City Council takes first steps to shift control of Queen Mary to Harbor Commission

The City Council took the first steps Tuesday night to shift control of the Queen Mary and the surrounding land on the waterfront to the city’s Harbor Commission, which oversees the Port of Long Beach.

“I believe that our Harbor Department is well equipped and experienced to handle leases and development on the piers,” said Councilwoman Cindy Allen, whose district includes the historic ship. “I also trust our locally appointed harbor commissioners to represent our communities’ best interests.”

Allen and two other council members requested the discussion, but many questions remain about the proposal—including the reason behind the plan to shift control of Pier H back to the port.

The Harbor Commission oversaw the area around the ship nearly 30 years ago, but the city assumed control in 1992 in order to develop the area as a tourist attraction.

The city has since hired operators who have been beset by financial problems and have failed to develop the site.

The most recent, Urban Commons,  signed a 66-year lease with the city in 2016 to operate the ship. At the time the city also agreed to issue $23 million in bonds to address immediate repairs.

In 2017, Urban Commons announced a plan to invest $250 million into the surrounding areas to create a “Queen Mary Island” tourist attraction. In 2019, Urban Commons created an entity called Eagle Hospitality Trust so that it could sell public stock on the Singapore Stock Exchange to raise funds for the development.

Eagle Hospitality has since filed for bankruptcy and is now auctioning the lease to the Queen Mary.

Long Beach Auditor Laura Doud also recently announced that she has not been able to secure documents related to how Urban Commons spent the $23 million in city bonds as part of the 2016 lease agreement.

It’s not clear whether the recent problems led to Allen’s proposal on Tuesday’s agenda.

Mayor Robert Garcia and others said only that the Harbor Department is the best at managing the city’s piers.

“They know this work, they do this work so I think this is a very important first step in getting information back from staff on what this would look like, what a transfer could entail and getting the council engaged in that process,” he said.

Allen requested that a report to the council come back within 60 days with recommendations on how such a transfer could happen and potential next steps. The council voted unanimously to approve the request.

The transfer would include not only the ship but all of Pier H, which includes hotels, the Carnival Cruise terminal and other land and parking lots around the Queen Mary.

Michelle Grubbs, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, on Tuesday said the proposal has caused concern among PMSA members, which includes 50 domestic and international operators at ports along the West Coast.

Grubbs said that the port already has huge investment concerns with billions needed to reach a zero emissions goal by 2035 and construct a new rail yard project at Pier B, which is expected to help cut emissions at the Port of Long Beach.

“Both of these major investments will take the focus of the management team to ensure the port is a successful economic engine moving forward,” Grubbs said. “The port has a world class management team in international trade, not in overseeing hotel and tourist attractions. These are fundamentally different skill sets.”

An earlier memo from the City Attorney’s office said Pier H could be transferred back to the port in part because it now includes a cruise ship terminal, which is considered primarily a port use, and the port’s most recent master plan also places importance on developing visitor-serving and recreation uses in the harbor area.

The memo from the city attorney’s office also noted that the Harbor Commission would have to accept the transfer, but added that the commission has retained “residual jurisdiction” over certain actions at Pier H and that there appear to be no legal hurdles to return control of it back over to the commission.

The council is expected to revisit the issue in June, when a report is expected to be issued.

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.
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