Long Beach is moving forward with a feasibility study to explore how it might pay to replace a city-owned portion of the Terminal Island freeway with green space.
The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to have staff look into the idea and report back within 120 days on options to complete the project, which has become known as the “Green TI” among advocates.
It’s a significant step forward for the nearly 15-year-old idea of creating a natural buffer to separate residents on the Westside from pollution generated by the freeway and nearby rail yards and refineries.
“The stars are aligning, thank God, and we want to bring this forward and have more positive results than we did back then,” Councilmember Roberto Uranga said about the project, referencing the last time the council discussed it back in 2015.
Eight years ago, the council opted to not move forward with the project after it got pushback from labor unions representing workers at the Port of Long Beach. They said removing the segment of freeway that runs from Pacific Coast Highway to Willow Street and turning it into greenspace would hurt their ability to move cargo in and out of the port.
Since then, the port has put a renewed focus on moving cargo by train and has pledged over $1 billion in rail infrastructure. Trucks can also use the Alameda Corridor, which connects the Terminal Island Freeway to the rail yards in East Los Angeles
Because the project is just a concept, it never had a formal environmental impact report or traffic analysis. However, advocates have said that the segment’s daily volume of traffic is more like that of Fourth Street’s Retro row and much less than other freeways that have been removed in cities like San Francisco, Milwaukee and New Orleans.
Alex Jung, the director of urban design and planning for the Long Beach-based nonprofit City Fabrick, said the proposed 25-acre greenbelt that would include park space, bike lanes and wetlands would be more than just a regular park project.
“This is an environmental health opportunity for one of the most environmentally burdened communities in the country,” Jung said Tuesday.
West Long Beach residents suffer from one of the highest asthma rates in the country, which has been linked to the industrial uses that border their homes. Reports have shown that their average life expectancy is several years less than residents of East Long Beach.
Jung worked on the original conceptual design for a different firm, Melendrez, and said that City Fabrick has continued to present the proposal to thousands of residents in the city with over a dozen community groups putting their support behind it.
Residents have said that the project would transform an area that is desperate for park space. It would also erect a barrier of greenspace separating homes, schools and other community resources from the rail yards and refineries to the west.
Patricia Thompson, a 40-year resident of the area, said she didn’t understand why the council tabled the issue in 2015 and said the air quality in the area has continued to deteriorate in her time as a resident of West Long Beach.
“Everyone throws the word equity around, so it’s nice that the Westside might get some equity, too,” she said of the council’s vote Tuesday.
How much the project could cost and how the city will pay for it are expected to be part of the report that could come back to the council this summer. A similar project built in Wilmington to separate a community there from the Port of Los Angeles cost $55 million, but that park opened in 2011 when costs were likely lower.
Uranga and other members of the council are optimistic that the city will be able to tap into outside grant funding from the state and federal governments to help pay for the project if the city moves forward. Long Beach recently received a $30 million grant to help realign Shoreline Drive, which has historically cut off usable greenspace from Downtown residents.
Mayor Rex Richardson pointed to the Biden Administration’s Justice 40 initiative that plans to divert 40% of certain federal funding to underserved communities like West Long Beach that are disadvantaged or overburdened by pollution.
Projects that could qualify for Justice 40 funds include investments in energy efficiency, clean transit options, affordable housing, and the remediation and reduction of legacy pollution.
“Cities who are prepared, who have done the homework, the vision, who have figured out the feasibility, you’re in a better position to benefit from those resources that are available,” Richardson said.