Designs on the waterfront
By Don Jergler and Joe Segura
LONG BEACH - A high tide of enthusiasm from the month-long Aquatic Festival is building momentum, and its legacy could splash over into a new chapter of growth in Long Beach's downtown waterfront sector.
A new request for proposals to study potential development of the "Downtown Tidelands' area the sprawling section south of Ocean Boulevard and adjacent to the Convention and Entertainment Center has attracted 11 consulting firms bidding to map out the city's ambitious plans for what's believed to be the premier chunk of undeveloped shoreline real estate in the region.
There's a long review process before any proposal can move off the drawing board, since it will need to pass muster with local panels and the City Council, the state Coastal Commission and possibly the state Lands Commission.
Environmentalists and community activists said they were caught off guard by the city's move, but vowed to be diligent in monitoring any development on public-trust turf an area that received no comment in the staff report.
"I think it's totally inappropriate that one of the things they're not looking at is the restrictions of development to approved public-trust uses,' said Don May, president of the environmental group California Earth Corps. "The city has pushed that envelope more than anywhere else in the state.'
The prime focus is a 20-acre parking lot connected with the Long Beach Arena, the site for the temporary 10,000-seat Charter All Digital Aquatics Centre the host for the Aquatic Festival, which includes the upcoming U.S. Olympic Team Trials-Swimming.
Combined, the events are considered to be the nation's largest swim event and are expected to draw 115,000 spectators from all over the world, generating an economic impact of $15 million for area businesses. That was enough to get City Hall thinking.
Now, the lot may also become the site of Long Beach's newest development. Ideas for the parcel have ranged from a now-dead proposal for a towering space needle to an expansion of the Long Beach Convention Center to a permanent aquatics center.
The request was issued two months ago. The recruited consultant's primary focus will be the arena's parking lot, while the surrounding secondary areas will include the Rainbow Lagoon connected with the Hyatt Regency, the marina parking lot, and the connecting Green Park.
Because they're secondary, those areas won't necessarily be included, but they must be accounted for in development plans. The arena itself is considered secondary in the request, because of lease agreements with the city that relate to the surrounding area.
Proposals were submitted by the June 1 deadline, and quoted prices range between $175,000 and $350,000 to develop a comprehensive plan for the Tidelands area, according to city staff.
A steering committee of city officials and business people has been formed, and the process of selecting a consultant is expected to begin in July.
Any project in the area could be footed solely by a developer. Or, a project could get added funding from the Redevelopment Agency, or the Tidelands Fund, which receives oil revenue, as well as 10 percent of the net income from the Port of Long Beach.
The city is a trustee on the fund, which has an annual operating budget of up to $55 million, according to Mike Killebrew, the city's acting finance director.
Tidelands projects include the Pike, the Aquarium of the Pacific and the Queen Mary.
Tidelands funds are solely for use in the tidelands area, and are earmarked for recreational uses. They helped build a $43 million parking garage for the Pike.
No parameters, including cost, have been set for development on the terrain.
However, those involved in the process all agree they want the area to be used to attract tourists, much like the nearby Pike at Rainbow Harbor, and the Aquatic Festival.
In fact, one of the ideas outlined in the request is for a permanent aquatics stadium.
"There's been discussions about a recreational use, like a permanent swim facility,' said Melanie Fallon, director of Community Development, the city department that issued the request. "This is a really important property for the city.'
Offers from developers for the area have been surfacing regularly, especially since the Pike entertainment and shopping center is up and running, said Fallon. She credits the aquatics event and frequent unsolicited proposals made before the city launched its new development strategy for prompting City Hall to act and issue the request for development strategies.
Other possible uses outlined in the city's proposal request also include expanding the Hyatt Regency at Pine Avenue and Shoreline Drive, or the Long Beach Convention Center at 300 E. Ocean Blvd.
The city is eager to increase its tourist trade, and enhancement of the convention facilities both in meeting halls capacity and hotel rooms could help turn the tide of the past few years, when the city has lost a handful of big conventions that required larger centers to handle larger gatherings.
The Action Sports Retailer show bailed to San Diego two years ago after the crowd of 17,000 it drew could no longer be accommodated at the Long Beach locale.
Most notably, the owner of the Fred Hall's Fishing Tackle and Boat Show stated he was considering relocating it because it was outgrowing the center.
"We can't grow anymore,' Bart Hall, son of Fred, who's now deceased, told a Press- Telegram reporter in March as the show was about to get under way.
Hall said he was considering moving the show to the Anaheim Convention Center, which has 815,000 square feet of exhibit space, more than double Long Beach's 350,000- square-foot center. Hall doesn't disclose attendance figures, but estimates for attendance range from more than 30,000 to 300,000.
While Hall eventually agreed to hold the show in Long Beach for another five years, losing conventions due to lack of space is growing concern.
"We have lost several conventions because they've expanded in their size and we haven't,' said Steven Goodling, president and chief executive officer for the Long Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.
But enlarging the center has its drawbacks.
Convention floor space has increased nearly 60 percent nationwide over the past four years, according to industry experts.
"Currently, we have created a great niche within the convention segment, and that is a medium-sized convention can come into our city and own it,' Goodling said. "By expanding our convention center, it would need to be determined if the market exists amongst the other buildout over the last four years.'
There are parcels in the focused section that could be all but off limits for any proposed development project since proposals for large development would prompt legal challenges from either environmentalists or state agencies mandated to protect public-access land and rights.
