This story requires a bit of context so forgive me for doing a bit of rambling—shocker—before I get into the details of the nearly $1 million in CalTrans grants being gifted to North Long Beach in order to alter its zoning laws and create more complete streets.

The anti-Land Use Element discussion in Long Beach had worried me both as a citizen and a writer who had written extensively about development and housing throughout the region. Bluntly put I was scared that our housing crisis would be exacerbated and, given the heightened sense of NIMBYism that runs rampant in certain parts of our city, I was worried that measures similar to the disastrous Measure S in L.A. would find its way into Long Beach.

But there was one thing I was largely ignoring within the anti-LUE debacle: a lot of the people hating on the Land Use Element update weren’t wealthy or powerful, they weren’t influential; in fact, they were the more marginalized, struggling to find housing and maintain their neighborhoods. And the reason they supported downsizing the  LUE, which would cause their housing costs to go up, is because they felt that they had no say in the way their neighborhoods were being developed.

In other words, some of the anti-LUE crowd came with good intentions; intentions which were centered on  community involvement, with providing a say for those who often had none, with ridding ourselves of the feel that development was a unilateral process that solely included the powerful.

This is so important, Long Beach—and it is why I am quite proud of the city for leading a charge that will allow North Long Beach to determine its own zoning laws and how it wishes to see their streets and communities grow.

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9th Councilmember Rex Richardson attends an event at North Long Beach’s Jordan High School. Photo by Jason Ruiz.

“What is the vision for North Long Beach? Because it’s not Downtown but it’s not a suburb. It’s its own vibe. We wanted to figure out how we get someone graduating from Jordan to want to stay or return from college and reinvest.”

These were the words of Christopher Koontz, planning manager for the City of Long Beach’s Development Services, as he explained how the city was going to approach the influx of dollars it had received to focus on North Long Beach. That focus was going to rely less on “really abstract city concepts” and instead hone in “tangible, real-world concepts,” Koontz said.

In other words, it is about examining how physical and social barriers—the way a street is designed or the way an economy works block-to-block—can hinder a community’s success.

“Just walk along Atlantic—you’ll find people going 50-plus miles-per-hour on it,” Koontz said. “With all the misconceptions about North Long Beach, it turns out we’re wrong on a lot… Data actually show that mobility safety takes more lives than violent crime.”

Koontz is right: More folks were killed in traffic collisions than residents were murdered last year, highlighting bad land uses that create dangerous corridors, freeway underpasses that exacerbate a lack of accessibility and feeling of place, along with street design that isn’t conducive to walking, biking, or other forms of transportation outside of individual car use. (The last of which is a privilege for those who can afford a car.)

Perhaps most macabre in terms of land uses is the Northside’s stretch of motels, particularly along Paramount Boulevard, that have created a human trafficking epicenter—and not without community outrage: The 2017 murder of a human trafficking victim prompted North Long Beach residents to ask about why the uses of these spaces aren’t more regulated or outright forbidden.

Even more importantly, it became a question of environmental justice: How can the Northside create more viable uses that actually activate the corridor, uses that create more efficient and safer access to public transit, uses that create a healthier North Long Beach?

It isn’t that citizens don’t want a better environment; they’re just surrounded by barriers that contribute to worsening it from the get-go.

And this essentially boils down to what the community seeks for its future, proof of which lies in a good land use like the Michelle Obama Library, which has seen record numbers since it opened in 2016.

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A farmers market in North Long Beach in Houghton Park has helped create a larger sense of community. Photo by Medina Kabir.

Back in the fall of 2017, Development Services applied for and was awarded a $250,000 grant from CalTrans’ Sustainable Communities Planning Grant program—an amount that was lower than expected, according to Koontz.

But despite the lack of funds, the city moved forward on focusing on Atlantic Avenue and Artesia Boulevard, arguably the Northside’s two most essential arterials in terms of business and community connection.

However, fate proved to be on the side of North Long Beach: While work began on Phase I with the initial grant money in March, the city was notified the month before it had scored an additional $733,610 in grant funds for the North. Those funds, formally accepted by the council at Tuesday night’s meeting, have allowed the project’s purview to expand and include Long Beach Boulevard, Cherry Avenue, Paramount Boulevard, and South Street.

The project’s entirety is dubbed UPLAN, an acronym for Uptown Planning Land (Use) and Neighborhood Strategy—and perhaps the most in-your-face-NIMBYs aspect of the strategy is a comprehensive re-writing of North Long Beach’s zoning laws; changes, mind you, that the community itself will determine specifically for the zones within its boundaries.

Ninth District Councilmember Rex Richardson calls the overall project “legacy stuff”—and he’s right. Comprehensively modernizing land uses, zoning, and development standards on the Northside will do nothing but create a long-term, strategic guide for the future of North Long Beach.

“Since taking office, we have worked to create a new vision for North Long Beach, centered on dignity and quality of life of North Long Beach residents and small businesses,” said Richardson. “UPLAN does just that: It establishes a roadmap to ensure the future of North Long Beach is prosperous, healthy, and thriving.”

This begins with community engagement and, according to the city, a “capacity building process that seeks to engage the most vulnerable and impacted communities in North Long Beach, including youth, low-income communities of color, car-less households and nonnative English-speaking communities.”

With community walks and meetings, discussions, and an overall transparent process, North Long Beach residents will be able to figure out what is best for them by being included directly in the planning process.

In other words, this is about creating a better North Long Beach.

This is about creating more vibrant, walkable areas in North Long Beach.

This is about increasing employment opportunities and connecting local Long Beach residents to those opportunities.

This is about improving access to social services, creating quality community amenities, and fostering distinct destinations in our low-income, disadvantaged communities.

This is about environmental and social justice on a community-wide level.

This is about creating a better Long Beach as a whole.

The first UPLAN workshop is today, July 26, at the Michelle Obama Library (5870 Atlantic Avenue), from 5:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. 

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