Long Beach’s New Civic Center, Part I: The Initial Proposals

Above is a nighttime view of the Plenary/Edgemoor Civic Partnership’s proposal. For more renderings, look below.

This is Part I of a series.For Part II, which explores the option of possibly keeping the current civic center intact, click here. For Part III, which explores City staff’s recommendation, click here.

The two groups vying to design and construct what will be Long Beach’s future Civic Center proposed two by-the-numbers similar but structurally and operationally—well, mostly—different ideas.

The Long Beach CiviCore Alliance (LBCCA) and the Plenary/Edgemoor Civic Partnership (PECP), the two organizations scoring the top proposals for the RFP that was issued by the City late last year. One of those organizations will be the contestant who may have the final say in what will be our Civic Center and each of the competing teams got to finally unveil their initial proposals.

Which were just that: initial. This is the second of three study sessions, the next of which will be held on November 11 at Houghton Park. This follows the first, held September 17 at Long Beach City College, and parks behind the grueling design process and community outreach the deciding team will have to endure before facing City Council with a singular, finalized proposition.


LBCCA’s proposal, with its version of City Hall front and center.

First, some context.

Despite outcries from preservationists about preserving the current Civic Center—a Don Gibbs/Edward Killingsworth creation that is lauded by historians—the City is moving forward with an entirely new Civic Center.

The current center is essentially plagued by two obstacles: its design and its lack of civic activity. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) held two meetings in 2012–one historicalone revisionist–to discuss the issues of the Brutalist monument, including an appearance by Mr. Gibbs himself. Gibbs was defiantly supportive of the work he had collaborated on, ultimately waving a hand at the mention of a 2006 seismic study that called the entirety of his 15-story City Hall inefficient as well as the idea that his cold, austere design is unwelcoming.

PECP's proposal facing south toward the Port of Long Beach.

PECP’s proposal, with view facing south toward the Port of Long Beach.

That seismic study, according to the City Manager’s office, was the main reason the initial RFQ (which led to the RFP) was brought up in April of 2013. Following Hurricane Katrina, municipal agencies examined their various structures to see if they met the FEMA 310 Tier 1 guidelines; Long Beach’s City Hall did not. In 2006, a Tier 2 study was conducted and determined that the core structure was sound but the concrete trusses were not.

To retrofit and upgrade the existing building would cost some $170M, according to the City Manager’s office—a far cry from Councilmember Suja Lowenthal’s previous $78M estimate she provided at the first AIA meeting. Not to mention that this follows design issues: more unusable square-footage than usable, large spaces that are inefficient sustainability-wise, its inability to house all employees and forcing the city to pay for off-site property leases, its inability to be home to the Port of Long Beach (POLB) headquarters…

In fact, the current Civic Center costs the City some $12.6M annually to maintain and operate, which both LBCCA and PECP (given the proposals are a public-private partnership which puts less burden on City pockets) said they would finance their proposals with.

The proposed interior of PECP's Main Library.

The proposed interior of PECP’s Main Library.

After all, we’re talking about the possibilities of a space—keyword here–which is supposed to engage citizens and engagement cannot be enacted through cold, monotonous spaces. Brutalist architecture, particularly Long Beach’s current Civic Center, does anything but engage: it is deeply uninviting, with a singular monument dedicated to power standing tall, while the low-level gardens–some odd attempt to present a contrast–sit on the rooftops of the encased spaces below (which have been flooded and ruined thanks to a lack of irrigation in a rooftop garden design).

This ushered in a wave of support to “move forward” rather than making what we have better; there are, clearly, arguments for and against this.

If one has ever wondered why critics call Brutalist style totalitarian, one but has to walk through Long Beach’s Civic Center. It is continually empty save for the sans papiers who stay in Lincoln Park since, ironically, no one civics the Civic Center. And once the sun sets and the wind tunnels thanks to the endless slabs of concrete surrounding City Hall kick up, the place is cold—both metaphorically and literally.

Hence, why we are here.


The nighttime view of the skyline by way of PECP’s proposal.

The LBCCA’s presentation was, for lack of a more encompassing term, loquacious. Running out of presentation time, being fantastically forced by Mayor Robert Garcia to wrap it up, and overly explaining things metaphorically, the team’s presentation and $314M design was throughly corporate: they aimed to alter the Long Beach skyline dramatically while focusing on increasing the number of structures downtown as well as corporate presence.

Y’know, one would think that—proposing a $314M project and all—throwing out how they got Bristol Farms to sing onto their project isn’t the most boastful of things to say given the Farms had already held a (failing) presence in Long Beach. (Its former location is now an overly-priced Lazy Acres, what also looks soon to be waving au revoir given it is impossible to find a parking spot at the nearby Trader Joe’s because it is so packed while it is equally impossible to find anyone shopping at Lazy Acres.)

Also, there was little mention of the things Long Beach needs with its new Civic Center—mainly civic activity which means people wanting to go there. Sure, they had an active 1st Street spine that they hoped to bring in visitors with via retail space. But they failed to note that adding a whole buncha towering structures in an already-desolate space might make their proposed Civic Center look more Wall Street than Central Park.


The view of LBCCA’s Civic Center looking westerly on 1st Street.

