A Streetcar Named Monorail

The recent release of the Limited Streetcar Feasibility Study for Long Beach represents nothing less than a new collective dreamscape for reintroducing streetcars throughout the city. While many denizens of Long Beach have voiced their support for a city served once again by streetcars, many local media outlets have struck a more discordant and misleading tone, typically by referencing a half-century-old tale that has little to do with streetcars, metaphorically or literally. For the record: “A Streetcar Named Desire” is the tale of a woman who takes a streetcar route named “Desire” when arriving at her sister’s home in New Orleans. That’s it.

Indeed, a letter to the editor from Councilmember Suja Lowenthal responding to some of the more pessimistic voices against the streetcar reminded me not of Tennessee Williams’s 1947 Pulitzer-winning play, but a more current cultural reference. Her glossy description of a veritable golden path laid with streetcar tracks recalling nothing so much as the 1993 episode of The Simpsons entitled “Marge Versus the Monorail,” in which a salesperson comes into the family’s fictional town of Springfield to sell the city a monorail. The episode features hilarious references to The Music Man, drawing from that 1957 musical the idea of a hyped panacea (a marching band in the musical; a monorail in The Simpsons episode) that will turn a struggling small town into a glittering global metropolis like globally recognizable cities North Haverbrook and Ogdenville.

Rumor has it that “Marge Versus the Monorail” was inspired by the failed attempt to develop a monorail along the 101 Freeway from Downtown Los Angeles to Hollywood. However, the episode certainly can be taken as a broader commentary upon the more general enthusiasm for reintroducing streetcars in North American cities. Whether the discussion is taking place in Los Angeles, Austin, or Long Beach, the same examples (specifically, Portland, Tampa, and Little Rock) are cited as success stories where new streetcar lines were followed by a veritable flood of economic development. This could be due to a variety of reasons including media attention and academic study but also because of an easily accessible resource.

Reconnecting America describes itself as “a national non-profit organization that is working to integrate transportation systems and the communities they serve.” They seek to provide tools for communities to integrate urban mobility infrastructure with land use development. One of their resources, Street Smart, is a book about streetcars; it covers topics ranging from the history of streetcars to developing effective land use policies along those rail corridors. To concretize the discussion, the book focused upon four case studies: San Francisco, Tampa, Portland, and Kenosha (Wisconsin). It bears noting that one sponsor of the book is HDR, the consulting firm the prepared the Limited Streetcar Feasibility Study for Long Beach.

Street Smart, HDR, and Reconnecting America are all good resources for understanding how streetcars can fit into a city’s mobility and land use strategy. However, all these case studies and innovative solutions must be properly contextualized if we are to understand how Long Beach might best benefit from streetcars. All parties to these discussions have often employed the phrase “development-oriented transit” to describe the potential for economic growth: this phrase underscores a pattern of private development around new streetcar lines.

The reality gets more complex when we look more closely at the cities celebrated as models to emulate: in each case, additional factors beyond the addition of streetcars in isolation have supported land use development. Portland, for instance, is perhaps the most celebrated example of a city that has added streetcars. Portland inaugurated its streetcar in 2001 with an initial length of three miles; the system continues to expand and will soon double in size to include a second line. With over 11,000 daily riders, Portland’s streetcar system has become a crucial tool for transportation, filling a gap between existing regional light rail passenger trains and local bus lines.

Despite these obvious successes, opinion remains divided as to the role that Portland’s streetcar system has played as a catalyst for development. Boosters of urban development and fixed rail transit infrastructure point to nearly three billion dollars of new development along streetcar lines. Others, citing Randall O’Toole’s “Debunking Portland: The City That Doesn’t Work,” question such statistics. In any case, what is key to consider is how the development took place at all. Specifically, the city of Portland revised its zoning policies to facilitate proper development, so as to provide a local density and mix of uses that would best integrate with streetcars. This included increasing allowable densities, reduced parking provisions, requiring active ground floor uses near streetcar lines (shops rather than parking garages, for instance), and inclusionary affordable housing. Other infrastructure improvements—including bike facilities and open space—were also added to make the area more amenable to streetcars.

Highlighting Portland’s efforts to facilitate the success of its new streetcar system is germane because Long Beach is in the midst of updating its own General Plan, the pivotal blueprint for public and private development, including infrastructure improvements. Termed Long Beach 2030, this effort to update the General Plan represents the ideal opportunity to formalize improvements to the city’s transit infrastructure, ranging from proposed streetcar lines to the potential extension of the MTA Green Line light rail through the Westside into downtown Long Beach.

In turning to Portland as exemplar of what could happen in Long Beach, what has been largely overlooked is that the successful growth in private development that followed the introduction of streetcars in Portland largely took place in three urban neighborhoods converted from formerly port-related industrial areas. Transforming these areas into private development zones allowed for dozens of blocks of entirely new development. Analogous circumstances surrounded the development of the South Lake Union Area of Seattle, which is connected to Seattle’s downtown via their new streetcar line. Similarly, downtown Kenosha, Wisconsin experienced much of its recent development on a 70-acre former industrial zone, or “brownfield,” and its new streetcar line will eventually connect this zone to another 30-acre brownfield, also slated for new development.

Substantial parcels of land for new development, then, played a central role in the success of streetcar lines in all these cases. How might Long Beach forge similar opportunities? One key place to look would be around the airport, where the former Boeing properties are currently experiencing varying levels of redevelopment. The nearby Douglas Park mixed-use business environment could be developed in a more intense manner; instead of a 1- and 2-storey office park, taller 5- and 6-storey office buildings linked to a streetcar line could result in a greater intensity of job growth (not unlike the South Lake Union area in Seattle). The Queensway Bay Area as well as the Memorial Heights Neighborhood along Atlantic Avenue could also provide fertile grounds for large-scale development.

Unfortunately, however, most of the streetcar lines proposed in Long Beach’s streetcar study focus on the southern, most developed portion of the city. Spanning from Belmont Shore to downtown, this area consists primarily of small properties that are already developed. Though potentially a rich area for attracting choice riders, due to its existing density and pedestrian-friendly environment, opportunities for significant new development in this area are not great. What is at issue, then, are the priorities for developing streetcar lines.

To be clear, I unequivocally support developing a streetcar network: at issue is what we envision this streetcar network to accomplish, and what, precisely, we can learn from the experiences of the other cities so often trotted out as models to emulate. I simply wish to broaden the discussion and craft a more complete picture, to ensure as best we can that if we do build streetcar lines in Long Beach, it is done in the right way and for the right reasons. This might be a less-catchy sales pitch than the Music Man’s, but hopefully one that is more comprehensive and relevant to our city’s future.

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