Michelle Molina: Building Peace On Pine

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For better or worse, Pine Avenue has received much attention and many resources because it is seen as the heart of downtown. This attention has, traditionally, been focused on the three blocks between Ocean Boulevard and 3rd Street. In the last few years, however, a growing effort to bring new development and economic growth to what's commonly known as 'North Pine' has been given a huge boost by the Millworks development, which is transforming the old Press Telegram property into what will be Molina Healthcare's brand new IT Center. That wasn't the original plan, though. Back in 2005, it was intended to be developed into what Michelle Molina calls 'workforce housing.'

"It was for teachers and firefighters," Molina said, "not luxury. We liked the cause and design, and bought in. The housing market fell apart, the developers left, but we had invested a lot so, when the dust settled, we took over payments on the property. We cleaned up the site, evicted squatters, repaired after a minor fire, paved the lot, and opened up the outdoor space to community folks like Eastern Star and Logan's Long Beach Cinematheque. It was used for drive-in movies, carnivals, concerts, tree lots, then commercials and TV shows - it seems a vacant, dark, old building is a good place to dump a body or two. What we did is like what Michael Wylie is doing at the Bungalow Art Center and MADhaus: Make it available for projects that would contribute to the economy and vitality of the neighborhood, while allowing for the creative energy to attract a business.

"We waited. We were patient. We made friends in the neighborhood. I joined the DLBA Board. We asked a lot of questions and listened to community needs. The neighborhood had been watching a vacant building, an eyesore, for at least 3 years. They deserved to have it activated as soon as humanly possible."

Michelle, and her husband John, are the owners of the property and, once the original workforce housing plans fell through, they explored many ideas.

"It's a big space - 2.5 acres - and was mid demolition, so it wasn't 'rent ready' for us. We tried to convince the City of Long Beach to move City Hall there. We entertained proposals from schools and apartment builders, and passed on plenty of bad ideas, including low income housing, discount retailers, recycling centers, and indoor roller coasters."

Michelle explained that, once the property is developed, she and John will lease it to Molina Healthcare.

"Obama signed into law the Affordable Care Act, which would allow lots of folks who are currently uninsured to get health insurance. Molina has been providing health insurance with a low cost, high patient respect model for over 30 years, so will likely be one of many state's providers of that insurance - they are in 14 states - so the Long Beach administrative staff would grow exponentially. We have space, and they need it but, because Molina Healthcare's CFO (my husband) is also an investor in the 6th and Pine Development, we needed to create an arms- length transaction. Lot's of financial transparency, and market rate lease terms. It took sixteen months to negotiate, but we finalized the lease in late February, and we were almost 80% done with building the first phase. When we are done, they will occupy both buildings - close to 1000 people in 200,000 square feet. If we are lucky, and find some parking options, a third building and another 500+ workers will occupy the eastern half of the property."

Michelle expects the first phase of construction, on what was the Press- Telegram building, to be complete in June, with the Meeker-Baker building, which runs along the south side of 7th street, to be finished in July of 2014. With such a huge influx of new employees into the neighborhood, it is difficult to estimate the impact.

"CSULB did an economic study, with very rough numbers, that had community benefits set at $2 billion over 10 years. How's that for good influence? We deliberately refused to include ground floor retail so that the existing retail would benefit, and more would move in! In fact, I walked a vegan bakery owner around North Pine this morning, looking at space she wants to operate by summer!

"It's about job creation. We put jobs there, then workers shop, dine, and live near by. Local business owners have to hire more staffing to staff their bars, restaurants, and stores, and more empty space is activated. It creates a good healthy economy. I like it!"

As a board member on the DLBA, Michelle has not been quiet about wanting support for Pine Avenue businesses and properties located north of 3rd Street, but she's not made up her mind, yet, about how the DLBA can help.

"I want to see people spending money with local businesses, sitting drinking a coffee or beer with friends. Local musicians playing music, local artists selling their pieces to happy shoppers. Local people walking their pups, strolling their kids, smiling and healthy. Look how many times I said local!"

Not surprisingly, Michelle has been involved in the planning of this Saturday's Green Prix of Long Beach, a sprawling all day event featuring music on the Anderson's Stage, yoga and Zumba classes in the MADhaus, food trucks, and a special 'Farm to Table' dinner - utilizing locally grown food - prepared by Primal Alchemy's Chef Paul.

"Paul and Dana Buchanan of Primal Alchemy are local farmer/forager/chef/food zealots. They are my pals and partners in crime. They are holding an urban farm dinner in the Art Park at the close of Green Prix, featuring six local farmers, and Chef Paul cooking. Folks will enjoy DJ Bill Child's whimsical meanderings, and musical pairings by The Dovelles and Moonsville Collective."

Michelle downplays her role, insisting that the others did most of the heavy lifting.

"Jeff Williams gathered folks, Mike increased the capacity of the team, and we will all end up having a good time. I have a positive agenda. I'm just a fool whose intentions are good. I want to engage. I believe strongly in getting up off my butt and getting work done. That means listening, walking the street, and including others in the process. I am the last person to sit and wait for others to do the work. If I am not happy with something, I will not point a finger from afar. I will join in and point my finger inward. That makes some people uncomfortable."

With a background in education, and with seemingly boundless energy, Michelle created PeaceBuilders that, according to their website, provides science-based, research-validated violence prevention curriculum and professional development programs to K-12 students and teachers. Michelle is the CEO and founder of PeacePartners, a for-profit company that creates and delivers these materials.

"We teach kids to make and keep their friends. We do that by teaching adults - teachers, after school folks, and parents - to teach them resiliency skills. Those are skills you need to handle stress. If kids use these skills regularly, and practice daily, they become habits, and then a lifestyle. It prevents gang involvement, and early risky behavior like drug use and teen sex. It also improves connections to school and encourages appropriate behavior.

"I used this in Paramount, where I taught and was an assist Principal from 1993 through 2003. It saved many a life, I tell you. Tons of those kids are connected to me still. Most are parents themselves. It's about building connections between people.

"The program was created after the Gulf War. Military kids with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder were under some of the same stresses their parents were on the battle field. If they could 'learn' that, they could be taught to prevent it. Psychologists put stuff together based on hundreds of studies of prevention, and got the Centers for Disease Control to study it for effectiveness. It was a success! Now, it has been studied, renewed and replicated and now, 20 years later, more than 2000 organizations in 44 states use it. More than a million kids are using it this school year."

Obviously, Mic'helle's skills as a peace builder have helped her navigate the vagaries and challenges of community building.

"Peace," Michelle explained, "does not mean being in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means being in the midst of those things and still being calm in your heart."

Photo by Kirk Saylin

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Learn more about PeaceBuilders.

Learn more about Millworks.

Learn more about Green Prix Long Beach.

Learn more about the Long Beach Urban Farm Dinner.



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