A Plenary Edgemoor representative discusses the new Civic Center's affect on homeless at Lincoln Park. Photos by Jason Ruiz.
As it winds down its community outreach meetings with the nine districts in the city, Plenary/Edgemoor Civic Partners (PECP), the group that won the bid to construct the new Civic Center, addressed a group of citizens in the city that have had virtually no voice in the matter. At an early morning meeting Wednesday inside a Goodwill store on the Westside, it met with the Long Beach Area Coalition for the Homeless (LBAHC) to discuss what will happen to the homeless people who congregate at Lincoln Park when construction on the Civic Center commences.
PECP has two more scheduled meetings with residents and stakeholders from the 1st and 9th Districts and currently plans to start the first phases of construction by the end of this year. Which means that the fences will go up and the property, including Lincoln Park, will need to be vacated. The site is expected to be fenced off for around two and a half years.
Gloria Cordero, a community outreach consultant for PECP, spoke at the coalition's meeting about the PECP plan and said that part of her job is to figure out how to create density and draw people to the new park, and the other is how to craft a humane solution for those who will be displaced during the construction.
“This is just the beginning of a dialogue. We’re not going to come here today and say ‘okay, we fixed it.’” Cordero said. “How can we help the people that are conditionally there right now transition? There will be a fence around Lincoln Park for probably two years.”
But Cordero added that the onus shouldn’t fall completely on PECP.
“Plenary is not the solution but they are a part of the solution,” Cordero said. “And they’ve already said that they want to. They have a vested interest as well as the residents and home owners to be caretakers of the homeless.”
Lincoln Park is both the oldest park in the city, and probably the most synonymous with harboring a homeless population given its prominent spot adjacent to City Hall. PECP plans to beautify the park, expanding the square footage and building a performance space for live music which could entertain over 10,000 guests at a given event. But first, it will need to clear the area and the homeless who use it as a daily gathering place.
LBAHC President Louis Mena said that Wednesday's meeting was the first time he heard the park would be closed for over two years during the construction period and while nobody expected the issue to be resolved today, it was a good start to a conversation that will undoubtedly continue through the planning process.
“We’re still throwing around ideas is the issue and we’re here to let the project people know that you can’t just put up a fence and say ‘they’re out of our construction area now and we’re fine,’” said Mena. “It’s not going to work that way. They’re going to go all over Long Beach and we’re here to see what we can do.”
The exodus that is expected when the facility is fenced off will inevitably affect the surrounding businesses and properties as those who frequent Lincoln Park will be dispersed to other parts of the City. Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal who represents the 2nd District, which stands to be affected most by the construction, said that the homeless element is one of many issues that have made up the process of building the new Civic Center. She pointed out that homelessness is not a crime, but it is a challenge that many large cities like Long Beach face.
“This morning’s conversation is a reminder of the complexities involved in the civic center development – namely, the impact of construction upon our homeless population and surrounding community,” Lowenthal said. “The issue of homeless in the new Lincoln Park was raised at the District 2 Civic Center open house last week, but the conversation mostly revolved around the need to activate our parks as a means of insuring usage by every community stakeholder.”
According to the City’s 2013 Homeless Count Summary Report, a bi-annual count of the homeless people in the City, there were 4,387 homeless people in the city, with nearly half of them living on the street. While homeless persons are a constant presence in and around Lincoln Park, persons on the board at LBAHC estimate that the number that frequents Lincoln Park hovers around 50. Joe Ganem, a member of the coalition’s steering committee, described the issue as the elephant in the room, adding that whose responsibility it is to address it and how they’re going to go about it is something that can’t be ignored.
“There’s really been very little open discussion about the homeless that are fundamentally resident in that area,” Ganem said. “Absent a plan, and I’m hoping that there is going to be some kind of a plan, expect that once that area gets cordoned off for construction, the homeless people are simply going to go to other places probably in the Downtown area.”
Ganem pointed out that due to the fact that PECP is going to be leasing the facility to the city—at an estimated cost of $358 million over 40 years—it will essentially be the landlord, and will be more involved in the process than he initially considered.
“Plenary’s going to be the landlord,” Ganem said. “That means the city has contracted with you to do this, but effectively you’re going to be buying that land from them in exchange for building these buildings and leasing it back. I think that because of that, Plenary is distinctly involved in that.”
The issues voiced by many in attendance at the meeting were that this was the first time the homeless population had been addressed publicly in regard to how the new civic center will impact them, and also that there currently is no concrete plan to address it.
Shannon James, President of Beacon For Him Ministries, a non-profit dedicated to the homeless, suggested using cargo containers—ones that would coincidentally mirror the design of the Port of Long Beach’s portion of the new Civic Center—to serve as temporary housing. James, who is also a Longshoreman, works with around the containers daily and said that her big vision just needs the backing and a plot of land. The issue for her boils down to the lack of affordable housing in the city, with a lack of a place to live serving as a barrier to overcoming other obstacles.
“Working with them I’ve realized that people cannot get to the next level in their life, they cannot rise above if they’re not knowing where they’re going to sleep at night,” James said. “There are a lot of good people that have hit hard times. There are various reasons why people have become homeless.”
But James also added that previous attempts at trying to help the homeless have landed her in legal trouble, most notably six misdemeanor citations for serving food without a permit.
Closing the park isn’t going to make homelessness disappear, it will just shift it to another location. Lincoln Park has been the site of several movie shoots and community events, most recently the Downtown Long Beach Associate’s Celebrate Downtown event last month. While those closures have only lasted days at the most, the rebound of the population has always been fairly immediate, according to Mena.
Although activating the park through reinvigorating the Civic Center and actually making it a destination for residents could in theory displace the homeless population from Lincoln Park permanently, Mena thinks that no matter how long the park is closed, people who are homeless will inevitably make their way back to it.
“We know they’ll come back. It’s a park in the middle of the city, a very dense city,” Mena said. “And there will always be homeless people around it. Even if they closed it for three years it’s always going to be a congregational place to hang out, be safe, be nice. If you don’t have a house, let’s stay the day at a park.”