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 many city meetings so you don’t have to.
An affordable Downtown
Benjamin Franklin once said: “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”
I’d like to think that the city planning staff at least is aware of that quote, and maybe even some of them like it.
Where I’m going with this is that one of the most consequential plans that the city has passed in recent memory is getting a makeover as the city said it will soon start an effort to update zoning in Downtown and the area south of Ocean Boulevard.
While the zoning south of Ocean hasn’t changed since the 1970s, north of Ocean is a different story.
The “Downtown Plan” changed zoning in that area in 2012 to make way for 5,000 new residential units and about two million square feet of office space and retail. Whether that plan was a failure depends on who you ask.
Downtown has already eclipsed the 5,000-unit mark and city planners have turned to a conversion program to allow up to 3,260 more units to be built in lieu of office space and retail space that was not realized.
So, it did deliver on creating housing.
However, the plan led to the displacement of low-income residents who lived Downtown before the plan’s adoption who were not able to keep up with the rising rents in the area. The idea that it would displace residents was termed “specious” by then-Councilmember Suja Lowenthal at the time.
The plan’s own environmental documents forecasted the potential displacement of up to 36,000 residents, but the council moved forward—even though the plan had no requirement for affordable housing to be built.
That could now change.
I spoke to the city’s planning bureau manager, Alison Spindler-Ruiz (we’re not related), this week about the plans and how the city is approaching them.
Spindler-Ruiz said that the two plans are going to have distinct approaches.
The area south of Ocean, known as “PD-6,” is where the city has tried for years to create some sort of tourist attraction on the “Elephant Lot” next to the Convention Center to bolster the city’s Downtown waterfront.
You’ll recall the city’s brief flirtation with the Angels to locate a stadium there. But there are still plenty of questions over what can actually fit there. The city is planning upcoming meetings this summer to help determine what residents and other groups actually want to go there.
But it’s in the Coastal Zone, which means the California Coastal Commission would have final say on any future developments.
Getting a sports team is not as simple as that Kevin Costner movie where you simply build something and a franchise cuts bait with its current city to play in Downtown Long Beach.
It could host other entertainment options, and Spindler-Ruiz said that the city is exploring the potential for new housing, specifically affordable units both north and south of Ocean.
“What sort of mechanisms we use is the question, but the goal when we’re producing housing is to focus on affordable housing,” she said.
The Downtown Plan area north of Ocean is already subject to the city’s inclusionary housing law, which now requires any new development to include a percent of affordable units (11% rentals, 10% ownership).
But those rules could be expanded beyond the law’s current footprint if the city can demonstrate a market need.
A need for more affordable housing has been noted by the city’s health department and development services, which have pointed to the cost of rent and the lack of affordable units as driving factors in the city’s rising homeless population.
The city has a housing unit goal of over 26,500 units to build and most of those (15,346) are affordable units. Under the city’s law, the 900-unit Mosaic development that will replace most of City Place will only include 54 affordable units.
If you’re doing the math, you are correct. That’s only 6% because the law was phased in and the Mosaic developers received their entitlements before the law clicked over to 11% this year.
The point to take away from all of this is that these are just updates to plans. And like any zoning updates, it merely means things can happen rather than they will happen.
For PD-6, there will be a vision for what could happen, and it might include housing, some of which could be more affordable than the market-rate rents that can be several thousand dollars for other Downtown apartments.
With most of Downtown’s empty lots already gobbled up during the first Downtown Plan, the effects of the update might not be as dramatic as the first. But whatever housing is built will include affordable units.
With the city trying to figure out how to keep people housed, it may not be able to afford for this plan to be a failure.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW THIS WEEK
If you’re a business looking to open in Long Beach, the city’s proposal to change parking requirements might be of interest. Currently, the city has about 50 specific uses (gym, bar, grocery store) that all have different parking requirements. So, if you wanted to open an ice cream store at the site of a former UPS store, you might have to provide more parking. That’s something that the city says has blocked some businesses from opening and it’s seeking to fix that. The proposal could do away with that, making it easier for a business owner who wants to convert a laundromat into a gym, or something else, to actually get permitted to operate. The draft will have to be approved by the Planning Commission and City Council before becoming law.
PAY ATTENTION TO THIS WEEK
The price you pay for your monthly water bill is going up. How much? That’s still to be decided. As you may recall I’ve reminded you all that the Utitlies Commission is meeting to decide what future rates might be as it prepares its budget for the upcoming fiscal year. On Thursday morning, it was presented with three separate increases to consider for water usage ranging from 6% to 10%. The Utilities Department says it needs to raise rates because conservation efforts by customers have eaten into its revenue, which it is using to invest in more groundwater projects to access cheaper water. I know, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, but the commission hasn’t voted on an increase yet. It’s expected to continue the discussion at its June 8 meeting.