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LB Planning Commission recommends city council pass LUE; community at odds with decision

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Denny Cristales | Signal Tribune
On Monday night at Long Beach City Hall, a vocal majority suggested that the Planning Commission “receive and file” a proposed update of the City’s Land Use Element (LUE), which would establish new building-size standards citywide. The Planning Commission ultimately passed the LUE, with changes, in a unanimous 6-0 vote to the city council for final approval.

Despite listening to roughly four hours of public disapproval and concern on Monday night at Long Beach City Hall over the proposed update of the City’s Land Use Element (LUE), the Planning Commission voted unanimously, 6-0, to recommend and pass the LUE, with modified changes, to the city council.

The final decision on the LUE, which would set new precedents for building sizes throughout local neighborhoods, now rests in the hands of the Long Beach City Council, who will address the item at an undisclosed date, as of press time.

In response to public input during the meeting, the commission proposed LUE changes to the following:

• In council district 2, a change was made along 7th Street to reduce height to a consistent three-story minimum between Walnut and Saint Louis avenues.

• In council district 4, a change was made at the Sears location at Stearns Street and Bellflower Boulevard from a mixed-use property to a community-commercial, which does not allow housing. The site would maintain a three-story minimum.

• In council district 4, a change was made to the area of the traffic circle, where buildings would maintain a four-story height, with the exception of existing buildings that currently already exceed that height. The properties immediately adjacent to the traffic circle would be community-commercial. Mixed-use properties would be located farther away from the center of the traffic circle. Policy language will be created to require that there be no net loss in total retail space.

• In council district 5, a change was made at the Lowe’s-K-Mart site at Bellflower Boulevard and Spring Street to eliminate the mixed-use proposal and create a designation of community-commercial at a two-story height.

• For council district 6, the Planning Commission adopted all changes that were recommended by Councilmember Dee Andrews through a letter, asking for reduced height from five stories to four stories along the Midtown Specific Plan Corridor— which includes Pine, Earl and Burnett avenues and Willow Street. Focusing on the area bound by Earl Avenue, the alley behind Pacific Avenue and the midtown boundary, there’s a block that has single-family homes that would revert to its bounding and contemporary neighborhood placetype. An area east of the midtown border would also be reduced from five stories to four stories. A portion of Pacific Avenue, from 25th to 28th streets, would additionally be reduced to three stories.

• In council district 6, a reduction in height was made to Pacific Avenue, between 20th and 25th streets, from four stories to three stories. Height changes were made from 20th to 19th streets, down from five stories to four stories, but it would also maintain the existing five stories just south of 19th Street that leads to the intersection of Pacific Coast Highway.

There were no changes to council districts 1, 3, 7, 8 and 9.

The majority of residents reacted to the commission’s recommendation to the city council to adopt the LUE as part of the City’s General Plan the same way they have over the last few months at various community meetings— with opposition. Common concerns are that increased building sizes will change city landscapes and block scenery and that the implementation of the plan will lead to high-density neighborhoods, which can cause parking and traffic problems.

In the wake of the recommendation, one resident even interjected from her seat that “we’ll never forget this.”

Erick Verduzco-Vega, chair of the Planning Commission, urged residents that they can still voice their opinions about the issue.

“I know not everybody’s happy with everything that was done,” said Verduzco-Vega at the end of the long meeting. “[…] There is still opportunity for everyone, throughout the city of Long Beach, to ask as many questions and [make] suggestions of staff that you deem appropriate, and that you do the same with the city council. This item is not final.”

The LUE is a component of the City’s General Plan that has not been updated since 1989. The City’s goal is to modify the plan to better reflect modern-day living standards and use it as a guiding tool for future growth heading into 2040.

The LUE maps— which have been updated a few times this year, the most recent change being in November— show citywide changes to neighborhoods, including increased building sizes and placetypes, commonly known as land-use designations, as stated in the current iteration of the LUE.