Granted, the LBCCA had one phenomenal idea and that was the why-haven’t-we-done-this-already? concept of using our educational infrastructure and bring it Downtown. Long Beach is home to a stellar community college and the always-awesome CSULB; the fact that there isn’t a satellite campus or space Downtown is just outright baffling.

LBCCA has proposed an “Innovation Village,” a space where LBCC and CSULB partner with one another to provide classes to seniors (so they can keep up with their grandchildren technologically speaking), educational space to alleviate the already-crowded rooms, and a physical way for both colleges to expand their brand and reputation. This could explain why they have the Dean of the School of Engineering from CSULB on their team (but negates to note that the DLBA once attempted to convince CSULB to convert the former AMC Theaters into classrooms; they are now being converted into… more condos).

The POLB Headquarters as proposed by LBCCA, to be situated at 1st & Magnolia Avenue.

The POLB Headquarters as proposed by LBCCA, to be situated at 1st & Magnolia Avenue.

But despite the (admittedly brilliant) 15,000 sq. ft. Innovation Village… Despite the three residential components (of which the group had failed to mention if any were affordable housing) totaling between 765 to 900 new units (because we need more empty condos and they propose 256+ along Ocean, 339+ along Broadway, and 170+ along 3rd)… Despite the alleged $700M in new direct investment and the 2,500 jobs and the $2.4M in annual tax revenue… Despite the fact that their spiny structures were alluding to wind sails and lighthouses (but do little than mimic the residential tower being built down the way)… Despite a 16-story, 250 room hotel (which is what the whole design looked like: an oddly technical-looking group of hotels or corporate offices)… Despite the fact that an executive made the claim that he bikes all nine council districts regularly and even made a Mark Bixby namedrop… Despite all these seemingly great things, there was something off-putting.

And it ultimately amounted to the fact that the group seemed unable to notice why this whole project was initially started: there was no humanity in our current center. With the LBCCA’s towering structures, the buildings took more hold than people—and could very well face the doom of the monolithic structures already in place. In short, their overall vision lacks connectivity and cohesion; even worse, it lacks a sense of community and liveliness. PECP—whether you like their Grecian-meets-Mid-Mod aesthetic or not—at least did their homework (probably because of the fact that they handled the public-private partnership that was the design and construction of the George Deukmeijan Courthouse in Downtown Long Beach).

The group’s proposal was intellectually and philosophically far more engaging. And far more expensive with a total projected cost of $357.7M.

Rather than a hodgepodge-spread of similar-looking buildings, PECP had three distinct sectors that each interconnect—POLB headquarters/City Hall, residential/hotel, and Main Library/Lincoln Park—of which the most activated and filled-with-possibilities is the park.

Here we have two things facing us: a growing urban environment in need of green space and an increasing density (re: aforementioned residential towers) that make park space crucial. While LBCCA lackadaisically went over their park plans, PECP dedicated the vast majority of their presentation to the park/library space. From bringing in a plethora of native plants to creating a park space that is customizable for events, PECP understands the reason why Golden Gate and Central Parks are essential to urban environments (and why their design is just as important). The fact that the PECP’s Lincoln Park design can host an event with 200 people or 11,000 people—yeah, you read that right: eleven-thousand people, making Long Beach’s Civic Center the possible home of massive regional events—was impressive alone.


Taking a cue from Killingsworth, the PECP design harkens to Long Beach’s obsession with mid-mod design.

But it also seemed that, rather than waiting for the required community outreach they’ll have to do should they win over LBCCA, PECP did their outreach beforehand (and their history: Long Beach’s spatial design history was consistently referred to throughout the program). The group noted that the people they questioned throughout the community wanted an approachable Civic Center, so the only high-scaled building was their combination hotel/residential unit structure. Their library was also significantly larger (93.5K sq. ft.) than LBCCA’s proposed library (78.3K sq. ft.) and yet the park space remained exactly the same for each proposal (209,088 sq. ft).


PECP’s proposed hotel/residential tower.

Even more, rather than namedropping those of Long Beach past, they incorporated them (including the Vogel bike structure largely commissioned by Mark Bixby). The team created two walking loops within their design—they easily won the hearts of anyone appreciative of urban living with this—that focused on either the cultural or historical aspect of Long Beach.

While I initially had a momentary gripe with their very classic approach to the City Hall and POLB Headquarters buildings, it made a turn when I realized they weren’t cheating aesthetically to aim for something easy: when standing from Ocean Boulevard, the proposed City Hall will sit behind the POLB building. City Hall will be white while the more front facing POLB structure will reflect an array of colors taken from the Port’s cargo containers and ocean: blues, rusts, and grays. The contrast between the two buildings is, in the words of the developers, elegantly beautiful.

Perhaps more eyebrows will be raised at the cost more than the involvement but, despite which group is ultimately chose, I can only hope the latter is far more important in the long-run.

For those eager to judge each design, two open houses will be available for you to attend. The first will be held on Saturday, November 1 at Admiral Kidd Park from 9AM to noon. The second will be held on Saturday, November 8, from 9AM to noon with a location to be later disclosed.  The third and final study session, which will be held at Houghton Park, will occur on November 11 at 4PM.

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Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 16 nominations and two additional wins for Best Political Commentary for his work at KCET and Best Blog for Longbeachize, a section of the Long Beach Post. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.