BY NICK DIAMANTIDES
After a four-hour discussion last week, the Long Beach City Council unanimously approved a five-story senior housing project in Bixby Knolls. The building, which developers hope to build at 3635 Elm Avenue, will include 65 apartments and amenities designed to make life more comfortable for older people. Some residents in the vicinity have strongly opposed the project since it was publicized a few months ago, but they insist the only thing they object to is the building’s size. They say they would not object to a four-story building.
Temple Beth Shalom submitted the proposed development to the Long Beach Planning Commission a few months ago, and the commission recommended that the city council approve the zone change and General Plan amendment necessary for the project to go forward. The council was originally scheduled to consider the matter as well as an appeal of the planning commission’s approval filed by several residents who live in the vicinity of the project on October 7. The council, however, rescheduled the public hearing to November 12.
At that meeting, the project’s opponents spent about two hours and twenty minutes explaining their objections to the development. They insisted that a five-story building would diminish their quality of life and property values. They said it would forever ruin the residential character of their neighborhood and worsen already existing traffic congestion and parking problems. They also noted that many of the lots in the vicinity once had an R-2 zoning designation (allowing two residences on the lot) but had been rezoned by the city to an R-1 designation (allowing only one residence per lot). The residents insisted that it was unfair to not allow nearby lots to be restored to R-2 while approving such a high-density project in the same neighborhood. Opponents also said that the developer is only interested in his profit margin and that is why he plans to construct a five-story building.
The development’s proponents spoke next. They insisted that the opponents were exaggerating the project’s negative impacts, and that there was a critical need for senior housing in Long Beach.
Dean Isaacson, the developer, said that Long Beach currently has only four percent of the senior beds it needs. He added that most available senior residential units are woefully small and he showed a slide of one to prove his point. “This is less than 300 square feet, this is available today and I ask anybody if they want to move from their homes (into a 300-sqaure-foot residence),” he said.
Isaacson also noted that 40 percent of the building’s habitable square footage– 26,678 square feet– is for common, non-rentable areas. “So if we’re trying to gouge and get top dollar and we’re giving 40 percent of our buildable area away for common space, that doesn’t sound like gouging to me,” he said. “I do want to reiterate that the overall building size is 67,000 square feet and, yes, if we are guilty of one thing, we are guilty of giving the seniors larger spaces to meet one another and to live in.” He added that if he eliminated the fifth floor, he would have to eliminate 17 residences and the projected rental income from the building would not be enough to qualify for a construction loan.
Disputing the opponents’ claims that the project would exacerbate parking and traffic problems, Isaacson noted that the city did not require a traffic study for the project, but, at the request of the planning staff, his company completed one anyway. “What that traffic study said was that there is no significant impact from this use,” he said, explaining that seniors do not drive as much as younger people. He noted that the project includes a free shuttle service for seniors who live in the area. “The shuttles will take more traffic off the street and we’re giving that free to the seniors that need it, seniors that don’t even live in our facility,” he said.
Isaacson also briefly mentioned the mature trees that will be planted in front of the building to provide screening. He explained that one resident complained that he did not want to be able to see the building from his dining room, so Isaacson agreed to screen the view with mature magnolia trees. “We were sensitive to his concern and we reacted within two days with our landscape architect and our architect,” he said.
Isaacson insisted that many changes were made to the original plans. “This has been worked through with a study session, with the planning commission hearing and we have done a lot of compromise,” he stressed.
Jim Hannigan, who lives about a block away from the project and opposes it, said that although the project had been in the works for about two years, nobody told the residents living in its vicinity about it until last May. He said the rancor expressed by the opponents had its roots in the Temple’s failure to inform the residents until the project seemed like a done deal. “A project of this size and scale does push people’s buttons when they see the discontinuity with the area that they live in,” he added.
Hannigan also disputed Isaacson’s claim that eliminating the fifth floor would mean that 17 residences would also have to be eliminated from the project. “If you cut the number of units, the common space could go down and you could maintain the same ratio (of common space to residents),” he said.
He added that the traffic study was based on observations on one weekday and one Sunday but failed to take into account the fact that traffic congestion and parking problems already exist in that neighborhood.
“We have asked for compromise on the height of the building, the density, and the massiveness of it,” he said. “We have met (with Isaacson) plenty of times and there was not a budge.”
After Hannigan spoke, Vice Mayor Val Lerch opened up the discussion to the general public, and another long line of people formed behind the podium, some for and some against the project. About four hours after the hearing began, the council finally voted 8-0 to approve the project. (Councilwoman Bonnie Lowenthal was absent.)
Eighth District Councilwoman Rae Gabelich, whose district includes the project site, said she strongly supported the development because it would improve the quality of life for seniors and could serve as a model for similar projects elsewhere in the city.
The battle may not be over yet however. Opponents strongly hinted at the possibility of appealing the council’s decision in court.