At the tail end of a two-hour forum last week, candidates running for Long Beach mayor expressed concerns about a proposal to rebuild the downtown Civic Center, stating they either want the project delayed until a slew of new city officials take office this year or they are against it entirely.
The project was one of several hot-button topics, including homelessness, economic development, environmental issues, library services and public safety, that were brought up at the mayoral forum that packed the Houghton Park Community Center in north Long Beach on Tuesday, Jan. 28.
Various community groups from north and central Long Beach organized the forum, which included six out of the 10 mayoral candidates. The six candidates, who were chosen by community involvement, name recognition and dollars raised, were seated in alphabetical order by first name, according to north Long Beach community activist Dan Pressburg, who during the forum introduced the candidates and read a paraphrased version of their all the bios.
Three candidates were allowed to respond to questions posed by moderator Ken Osborn and a member of the press, LBReport.com publisher Bill Pearl, while two candidates responded to questions posed by attendees.
It was the last question of the evening, however, that raised the most eyebrows, as Wrigley resident Mauna Eichner asked all candidates how they would proceed with the Civic Center proposal.
The most outspoken opponent to the project was mayoral candidate and 5th District Councilmember Gerrie Schipske, who cast the lone dissenting vote last October, when the Council approved (8-1) moving forward with drafting a request-for-proposals (RFP).
Schipske called the City’s plans, which have been pushed by outgoing Mayor Bob Foster, a “farce” and a “boondoggle,” drawing applause from the crowd.
Schipske also made the assertion that the Civic Center has been “neglected on purpose” so residents would support tearing down the seismically outdated City Hall building to make way for a development that is to be funded through a public-private partnership. She said the Council and the public won’t have a say in the City’s RFP before it’s submitted to potential developers and added that city officials still have yet to fully determine how much it would cost to retrofit the City Hall building, calling the City’s organized sessions to seek public input on the Civic Center project a “sham.”
Mayoral candidate and Long Beach Community College District Trustee Douglas Otto used his own words to criticize the project, stating, “There’s something rotten in Denmark.”
While the City’s economic condition has improved with a surplus, Otto said residents don’t see the Civic Center rebuild as a priority, given the City is still projecting budget deficits for the next two fiscal years.
“This is a bad idea,” Otto said. “It’s being rushed through with no apparent sense… This project doesn’t make any sense at all. To do something of this magnitude requires a long, drawn-out process that involves the community [and] that involves studies about what are the best things to do… Nobody in Long Beach wants this.”
Mayoral candidate and Assemblymember Bonnie Lowenthal echoed Otto’s concerns, stating that the City should first focus on restoring critical city services that have been cut because of prior budget deficits before moving forward with a new Civic Center.
“It seems impossible to talk about the development of a new building until we’ve restored those services,” she said, adding that city staff should also analyze the successes and failures of past public-private developments.
The other three mayoral candidates at the forum weren’t as up-front in condemning the project outright.
Mayoral candidate Jana Shields, who is the current treasurer of the Willmore City Heritage Association, said, “something needs to happen” as far as the Civic Center is concerned, but she questioned reports that the City Hall building wouldn’t withstand an earthquake. Shields also called for more public input in the process and expressed funding concerns.
Mayoral candidate and former NFL player Damon Dunn, who is a developer, said he agreed with comments made by other candidates, adding that the process to move the project forward “has been flawed” and “people have not been involved and engaged.”
Still, Dunn stopped short of stating that he is fully against the project. He pointed out that the City would still have to pay ongoing expenses of $12.6 million to operate City Hall regardless of whether or not the City decides to build a new Civic Center.
Dunn also stated that retrofitting the building would cost the City tens of millions of dollars out of its General Fund, while having a private developer come in and take over the project would create no out-of-pocket expenses other than the cost of hiring consultants.
Mayoral candidate and Vice Mayor/1st District Councilmember Robert Garcia said he supports rebuilding the City Center in an “iconic way” with a new library and possibly a new educational center and housing development. The councilmember also said he’s against “slowing the process.”
Still, Garcia said having the Council approve a contract for such a major project before several new councilmembers and a new mayor are elected into office would be “a mistake.” City officials have publicly proposed recommending a contract for Council approval by July 1, just two days before a likely July 3 runoff election. The newly elected officials won’t assume office until July 15.
“I think we should expand the process as much as possible,” Garcia said. “The more community meetings [and] the more community input, the better… I do think the next mayor and City Council should absolutely have a say as this thing develops. This could be the single largest public project outside of the port that we’ve done in a very long time.”
Another controversial issue brought up during the forum came from former 8th District councilmember Rae Gabelich, who asked Garcia and Dunn whether they would support JetBlue building a customs facility to add international flights to the Long Beach Airport. Both candidates replied that they wouldn’t support such a proposal and would honor the City’s established noise ordinance.
“It’s not a business where it’s all about profit,” Dunn said. “It’s a city. We have residents around our airport, and we trade off profitability for quality of life, and what the residents have decided is that there’s about as much noise as we’re willing to tolerate.”
Other environmental-related questions were about the state’s drought and port pollution. One resident asked candidates whether they support a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking.”
Otto replied, “I don’t know,” since he hasn’t seen the State’s new regulations, known as SB 4, which are still being worked out. Otto added that the controversial oil-extraction procedure is “not a huge issue in Long Beach right now” but “certainly could be in the future.”
Lowenthal, who, as an assemblmember, has supported state legislation to put a temporary ban on fracking, said SB 4 is the “next best” thing to a moratorium.
“At the very least, we would have regulations so there wouldn’t be any more trade secrets in terms of what the oil companies were putting into the ground to get their precious resource,” she said. “There are regulations. We’re going to know more about the water table.”
Meanwhile, other questions centered on such topics as eradicating the city’s homeless veteran population and addressing the city’s high unemployment rate.
“Our unemployment level is higher than most cities in the state of California. I don’t think that’s right,” said Schipske, who said as mayor she would work on getting people more involved in coming up with ideas to spur economic development. “I think we need, as a community, to succeed together, not just certain parts of the city,” she said.
Otto said Long Beach has a “checkered past” that includes some “bad decisions along the way” that have prevented the kinds of development that spurs living-wage jobs. He promoted his 11-point jobs plan, which includes re-creating the City’s economic-development department.
“We just don’t have it anymore, and we need to recreate that to focus on job growth,” Otto said.
Dunn said he plans to use his years of experience as a developer to spur mixed-use developments and have “scrub” sessions with small-business owners to show them how to gain capital.
Annie Greenfeld, president of the Central Project Area Council (CPAC), asked candidates if they would spend increased property-tax income, which the City now receives after the State abolished redevelopment, on central and west areas of Long Beach that she said have been “ignored” by Mayor Foster and the City Council.
In response, Garcia said extra money coming to the City from the State should “absolutely” be used on economic development. However, he said taking money away from the General Fund would be “dangerous.” Garcia added that the City should use Bixby Knolls and its business-improvement association as a model that should be replicated throughout the city.
“We got to look into improving infrastructure along business corridors, making sure that all of our great streets that are out there have a lot of character,” Garcia said.
Schipske said next year the City should receive between $9 million and $10 million extra revenue coming from the State because of increased property-tax income generated by redevelopment. She said the City should designate money coming in from the State for economic development since the City’s redevelopment program was “wiped out.”
Schipske also said the City should look into asking that the California Public Employees Retirement System (Cal PERS) invest pension funds back into Long Beach.
The forum also included questions related to city services in which candidates agreed to work on restoring the police department’s gang unit and restoring library services.