COMMENTARY: The Future of the Long Beach Civic Center

Photo Courtesy of Google Street View 

:15pm | As Long Beach Post readers revisit The 10 Worst Decisions in Long Beach History, a topic initially addressed three years ago, the City Council is revisiting No. 8 on that 2008 list: the Civic Center.  

At a June 21 study session, the City Council was briefed and had an initial discussion regarding the structural and emergency exit deficiencies of the City Hall tower and ways to potentially address these problems. Solutions ranged from better maintenance to a retrofit (even adding exit slides, one joked), but the most animated discussions involved the possibility of a public-private partnership to build a new civic center altogether. This interest is understandable: Based on the largely failed recent efforts to address other deficiencies within the Civic Center thus far, it is time to take a fresh look at the complex and seriously consider starting over.  

In the original discussion regarding the Worst Decisions in Long Beach History, the following description of the Civic Center was provided:

Few areas in this city are more unfriendly than Long Beach’s Civic Center. This home of municipal government was developed during the height of civic brutalism; in this regard it may only be matched by Boston City Hall. The architecture and planning of Long Beach’s Civic Center seems more appropriate for Soviet Russia, or perhaps on the set of the original "Battlestar Galactica" television series (where it was indeed featured and poetically, was destroyed by the Cylons).

Beyond its poor design and seeming obliviousness to human scale, there are significant physical issues with various components of the Civic Center. The main library recalls nothing more than a bunker built to withstand a nuclear attack. Yet the building cannot keep rain out: colorful buckets are scattered throughout its two levels when storm clouds float above the downtown. The 14-story ivory tower that is the most prominent feature of the Civic Center is a seismic death trap waiting for a good shaker to separate its wings from its main body. Unfortunately for those in City Hall during such an event, those very wings contain the emergency stairs necessary for evacuation.

Lincoln Park, the civic square contained within the Civic Center, is rarely used by most Long Beach residents: it serves primarily as a campground for the city’s homeless. Perhaps it is an appropriate commentary that the plight of these persons can be seen right on the doorstep of Long Beach government. In any case, the Civic Center in its whole is in serious need of change: retrofits and remodels will not solve its fundamental shortcomings.

Since those words three years ago, the city has attempted to improve the conditions of Lincoln Park and the roof garden over the Main Library. The original Main Library roof was designed as a viewing deck that would thereby extend the open space of Lincoln Park. However, to reduce the library roof’s weight and improve its drainage, extensive retrofits have now resulted in eliminating the last remaining landscape, dirt and concrete planters from the roof itself.

To broaden the use of Lincoln Park beyond the homeless, a dog park was added to its northern end. A typical tool in the urban handbook for defusing unsavory activity, the fenced dog run succeeded only in pushing homeless persons toward the Main Library, creating greater friction between them and library patrons. City officials continue to seek alternatives for vacating the homeless population from the Civic Center, perhaps using a skate park or ball courts (sadly, these possibilities still focus on making the space unattractive to homeless persons rather than focusing on the source issues). While developing a program for Lincoln Park that serves residents, workers and visitors is a good idea, this ad-hoc pattern does not create the great urban space downtown Long Beach needs.

During the study session, some city council members understandably questioned the necessity of replacing the city hall building, drawing comparisons to other historic structures that are also structurally deficient. The evolution of regulations related to structural design and emergency exiting requirements does not necessarily invalidate the safety of buildings constructed before such regulations were codified. While we should, of course, work to bring older buildings into compliance with improved safety standards (for instance, adding fire sprinklers or reinforcing masonry buildings), there are often financial or physical limits as to what can be done with existing structures.

In the case of the current Civic Center, however, the issue is that its architectural and urban contribution is debatable; it does not have the intrinsic value for Long Beach that exists in the case of a historic structure like the Villa Riviera, or an architectural centerpiece like the Aquarium of the Pacific. It would be difficult to argue that the urban design of the complex contributes to the overall community. The six blocks made up by the Civic Center complex have been comparatively devoid of activity since its construction; it constitutes a weak center in what is intended to be vibrant downtown core. It would be nearly impossible to cost-effectively retrofit the current Civic enter in a way that would substantially redress these problems.

As a result, it is time to define a new vision for the Civic Center, to imagine a complex that would contribute to our downtown with better park space, community amenities and a more approachable city government. Because the current complex wastes considerable valuable real estate with parking lots, above-grade parking garages and inefficient circulation, a new Civic Center could more effectively house the functions of the current complex, and those currently housed in off-site office space, still leaving room for additional uses. 

A growing trend in terms of large-scale capital improvement projects, public-private partnerships are worth careful consideration but are not the best fit in every instance; they have advantages and disadvantages that must be addressed for any given scenario (in the case of a possible new Civic Center, these were clearly explained in the public works presentation and the City Council study session). Other instances of current public-private partnerships exist in Long Beach (including the new County Courthouse); another nearby example is the new civic center in San Diego. 

Should the idea of a public-private partnership for a new Long Beach Civic Center move forward in any more substantial form, a visioning process should take place that engages residents, business-owners and stakeholders to what they want from the new complex. The plans for a new seat of city government should be decided by the public, not behind closed doors to be presented as fait accompli. The public debate in question should obviously include those living and working in the vicinity of the Civic Center, but given that this is the seat of government for the entire city, all stakeholders of Long Beach should have the chance to weigh in.

While it is yet to be seen whether readers will once again identify our Civic Center as one of the "Ten Worst Decisions in the History of Long Beach," our city officials do recognize that the status quo is no longer acceptable. Indeed, the time for half-measures and retrofits of the existing Civic Center has passed, and there should be a thoughtful, transparent process in terms of articulating a vision for the structure that will someday replace it. Let us hope that the recent city council study session is just the beginning of this needed discussion. 

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the various authors and forum participants on this  website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the Long Beach Post or the official policies of the Long Beach Post.

Editor's note: A previous version of this post failed to properly give credit for the photo to Google Street View.

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