9:00am | The Long Beach Redevelopment Agency voted 4-0 Monday to seek a demolition permit for the historic Atlantic Theater in preparation for the 6.3-acre North Village Center redevelopment project.
This, despite the RDA admitting that demolishing the 1940s-era theater is an unmitigatable and significant impact on both the cultural resources and historical preservation policies of the city. 
As part of RDA’s effort to mitigate the loss of the theater as much as possible, the agency evaluated three options and developed cost models for each: tear the theater down and build new buildings, $8.71 million; update theater and adjacent furniture store buildings to best possible building standards, $9.94 million; or, tear it down but save “selected elements” of the existing building’s architectural character, $9.12 million.
The RDA chose the $9.12 million option–demolish the building while saving the theater spire, interior tile surrounding a drinking fountain, exterior facade tile, and, terrazzo floors. These will all be stored “until a design architect is selected, at which time these elements may be considered for incorporation into a new public library facility,” according to the RDA.
Let’s hope that the library has a copy of Shakespeare’s The Tempest on file, so that each of the RDA board can check it out and read the oft-quoted line: “Whereof what’s past is prologue; what to come, in yours and my discharge.”
This quote, which serves as a warning that history repeats itself and continues to influence the present, is also engraved on the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. It reminds us that our nation’s records are there to teach us of the past and encourage us to learn not to repeat the same mistakes.
The same lesson can be learned from any type of historical record–even old city documents.
Case in point: The City of Long Beach Local Coastal Program. Compiled in 1980 as part of the city’s General Plan, the 425-page document explored the long range goals of the city’s coastal areas, albeit from a perspective now 30 years old.
One interesting page in the document (which is still available here on the city website) is page 356, where the plan talks about the then-upcoming redevelopment of “The Pike Area.”
The document lists two perfunctory notes regarding the old Pike (by then named the Nu-Pike) before describing the 1980 redevelopment goals: “The carousel, dancing figures, cupola, and special lighted signs (clown, George Looff) from the Pike should be preserved for use in the downtown area”; and, “relocate some of the Pike attractions (rides) to the City property south of the Chapter 138 line (Ocean Boulevard).”
That’s right, head down to the Downtown area any night, or just south of Ocean Boulevard and thanks to the RDA’s historical preservation efforts you can view any number of artifacts from the Nu-Pike including the Looff Carousel with its old-world carved horses, the Looff cupola sitting atop the Long Beach Historical Society’s museum-like headquarters and portions of vintage rides incorporated into the new Pike development that opened in the mid-2000s.
Oh, wait. You can’t. Because none of the old Pike was saved. The carousel was sold piecemeal, the rides dismantled and what remained of the Nu-Pike trashed.
Well, except for the massive green and white Looff cupola (pictured right, via Curt Gibbs), which was relegated to a parking lot of the modern Pike development as a rotting reminder to RDA’s historical preservation efforts of the past. In 2007, the cupola was deemed by the city’s historical preservation officer as no longer being a historic resource. The developer of the condo project near the modern Pike eventually paid $3 million for city historic preservation because it did not use the cupola as originally promised. And after the cupola was set to be demolished, City Hall fell back to their old line, saying that portions of the cupola–which was itself a “saved” portion of the original Looff Lite-a-Line building at the old Pike–would be “saved” for future use.
This is exactly what Shakespeare warned us of. The City Council and RDA responsible for the redevelopment of the modern Pike project set as a goal and then promised over and over again that the history of Long Beach would not be lost to the development project. Instead we now have a bizarre tangle of steel tubing that is supposed to represent the Cyclone Racer wooden roller coaster, a new Ferris wheel that has nothing whatsoever to do with the original Pike or Nu-Pike, and a sad mural in the movie theater to rub salt in our historic wounds by reminding us of what was once there and now forever lost.
So, here we are again, standing at the same crossroads of demolition and preservation and City Hall promising that at least some of the city’s history will be saved. But just like the parts of the Atlantic Theater that are set to be “saved,” the effort seems supremely superficial. I wonder if there is room for the Atlantic Theater spire and tiles and terrazzo in the parking lot with the Looff cupola? Maybe we could then name the parking lot “The Long Beach Open Air Historical Museum.”
But, why is the Atlantic Theater for all intents and purposes being destroyed instead of saved–even though the environmental impact report for the project listed the restoration of the building, intact, as the environmentally superior option?
Well, to be blunt, for the sake of five-tenths of one percent of what RDA plans to spend this year throughout the city. That’s right, the $820,000 cost difference to keep the theater instead of tear it down equals 0.5 percent of the RDA’s $151 million expense budget for 2010.
Long Beach has developed as a city for nearly 115 years, with growth spurts at key periods in American architectural schools such as Art Deco, Streamline Moderne, Ranch-style, Mid-Century Modern, Googie, and several others. This eclectic mix of architectural styles is one of the many things that sets Long Beach apart from the dreary sameness of other surrounding communities. And even despite the multitude of examples we have already lost, this eclectic mix remains a key component of the city’s uniqueness. However, if our city leadership continues to take every opportunity to destroy our heritage, what will be left?
It is interesting to note that the mission statement of the RDA talks about improving blight, revitalizing neighborhoods, promoting economic development, creating jobs, providing affordable housing and encouraging citizen participation–but nowhere does it mention preserving the character and heritage of the city’s architecture.
Well, the city had their shot at the Pike and that turned out… well, a glance at the empty storefronts and unmateriallized tenants tells us all we need to know.
Perhaps one day, we might just look out across the stucco mixed-use developments with faux-Deco-Steamline-Mid-Century-Rancho treatments that seem to get RDA votes and wish that we had demanded that they had spent that extra 0.5 percent to save at least some small sliver of our real architectural heritage. Because, to co-opt Mark Twain’s statement about real estate–they ain’t makin’ no more.