Aerial rendering of the new North Neighborhood Library.

[Eds. note: Brian Ulaszewski had provided architectural and planning services on earlier iterations of the area where the new North Neighborhood Library will be built through a previous design firm.]

[Eds note 2: This story also appears in our February print edition, available for free at more than 500 locations citywide. Click here to find a copy near you!]

Not long ago, the two blocks of Atlantic Avenue north of South Street in North Long Beach were filled with dozens of single-family homes, independent businesses, and a vintage movie theater. It might not have been as pretty or vibrant as some would wish, but it served and housed local residents as an extension of the neighborhood and local commercial district. Today all that remains are the tell-tale white, plastic cattle fences and vacant lots that precede redevelopment.

The plan is to create a new community node for North Long Beach—complete with a community center, the second largest library in the City (behind the main library Downtown), new commercial development and possibly some residential development as well. The plan for these six acres of now largely vacant land was developed with significant community input, through a strategic plan, implementation plan, approval process for a proposed development, and a series of design charettes after the proposed development fell through.

The “largely vacant” description is used with because two buildings actually remain. One is the historically significant Atlantic Theater. The 23,000 square foot theater and integrated commercial building retains much of its architectural character, but is buried behind plywood, bargain-bin paint colors, and general neglect.  Its iconic stature as an architectural and cultural fixture of North Long Beach had certainly past before it was purchased by the Redevelopment Agency and its occupants relocated.

The other building is the Autozone automobile parts store located at the northeast corner of South Street and Atlantic Avenue. This building is devoid of any architectural character, having been built to prototypical standards of an international corporation. Those standards typically are implemented with little regard for context or community; they focus on visibility and efficiency. This is demonstrated by the convenient parking that sets the building back from the street, leading to a blank cinderblock wall along Atlantic Avenue.

Based on the principles developed from the various plans and proposals for redeveloping this site, the goal is a vibrant mixed-use development with retail stores serving the neighborhood, possibly some residential buildings and a civic center almost 30,000 square feet in size. The plan is for the streets to be lined with wide sidewalks and large trees as well as pedestrian scale street lights and vibrant storefronts.

To move the plans along, the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency had invested in streetscape improvements along Atlantic Avenue north and south of South Street, including new trees, lighting, and landscaped street medians. The irony is that if the previous homes and commercial buildings had been retained, the vision for renewed community would have been almost complete. With just a portion of the money used to acquire those properties, relocate the occupants (residents and businesses), and demolish the buildings the area could have remained recognizable but reinvigorated.

More selective property acquisition, followed by repositioning and facade improvements, could have had dramatic effects on the quality of the commercial environment. The housing was largely high-quality, with a number of vintage Spanish-Revival style homes and appropriately scaled apartment buildings. The Atlantic Theater is large enough to have been repurposed as a library and community center.

But when the wrecking ball has finally finished, the Autozone will be all that remains of the buildings on these six acres. However, this is paradoxically the one existing building that does not fit with the community vision of what this area should be. Apparently, being one of five thousand outlets of a chain makes one irreplaceable in North Long Beach, but over a hundred residents and dozens of businesses can be uprooted for other purposes.

Unfortunately, because of the “Great Recession” and the linked dissolution of state redevelopment agencies, development has largely stalled in Long Beach. What has continued is the design of a new North Long Beach branch library and recreation center. The new facility will eventually replace the dramatically under-sized current facility at Orange Avenue and 56th Street. The successor to the city’s Redevelopment Agency was able to continue design work due to a preexisting agreement made, and will thus have a shovel-ready project to present to potential funders.

With the damage having already been done to the built history of the community, the time has come to move forward, hopefully with prior mistakes in mind. Based on the latest drawings for the proposed redevelopment of the east block of Atlantic Avenue north of South Street, there is potentially a bright future for North Long Beach. A new North Long Beach branch library and associated community center will anchor the site, with nearly 30,000 square feet of amenities.

In addition to a library and community center there is some new retail space, smartly located to support an intimate public plaza. Parking provided for the new civic facility is appropriately located behind the library. The iconic tower of the Atlantic Theater (or a replica of it) is to be integrated into the library, preserving some of the community’s architectural history. 

There are some problematic aspects of the current design that can hopefully be improved before finalizing the design. While the parking is screened from the pedestrian-friendly district along Atlantic Avenue, it is still visible to residents located across Lime Avenue. An unneeded proposed access road on the north side of the library would be a waste of publicly owned land, unsafe (because of its proximity to an intersection), and an impediment to pedestrian movement along Atlantic Avenue.  The land would be better served being incorporated into the public plaza south of the proposed library.

According to the plans and rendering, the Autozone would unfortunately remain. Despite this, with cooperation from the international corporation and local management, the property could be better integrated into its environment. The library and Autozone parking lots could be combined to improve efficiency and access.

From the grand architecture balanced by playful glass surfaces and living walls, to the surrounding landscaping, the design of the library raises the bar for civic architecture in Long Beach, and the design team of LPA Inc. along with their design partners in the community should be proud of its vision. Particularly noteworthy is the library plaza’s integration into the street; this will create an important midblock crossing, aligning with Hullet Street to the west.

With some relatively minor changes, the stage can be set for a second phase of redevelopment in the area across Atlantic Avenue. A mixed-use development could create a critical mass of activity for this important community node. Like other commercial nodes like Broadway at Redondo Avenue and Pacific Avenue at Hill Street, this potential new commercial node at Atlantic and South Street could be augmented by appropriately-scaled residential development. The difference is that this node would be anchored by one of the largest civic centers in Long Beach.

By concentrating on amenities servicing the local community, and by creating stronger pedestrian, bicycle, and transit connections, parking could be deemphasized in favor of land uses that invigorate the surrounding neighborhood. It would represent a paradigm shift for this neighborhood and perhaps all of North Long Beach, and could raise the bar for other public-private development in the region.

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