When Shaheen Sadeghi, the man behind The LAB, Costa Mesa’s self-described “anti-mall,” announced he was going to build an entirely new concept in North Long Beach, eyebrows and hopes were raised. Questions surrounding the man’s intentions—intentions, mind you, that have been largely shrouded in a rotating door of concepts, ideas, and tentatives—were warranted: What would a man from Orange County have anything to do with a portion of Long Beach that has been historically disinvested and widely ignored?

The LAB opened in 1994, it was openly advertised that it would not be home to a GAP or Waldenbooks—remember those?—but rather a home to the mall rats of the 1980s lost in a corporate drown-out.

In fact, The LAB is an acronym for “little American business” and its owner,  Sadeghi, was trying to achieve just that when he first opened it: A first-generation American, he was proud to be anti-corporate, fully espousing Gen X ideals, and incorporating them into business by trying to cater to a demographic that relied on CNN and MTV as its sources of information. That is, teenagers, twenty-somethings, and dirty thirty folks who weren’t happy with the commodification of everything from punk to postmodernism.

The man used subcultures—take, for example, his prescient embrace of eco-retail at The CAMP long before REI thought they had a market inside urban centers—to create the opposite of what a subculture is all about: popular, open spots that adaptively re-used old structures and wove into those structures a new sense of business.

(A prime example of this would be Sadeghi’s Anaheim Packing District, which took over a dilapidated building that most developers shirked away from and turned it into a hyper-local space that has altered the “downtown” of Anaheim. The project caught the eye of independent beer powerhouse Modern Times, which will be opening its first brewery outside San Diego by the Packing District in a partnership with Sadeghi.)

And now, after a quarter-century-plus of taking on the stiff collars of Orange County and bringing in the alternative, Sadeghi has his eyes set on North Long Beach in a project tentatively titled “Canvas”—but don’t think he is here to import a recycled idea, even one as new as the aforementioned Anaheim Packing District.

In fact, he fully admits this is less about “thinking outside-the-box” and more about viewing spaces through the lens of those who live and invest there, comparing it to neighbors having a bonfire and talking about what amenities their community needs.

And this view includes a staunch stance against prompting gentrification that will displace the local culture and people who, in the words of Sadeghi, make North Long Beach, well, North Long Beach.

“It’s about hearing what they want—and [displacement and cultural eradication] is just not a part of our recipe,” Sadeghi said. “We don’t—nor can we—dictate anything other than Promote The Local Culture.”

Renderings of The Canvas development in North Long Beach. Courtesy of LAB Holdings.

Renderings of The Canvas development in North Long Beach. Courtesy of LAB Holdings.

Over recent years, Sadeghi has developed a new philosophy in approaching communities that center on  just that: promoting the local culture itself rather than attempting to import concepts.

His company strongly believes that, thanks to the advent of the Internet and advancement of mobile technology, “everybody is a cool kid.” Almost every single person has instantaneous access to culture, aesthetics, music, art and other intellectual turn-ons in a way no previous generation has—and in that sense, creating community spaces can’t be about importing That Part of L.A. or bringing in This Part of New York. Culture is no longer imported; it is now fostered through the special connection between locals and their homes.

“The locals know what they want, whether or not developers think they know what they want,” Sadeghi said. “They don’t want to have to drive elsewhere because they want the investment in their neighborhood, they want to use their feet to explore their neighborhood. It’s theirs—first and foremost.”

Within that perspective, Sadeghi and his crew believe that locality surrounds itself by four concepts: community, culture, commerce, and conscientiousness. In a generic sense, his company arrived at the conclusion that, in an era where culture isn’t imported, everyone wants to get involved in what is around them.

In other words, whether its through their pockets or their time, they want to get involved in their neighborhood.

This approach, of course, comes with challenges.

Sadeghi’s properties in North Long Beach are not continuous or entirely connected but more like pockets. The largest of these parcels—a three-acre site across from the Michelle Obama Library—is the last piece of the puzzle he is dealing with, noting that it would be a “game changer” if he gets what he wants (but, alas, can’t divulge the details quite yet).

That leaves him with these pockets, spread across blocks, and developing a way to interconnect them.

As Sadeghi and his crew members begin to visit North Long Beach more, they noticed two things: a lack of park space outside the giant Houghton Park and a lack of public real estate when it came to sidewalks.

“We have a very fast street [Atlantic Avenue] with small sidewalk space,” Sadeghi said. “There’s no place for people to congregate, there aren’t patios or gardens.”

So he wants to make those spaces for them through a few ways, including recessing the facades of buildings—and thereby expanding the sidewalk space—and, when it comes to the variety of empty lots he has, creating micro-parks that take “arts and graphics to the next level.” (Hence the development’s working title of Canvas and the renderings’ linear, graphic-driven design.)

“It’s really about providing dignity through design—and every community deserves that,” Sadeghi said.

This is perhaps why he has long held onto one formula only: There is no formula. By deeply examining culture of each location he has developed, Sadeghi has begun to understand that—even within spaces only 20 miles apart—needs, wants, and dignity differ.

“It doesn’t matter how much money you make or what you do—your neighborhood will always be your neighborhood and you are what makes your neighborhood cool,” Sadeghi said. “I am not here to develop something for LA or Orange County to come visit; this is for North Long Beach.”

In other words, don’t expect a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a Starbucks in this project. Sadeghi has spent hours with the community—and will continue to do so over the next few years, emphasizing a focus on ma’n’pop-centric businesses and eschewing corporate America—fostering a better knowledge of what he needs to bring in.

This will be achieve through three phases, the first of which has already begun, involves working with the current structures on Atlantic, recessing the facades to create new sidewalk space, and creating the micro-parks.

The second phase will revolve around creating residential zone that includes micro-living units which provide affordability for artists while supplying them with a creative atmosphere in a compound that has food and drinks.

The third and final phase will involve the aforementioned three-acre site across from Michelle Obama Library.

“I always say that our sweet spot is getting the guy from across the street to come have a beer or coffee with me on Sunday,” Sadeghi said. “If I can’t do that, then I have failed.”

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