Civically Speaking is a weekly newsletter on the latest local government news from the lens of the Long Beach Post’s City Hall reporter, who sits through so many city meetings for us.
When people ask me what it’s like doing my job, I usually ask them if they’ve seen the show “Parks and Rec.”
Going to as many public meetings, open houses and other places normal people don’t go unless they have to, or stumble into because they thought the Zumba class was this Wednesday, can expose you to a lot of niche fights.
I’ve literally heard a person complain that the vending machines at El Dorado Park were so bright they kept them up at night. It’s not quite complaining about finding a sandwich that had mayo in it, but it’s close.
For the past few months, one of those fights has been over the 93-year-old Dolly Varden Hotel in Downtown. A developer wants to demolish it to create 141 new units of housing on Pacific Avenue.
It’s a quirky issue because the Dolly Varden sign, which advertises a “Bath In Every Room” was designated as a historic landmark in 1995. The building it sits on top of has been designated as not historic (twice).
The antagonist in this story, if you’re the developer, is Amy Bodek, former Director of Development Services and member of the Cultural Heritage Commission. Bodek has been the most outspoken about preserving the building, first focusing on the murals painted on the side of the Varden, and then requesting a new analysis of its historic value in May.
When that report came back in June and said again that the building and its builder were “historic adjacent,” Bodek asked for a number of fixes like asking for written proof that the murals on the side of the building were not required by contract to remain in place and creating a space for the old hotel to be memorialized if it is indeed torn down.
Then this week Bodek requested the facade and the first 15 feet of the building be saved and incorporated into the new building, presumably to keep the sign in its same place atop the third story of the new building, rather than on the rooftop deck of the eighth floor.
While that might be good for limiting an injury to the sign’s place in history, it might actually go against what the commission is trying to accomplish, that is, to keep the sign visible. Directly across the street developers are building an eight-story building, which will likely obscure the view of the Varden sign if it’s kept at a lower elevation.
An architect representing the developer said this would likely require a significant redesign of the project and probably lead to the loss of 12 units as well as a good amount of the underground parking they intended to build into the bottom of the design.
During her time as the head of Development Services, Bodek infamously told the Planning Commission that she was taking the city’s polarizing Land Use Element to the City Council “with or without your recommendations.” That comment prompted a public response from then-Mayor Robert Garcia, who carefully walked back what Bodek said.
When I asked a planning official if they had considered making a similar comment now that Bodek is on the opposite side of the commission process it elicited some nervous laughs, but I didn’t expect an answer. But as a reporter, we do root for a story and that would have made for quite a yarn.
All jokes aside, I would be surprised if the Cultural Heritage Commission’s vote this week is not challenged and overturned.
The building, despite its age, has been deemed not historic in 1995 and now in 2023, which should remove some of the conspiracists who’ve commented that the building’s status is being disregarded for developer greed.
The plans to knock the building down were submitted 27 years after the first report said the building was not historic.
Perhaps more importantly, the commission’s jurisdiction is over things that are historic, like the sign. And attaching stipulations to keep a portion of something that is not historic could open up the city to legal challenges if the municipal appeal process is unsuccessful.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW THIS WEEK:
If you live in Bixby Knolls, this is for you. I went to the city’s open house Wednesday, which was held inside a sweltering Expo Arts Center on Atlantic Avenue, where city planners were soliciting comments from residents about upcoming zoning changes. I’ll head this off now and say this is not about doing away with single-family zoning. The “Zone In” process has been playing out for the past two years as land uses approved in 2018 are applied to the city section by section and Bixby Knolls is next. The largest changes are going to be seen on major corridors like Atlantic, Long Beach Boulevard and Wardlow Road where new zones could allow for future development, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen. If you want to get updates on future meetings you can sign up here.
PAY ATTENTION TO THIS NEXT WEEK:
The city is officially releasing its budget Tuesday morning and there will certainly be a lot to comb through once we get our grubby little mitts on the hundreds of pages that outline how Long Beach intends to spend tax dollars this year. The City Council isn’t expected to approve the budget until mid-September, which means you have plenty of time—and opportunities— to share your opinion with the council and its committees about how you think money should be spent. Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that public comment is going to force the city to rewrite the entire budget. It typically doesn’t change much once it’s revealed to the public. But there are typically a few million dollars that the council members jockey for as the vote nears and from what I’ve observed, the squeaky wheel typically gets the grease.