Robert Gumbiner Park will officially open to the public during a ceremony scheduled for 1:00 PM Sunday. Photos: Jason Ruiz
If you’ve driven down 7th Street toward downtown in the past few years you’ve surely noticed the construction involved in removing one of the city’s most dangerous intersections and replacing it with a park.
Gumbiner Park was formally green-lighted by the Long Beach City Council in February 2015 and will officially open to the public this Sunday. However, the story of the park is not that cut and dry as its origins reach back to when George W. Bush was in the White House.
The project rerouted traffic on 7th and 6th streets and ended Martin Luther King Avenue one block short of its original ending point to insert a park which served two goals, eliminating the alarming rate of traffic incidents which had many calling it the most dangerous intersection in the city, and to provide green space to a park-deprived part of Long Beach.
Sitting at a coffee shop in downtown, Brian Ulaszewski, executive director of the design firm City Fabrick, starts in by saying that he sent the first email to the city about something entirely different in October 2003, but ultimately the project morphed into what is now the soon-to-be-opened Gumbiner Park, named after Robert Gumbiner, the founder of the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA), which sits to the east of the park.
“The initial idea was a re-use of the armory,” Ulaszewski said. “When I started sharing this idea it was kind of like ‘oh, that’s a neat idea but can you do something about this intersection? It’s really unsafe and we have no parks.’”
It became the cumulative effort of multiple neighborhood groups (Craftsman Village, North Alamitos Beach) the staff at MOLAA, residents of the East Village and even St. Anthony’s High School, all of which stood to benefit from having a park in the neighborhood.
While the area of the city did lack park space, it did not lack traffic accidents. The close-knit intersections of 7th and Alamitos, Martin Luther King and 6th Street created a perfect storm for broadside accidents.
One of the city’s most dangerous intersections now dead ends into a park.
The city applied for and was awarded grants from CalTrans ($900,000) to improve traffic safety, and also some $2.8 million in state funds to develop park space.
Ulaszewski said that once the project to put the park in place got going it was not uncommon for people in the community to text him pictures of accidents that were happening daily. The project has spanned multiple iterations of the city council, two traffic engineers and three mayors and Sunday it will finally open to the public.
He said that had the project been proposed to this current council, and the current traffic engineer, it may not have taken over a decade to get the wheels in motion. Ulaszewski gave credit to Mayor Robert Garcia, who in his role as the First District councilman would not take “no” for an answer when it came to the park project.
“Our city staff and management and our elected officials are so much more progressive to these things than they were,” he said. “Back then it was Bonnie [Lowenthal] in the First District seat and it was Dan Baker in the Second District and they were both generally supportive of it, but both deferred to the city traffic engineer.”
The road to bringing the park to life was slogged by traffic studies and unpopular additions to the project that eliminated over 50 parking spaces, a non-starter for residents on seemingly any construction project in this parking impacted part of the city.
But there has been incremental progress.
After 6th and 7th streets had their two-way traffic pushed further west to Atlantic, the fences went up and construction began on the park, which includes skateboarding amenities as well as a playground and covered benches. Then navigation devices began to recognize the park, and started to reroute vehicles around what was previously the last block of MLK. Recently, he received a call from a city staffer informing him that accidents had decreased since the street improvements were made around the park.
For the past few months the park, seemingly finished and ready to be enjoyed by the public, has sat dormant and locked behind a fence. First District Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez explained that the fence was in place mostly to ensure that the new landscaping and foliage had enough time to take root to be able to withstand public usage.
“We wanted to make sure that the landscaping was correct,” Gonzalez said. “The landscaping, like all parks, has to get to a point where people can utilize it and it’s mature enough. Drake Park is exactly the same where we have soccer fields, and although that’s turf, we’re just kind of waiting for a few other adjustments for us to open officially.”
Gonzalez, who is hosting a grand opening ceremony for the park Sunday afternoon, said that it already has about 10 weeks of activities planned after the opening with soccer, yoga and dancing being among the programming scheduled already. Some members of the community have taken their own measures to use the park before its opening, prompting a temporary covering of the skateboarding facilities to deter people from jumping the fence to shred.
“I know that people have been anticipating this for so long and of course the skateboarders are always finding ways and opportunities and places where they can go skate,” Gonzalez said. “We even had other kids who were just climbing the fence and wanted a place to hang out. I think that once this finally opens and all that anticipation goes away it’s just going to be awesome.”
For Ulaszewski, the odyssey of Gumbiner Park will come to a close with its opening ceremony, one that he’s scheduled to speak at. He knows that a decade from now the story of this park, and the work to get it past all the red tape may be lost to most, but as he’s finding out with a new project in North Long Beach, when the next crop of urban designers with quirky ideas start prodding around, they may find the quirky history of Gumbiner Park.
“You’re going to have to really do a cut in the time period for this to be dramatic,” he said. “There were various dramatic moments, discussions and conflicts and activities in creating this but there’s been such a long period between them that this is sort of the epilogue of the story. I’m going to be excited to see people actually use it. I think that’s when it will set in.”
Gumbiner Park is located at 880 East 7th Street Long Beach, CA 90802.