A distillery next to an elementary school? Community groups say they were blindsided by plan

Several community groups spoke up this week against the plan to build an expansive distillery across the street from Edison Elementary School in a largely Latino neighborhood that’s suffered from a lack of greenspace and high poverty rates.

In a press conference Tuesday, organizers from Latinos in Action-California and Centro CHA said they were blindsided by news that El Segundo-based R6 Distillery would be opening up its second location in Long Beach, with plans for an 18,500 square foot warehouse that will include “space for more drinking and eating — and a machine that can sanitize, fill and label 1,000 bottles in about 25 minutes,” according to an article published in the Los Angeles Times last October.

In the article, founder and head distiller of R6 Distillery, Rob Rubens, discussed his plans for the expansion and disclosed the new location, 601 Golden Avenue, the former U.S. Postal Service building and Hoonigan Industries headquarters next to Edison Elementary School and just north of Cesar E. Chavez Park.

At Tuesday’s press conference, community members said they only learned about the major development from the newspaper article. Many speakers objected to it, saying they are worried about alcohol sales in a community that’s already been burdened by too many liquor stores and the pollution that the distillery could bring. But, they said, their concerns haven’t gotten a response.

“We have communicated with all of the local elected officials for this area. … Nobody has replied. No one has acknowledged that they knew anything about the project,” said Armando Vasquez Ramos, president and CEO of the nonprofit California-Mexico Studies Center, which hosted the press conference to draw attention to the planned development.

David Salazar, planning consultant for the California-Mexico Studies Center, addresses media outlets and community members at a press conference related to the development of R6 Distillery at 601 Golden Avenue in Long Beach on Sept. 27, 2022. Photo by Laura Anaya-Morga.

Ramos said residents have been left out of the decision, which will greatly affect the people who live in the area and the children who go to school there. He called for the city to invest in parks and community-centered economic development instead of a project he saw as gentrification.

“Es tiempo que nuestra comunidad Latina sea escuchada. Alguien dijo, ‘creen que estamos dormidos.’ No, ellos no creen que estamos dormidos, ellos creen que no existimos,” said Martha Cota, a community organizer for Latinos in Action-California: “It’s time that our Latino community is heard. Someone said, ‘They think we are asleep.’ No, they don’t think we are asleep, they think we don’t exist.”

A representative for the Long Beach Development Services department said they were aware of a proposed project and pointed to case filings for R6 Distillery that were made public in December 2021.

Those plans show that the distillery intends to utilize the entire 18,708 square foot stretch of land on Golden Avenue between Sixth and Seventh streets. It will be fully equipped with a manufacturing area, tasting room, commercial kitchen, offices, parking and outdoor dining space, according to the full planning document.

Rubens told the Post that the plans for R6 Distillery, an investment of over $11 million, have since been approved by the city and he hopes to be open within the next 12 to 14 months. In response to the community’s opposition, he wrote, “We proactively met with Edison Elementary School leadership to discuss our plans before signing our long-term lease.”

“Our project at 601 Golden will not only help accelerate the gentrification of the area adjacent Edison Elementary and west Long Beach, where there are currently a number of homeless and transients with drug addiction, but also provide more than 30 jobs for the community and help do its part to keep the adjacent park clean,” Rubens wrote.

The neighborhood around the planned distillery is over 41% Latino, and a large portion of that community faces issues related to poverty and rent cost burdens. Between 31% and 40% of households in that area lacked internet access according to Census Tract data from 2015 to 2019.

“If this issue were to happen in any other ZIP code, … we wouldn’t have this issue,” David Espinoza, a student at Cal State Long Beach who was made aware of the development earlier that day. In a low-income neighborhood like this one, he said, residents, “aren’t taken into consideration.”

The former U.S. Postal Service building and Hoonigan Industries headquarters is the proposed location for R6 Distillery at 601 Golden Avenue in Long Beach on Sept. 27, 2022. Photo by Laura Anaya-Morga.

Though the city has certain rules in place to prohibit the development of distilleries near schools, the proposed location is an exception. An ordinance set in place by the City Council in 2015 states that Alcoholic Beverage Manufacturers, like distilleries, “may not be located within five hundred (500) feet of the nearest property line of any preschool, kindergarten, elementary, secondary, or high school,” though an exception is made for those located in Planned Development areas like PD-30 in Downtown.

The ordinance also states that the size of a manufacturer cannot exceed more than six thousand square feet unless they are granted a conditional-use permit. According to the Development Services website, a permit is approved if the Planning Commission can find “that the use will not have an adverse effect on the community.”

The typical turnaround time for a conditional-use permit is 6 to 7 months, according to Development Services, but applications vary.

Although the development of R6 Distillery plans to utilize over three times the amount of permitted space, Rubens said he has not yet submitted an application for a conditional-use permit. R6 Distillery would also need to apply for a business license and alcohol license in order for their proposal to be approved.

Councilmember Mary Zendejas, who represents District 1, said in a statement, “The Municipal Code currently allows a distillery at the location mentioned. … I was not involved in the passing of the original ordinance to allow distilleries in downtown without buffers. However, I am looking into bringing an item forward to revisit the distance future distilleries can operate from schools in downtown.”

Latinos in Action-California, Centro CHA and the California-Mexico Studies Center are now calling for more transparency in the city’s approval process. Speakers Tuesday said they want a full public review of the development and an environmental analysis to understand the adverse effects of opening the distillery near a residential area, a school and a park.

They also worried the development could deny them the opportunity for more greenspace.

Cesar E. Chavez Park, right next to the proposed facility, has been the subject of major community investment for decades, but little progress has been made to achieve the city’s goals for a park expansion plan that aims to connect it to nearby Drake Park, two critically underserved areas, according to the city.

The Drake-Chavez Master Plan was approved by the City Council in 2009, but as of March, $10 million of proposed funding had not materialized for the multiple parts of the project that could eventually link Drake Park, which sits between Anaheim and Seventh streets, with Cesar E. Chavez and Santa Cruz Parks that end at Ocean Boulevard.

The city listed the Drake-Chavez project as one of its priority projects for the year.

It is unclear whether the development of R6 Distillery will affect the city’s plans for the park expansion—601 Golden Avenue was not included in previous renderings of the project. Long Beach Parks, Recreation and Marine did not immediately respond to questions regarding the current status of the Drake-Chavez Master Plan.

Cesar E. Chavez Park is also set to be the location for a Latino Cultural Center and El Mercado de Long Beach, a project Centro CHA had spent years advocating for. This month, the City Council approved a five-year, $4 million agreement to create the cultural center, but news of the distillery has dampened the celebration, according to Centro CHA Executive Director Jessica Quintana.

Quintana, who grew up in the neighborhood and attended Edison Elementary School, remembers walking to school and to Drake Park to play. “The community was safe back then,” she said. Now, the first district has been challenged by issues related to poverty, violence, immigration, pollution and inequality, said Quintana.

“If you really want to invest in our kids and invest in the environment that they live in, you need to have better land use of how we develop things,” she said.

On Tuesday afternoon, just as students were getting out of school, parents were largely unaware of the proposed distillery. One parent, Andy Olivares, said that while he had not heard of the development, he was indifferent to it.

Another parent, Mia Anderson, pointed to the traffic clogging Seventh Street as parents pulled in and out of street parking to pick up their children. It’s the only point of access to the proposed location at the end of the road. “You see this right here? How will that work if they make a distillery right there?”

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include additional information provided by the Long Beach Development Services department.

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Laura Anaya-Morga is a general assignment reporter for the Long Beach Post.
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