Carrie Tai, the City’s current planning officer, explained that a placetype’s fundamental purpose is to designate a land use for a specific area. For example, a placetype could be a designation of an area listed as an industrial or a commercial zone. The term “placetype” is simply an interchangeable term used to define land.

Denny Cristales | Signal Tribune
Residents listen to community input about the City of Long Beach’s proposed update to the Land Use Element (LUE) on Monday, Dec. 11, inside the council chamber of City Hall.

Many during the meeting’s public-input session feared that the changes will cause Long Beach to lose its identity.

Suzanne, a resident of the 5th council district, said part of what made Long Beach such an attractive city when she first moved in was the variety of lifestyle that it offered— if residents craved a beach, homey or downtown lifestyle, it was all available to them.

“What I see in the maps, and what I don’t understand, is that you’re sort of homogenizing all the different neighborhoods that we have so that they will all end up looking and being the same,” she said. “And that takes away from us what we think is an intrinsic part of Long Beach.”

Alan, a resident of district 6, urged the commissioners to reduce sizes in his neighborhood down to a three-story minimum, also adding that they should take the plan “back to the drawing board.”

Alan’s main concern was also the lack of awareness the public had about the LUE maps. Many residents during public input mentioned that they had first heard of the update as recently as that same day of the meeting.

“Commissioners, I think we can randomly pick six people from this room who can do a better job on outreach,” he said. “I sincerely apologize to staff, because I have the highest regard for our employees of the City, but most of you don’t live here, and you worked really hard and, frankly, this is a disaster. […] It’s an outrage how people weren’t told [how much] their lives were going to change.”

Another resident of Long Beach, Roberta, also encouraged the commissioners to take the infrastructure, schools, traffic and public transportation into account in their decision making.

Not everybody is against the updated LUE, however.

Jerard Wright, a business manager in LA County and resident of Bixby Knolls, is in favor of the updated proposal and said that this is a chance for the city to guide its own path, adding that it cannot afford to pass on the opportunity to grow, especially in the midst of a housing crisis that risks making the cost of living even more expensive.

“The region has a housing crisis, both in production and affordability, and if we do not move on this, there are other moves along the pipeline that the State has mentioned— SB 35 and other opportunities, such as a statewide rent-control ballot initiative,” he said. “Ballot measures like that will make it even more difficult for the ‘Mom and Pop’ property owners that we represent […] to improve their properties, improve their businesses. You know, that’s their bread and butter. […] The LUE is a chance for Long Beach to definite its own destiny. […] Too many times we push it off the side, and […] we cannot piss away our opportunity to make it better, and we can make it better.”

As some of the community mentioned, taking the shape of a looming presence in the midst of the LUE discussion is Senate Bill 35 (SB 35), which was one of 15 housing bills signed into law on Sept. 29 of this year.

Michael Mais, assistant city attorney, said the legislation— effective Jan. 1, 2018— provides a streamlined approval process for housing projects in cities nationwide, eliminating what would normally be a years-long review process. The caveat is that there is a multitude of criteria and procedures that a specific project must meet to qualify for streamlined approval, some of which Mais admitted is complex.

There is a provision in SB 35 that allows the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) to establish guidelines to explain how, in its view, the legislation is going to work.

“It’s not anticipated that they will even finish those guidelines within this year,” he said. “And it’s unclear from the legislation when HCD will be in a position to make a determination that a city has not met its arena entitlement needs.”

As such, SB 35’s limitations and how it applies to a city’s placetypes and zoning laws is not entirely known until those guidelines are released.

Mais added that the City could not impose a certain parking standard if a developer did not want one, which was a frequent concern amongst residents.

Fifth District Councilmember Stacy Mungo emailed a newsletter the day after the meeting and praised the community for making a difference, specifically as it relates to her council district and the changes that were made to the LUE prior to the Planning Commission’s recommendation. She confirmed that the LUE will be reviewed by the city council at a date that is yet to be determined.

“[…] our work isn’t done,” she wrote in her email.

Public comments about the LUE may still be submitted to [email protected]

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LB Planning Commission recommends city council pass LUE; community at odds with decision