The contentious Land Use Element (LUE) that has fueled outrage among homeowners in Long Beach over the past year was approved by the city council Tuesday night but the guiding document that will outline future zoning in the city did not escape council scrutiny, further limiting Long Beach’s housing capacity going forward.
In an 8-1 vote—Fourth District Councilman Daryl Supernaw was the lone opponent—the council approved the plan after over six hours of discussion and impassioned public testimony.
The decision wrapped up a process that had taken over a decade to reach the city council for a vote, and more recently, was marked by packed community meetings attended by outraged residents claiming that the proposed density in the LUE would forever change the character and safety of their neighborhoods.
City staff reiterated that Long Beach is pacing behind its goals of housing production—783 units a year based on the state’s regional housing needs assessment—and that its goal over the next eight years is to build about 7,000 housing units. The LUE is part of the city’s plan to keep pace with population growth but also to ease the overcrowding—12 percent of the city falls into this category which is defined as more than 1.5 people per room—and also the rising housing and rental costs due to lack of supply.
However, since the LUE debate took hold of the city last year nearly 800 acres of density have been wiped off the maps presented last August. That does not include the reductions made by the council last night where more slashes were made along major corridors in both building height and proposed land uses.
How many units that could have resulted in is impossible to calculate as individual projects likely would not have been uniform, and as city staff has continually said, just because a parcel is zoned to be a certain amount of stories doesn’t mean that it would be.
In a city that is 60 percent renters, homeowners have dominated the conversation over the last year, packing community meetings and decorating their lawns with bright orange signs supplied by the Council of Neighborhood Organizations (CONO) that made their concerns clear: building more density would bring more crime and traffic, a non-starter for any future zoning.
“Craftsman Village is not opposed to new development, in fact, we think new development will add a breath of fresh air to our 100-year-old neighborhood,” said Michelle Arend-Ekhoff, co-chair of the Craftsman Village Historic District. “But development needs to be thoughtful, it needs to be respectful to the scale of the surrounding community as well as the architecture of the historic 7th Street and 10th Street corridor.”
Jeffrey Thompson, president of the Alamitos Beach Residents Association, called for language to ensure that future developments would have to require parking.
“I don’t mean to be dramatic but try finding parking in my neighborhood late at night, it is impossible,” Thompson said. “What I’m asking for is language in the LUE to protect parking. We are facing a crisis over there and further development at the low rate that it is now stands to crush people’s spirits as it were.”
The idea that parking was more important than quality of life for those who are being squeezed by the housing crisis did not sit well with supporters of the LUE who argued that the proposed density increases could provide an avenue for more affordable housing to be built in the city.
Daniel Brezenoff, a local activist and former staffer for Mayor Robert Garcia, organized a gathering of those sympathetic to the LUE Tuesday night, producing arguably the largest turnout of supporters throughout the process. Brezenoff held nothing back in chastising those who he said had hijacked the narrative in an attempt to freeze the city in place and maintain their conveniences.
“Parking is not a human right,” Brezenoff said. “Your ocean view is not a human right and to live in the city that you had when you were 12 years old is not a human right. Housing is a human right.”
The average cost of a house in Long Beach has soared with that price edging toward $600,000 meaning that potential home buyers would have to stash away about $100,000 to meet a 20 percent down payment that would eliminate the need for pricey insurance premiums being tacked onto their monthly mortgage. For those already living in Long Beach, this feat would have to be accomplished while facing median rent list prices of $2,200, according to Zillow.
City staff estimated that a joint income of about $118,000 is necessary to afford the average mortgage in Long Beach and currently about 114,000 residents are paying over 50 percent of their monthly earnings toward housing which ranks them as severely housing cost burdened. The figure represents about a quarter of the city.
Senay Kenfe, a resident of the Sixth District which is one of two districts where proposed changes would increase the height of some developments, challenged whether some of those speakers were living in reality.
“A lot of these anecdotal stories about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and taking ten years out of your life to save for your family, that’s not the reality for a lot of the young people for today,” Kenfe said. “And that’s not the reality for a lot of your children and your grandchildren. It’s unfortunate that we’re having people who are not going to be alive, who this is going to really impact, the youth, we’re not really getting to participate in this.”
City staff clarified that the LUE does not plan for a future without cars but that it does promote different modes of transportation. A lot of the proposed density would be constrained to major corridors where bus lines and businesses already exist which could make walking to stores and jobs easier.
As for the “crackerbox debacle”, a buzz-phrase made popular by residents describing the proliferation of cheaply built apartments during the 1980s, the city said it was closing the door on that type of construction.
“They were absolutely a mistake on the city’s part,” said Linda Tatum, the city’s planning bureau manager. “Those properties were up zoned in a very short time frame and there was very little design that occurred on those buildings. What we’re here to say today is the land use element and the urban design element that we just talked about, featured in both of those documents show that the cracker box phenomenon will never happen again in this city.”
Some of the most contested areas during the entire process were a handful of East Long Beach shopping centers that had been considered potential landing spots for mixed-use residential projects (commercial on the bottom floor with apartments or condos above) or outright residential projects that could have seen sites like the K-Mart in the Fifth District transformed into housing units.
Councilmembers Stacy Mungo and Supernaw, who represent much of East Long Beach, made a variety of changes to the LUE that assured those shopping centers would remain. Mungo defended both her office and her residents that have received criticism for their opposition to housing density by pointing to the recent growth in businesses and jobs in the district—Mungo stated some 2,000 jobs and 760 new businesses have sprung up in recent years—adding that that growth needed to be fostered.
“We’re adding more restaurants at the Long Beach Town Center in buildings that didn’t even exist before,” Mungo said. “And to do that we have to protect the community commercial [retail] that has come together and started to thrive. When we have brought people to the district and they make these large investments in these commercial corridors, we need to protect those investments.”
Tuesday night did not mark the end of the LUE process as the city will now begin preparing a final environmental impact report which is expected to be back before the council in about a year. Then it will undergo a series of zoning changes which staff said could take years still.
Annual reports on the progress of developments as well as an equity report and major 5-year reports will keep the council and future councils up-to-date on how the LUE is transpiring. New maps with the adjustments made Tuesday night are expected to be out next week on the city’s website but a list of the changes by district will be released today.
The council struck a balance between inaction, something that some homeowners had pushed for when it came to the idea of increasing density, and setting the city up for future influxes of people and potentially jobs. The mayor said that while outreach could have been better to get more people engaged in the process earlier, the conversations held over the past year were valuable toward crafting a policy that allows for the city to plan for the future appropriately.
“I value when someone has put their livelihood into their home or whether they’re putting their blood, sweat and tears into trying to make a living to pay the rent every single month,” Garcia said. “Those voices all matter and one voice shouldn’t matter more than the other, they all matter as part of our community.”