tripled down on the city’s commitment to fighting global warming, including a pledge to break free from the city’s reliance on fossil fuels. To break with oil would be a challenge for the city as the Tidelands Fund, and the projects it finances, are in large part reliant on oil revenue.
However, the volatility of the price of oil in recent years has led to projects being delayed—think Belmont Plaza Pool project. Breaking from oil would be a tough task, and as Garcia conceded, would not happen overnight but it could help the city build a more predictable budget, especially for coastal projects.
“This not only makes sense for the environment, but it also makes financial sense, because we can’t continue to count on oil as a major source of revenue long-term,” Garcia said.
Outside of oil, the city has fought on multiple fronts to reduce the impacts on climate change. Garcia recently signed onto the Compact of Mayors, pledging to set targets for greenhouse gas emissions and has made strides toward becoming one of the first cities to utilize an all battery-electric powered bus fleet by the end of the decade.
He lauded the Port of Long Beach’s commitment toward mitigating its impact on the environment, pointing to the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners’ approval of a $46 million investment in surrounding communities.
Garcia said the city has also begun planning how to revitalize the Los Angeles River and will hear back from the United States Army Corp of Engineers soon on the potential actions on the breakwater, something that could increase the health of the water and ecosystems off the coast of Long Beach.
The city will also be distributing over 300 electric vehicle chargers provided by Mercedes-Benz to encourage residents to go electric. This is in addition to the city’s efforts to improve walkability and bike-ablitiy, something it’s worked toward in the form of 14 new miles of bike lanes. The impacts of which could reduce man-made greenhouse gas emissions if more and more people take to biking and walking around the city.
“We are building a city of the future, and in order to protect our city and our planet, we must be prepared to fight against climate change,” Garcia said.
The city of the future will get off to a fast start as Long Beach and its city council face a huge decision at its January 24 meeting with a vote on whether or not to move forward with an international terminal project at Long Beach Airport.
On a larger scale, the city may face challenges from the federal level as the incoming presidency stands in staunch opposition to policies and values—climate change, minimum wage, medical marijuana—that Garcia and the council have presented as important for the city.
Still, Garcia closed with a statement of optimism for Long Beach.
“We are in this journey together, let’s support each other, help our neighbors, help the poor in our community and lead with caring hearts and optimism about our future,” Garcia said.