Among the two top hot spots: the Rainbow Lagoon, adjacent to the Hyatt Hotel, and the Marina Green Park along with its parking area.
Charles Posner, planner for the state Coastal Commission, said a tidelands agreement and the city's local coastal plan put limits on what could be developed in the Rainbow Lagoon area, which is considered wetlands. He added that the state Coastal Act would be a stronger potential hurdle, since that law does not allow displacement of wetlands for commercial or residential projects.
"It's protected,' he said.
Violations of the Coastal Act often prompt court challenges.
The parkland is a public-trust area and protected by the local coastal plan, according to Posner.
"All park lands are protected ... to remain park lands in perpetuity,' he said.
A push to develop the park would require a 2-to-1 ratio trade-off for public land in another part of the city. That would include any development of the area set aside for the park's parking spots but not the slots for marina parking, the commission planner explained.
"The city has made it very difficult to do anything in park lands other than park uses,' Posner added.
Parking will be a key component of the planning, according to the city.
The focus of the parking study will be east of Pine Avenue and south of Ocean Boulevard.
"This is the last major remaining development opportunity site in this vicinity,' the report notes.
However, the future consultant will also review parking supply and demand for the Pike project area, to assure the study is complete.
The selected consultant will review data used as part of the Downtown Long Beach parking study, and apply the findings along with a computer parking model that was created for the Pike project.
There's generally plenty of parking in the downtown shoreline complex.
Parking blocs can be found at all corners north and south, east and west of the complex's crossroads at Pine Avenue and Shoreline Drive.
One large bloc of parking spaces is taken up by boat owners with slips in the marinas.
Development north of Shoreline Drive should not have any impact on the boat owners' parking arrangements, according to Mike Malbon, a member of the city's Marine Advisory Commission.
However, he said there could be new concerns if any development is pegged for south of Shoreline.
The city's report identifies the "peripheral stakeholders' as the Aquarium of the Pacific, Shoreline Village, Downtown Marina boat owners and the Pike retail/entertainment complex.
Malbon believes that the "peripheral stakeholders' status could change, if the development gets a foothold south of Shoreline especially in the marina parking sections.
That would make the boat owners "major stakeholders,' he asserted, adding that the Marine Advisory Commission would most likely review the development proposal and make its recommendation to the City Council.
Without any new development, Malbon said, visitors generally cause only minor parking problems, generally during special events.
"They have their own spaces,' he said of visitors. "And that works out just fine.'
At this point, there's no development plan on the drawing board to worry about.
Ditto for traffic problems linked to any possible development proposal except for one spot at Pine and Ocean, where westbound vehicles become gridlocked attempting to make a left turn into the southbound Pine Avenue lanes, according to Malbon.
"When they close down Shoreline for for an event, Pine and Ocean become really congested,' he added.
City Councilman Dan Baker, whose district encompasses the Tidelands area, wants a study of the area to examine ways to reconfigure the eastern end of Seaside Way bordering the arena convention complex to mitigate the impact of traffic from the Convention Center on residents.
If a proposed development leads to improvements of in that complex area, local residents would be happy, the councilman predicted.
"This really could be an upside for the folks that live in those buildings on Ocean,' Baker said.
Grand Prix factor
Other concerns about inserting a new project in the area is that major events' use of the parking lot could be driven off.
The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is one such event that uses the parking lot.
Drivers use the lot as a staging area, along with pit crews, garages and concessions during the city's largest and most spectacular sports event, which draws about 200,000 people over three days each spring.
"We've asked the Grand Prix folks to be part of our team,' Fallon said, adding that other nearby spots could be found to stage the event, if necessary.
Preserving a Grand Prix staging area in the vicinity would be given top priority in any proposal, Fallon asserted.
One key issue, according to Malbon, would be the public's view of the marinas and other shoreline facilities the same concern he raised with the recent proposal for a massive tower similar to Seattle's Space Needle, labeled by the developer as the Tower of Toscana.
While the project was hailed as the "crowning jewel of the Long Beach renaissance,' it tumbled within months of its unveiling last November, when developer Russell Geyser head of an Encinitas- based specialty retail development company, Geyser Group pulled the plug on it. He was upset, in part, because of a dispute over the souring talks on an unrelated restaurant development deal at Alamitos Bay.
The tower's deal was given a blunt obit.
"As much as anything can be dead, I think that would be dead,' Fallon said.
Before the deal died, however, Malbon raised concerns about the tower's dimensions, and he strongly suggested planners consider alternative sites, where there would be less disruption of established uses.
New development south of Shoreline could breathe new life into the same visibility concerns.
"It's an open-space area,' Malbon said. "It (new development) could have tremendous visual impact.'
Development projects in the shoreline area all public trust tidelands turf can easily get entangled in litigation by environmentalists.
The California Earth Corps, for instance, has been tangling with the Long Beach since the fall of 2001 over the Queensway Bay land-use exchange. The group, headed by May, asserted the city and state violated state laws by not performing an environmental impact report on the land involved in the deal, adding that the swap didn't meet requirements for exchanging development rights on public-trust land.
Community activist Bry Myown, who maintains a vigil eye on coastal and port issues, said any potential project could most likely avoid legal challenges, if it benefits tourists and residents alike a plan that will be environmentally friendly and offer affordable activities for the public.
That mix, in the end, will most likely benefit local merchants and restaurants, she said, adding waterfront facilities are big draws pumping new cash into merchants' coffers.
"When I leave the (shoreline) spots, I'd go to a restaurant,' she explained.
"I think people would come here to see the beach and spend money for something we've already built.'