The recent announcement that Long Beach will get $2.8 million from the State of California to help create a new park, tentatively called Armory Park, in what is now a section of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard between 6th and 7th Streets came as welcome news – and prompted me to reflect on my move to downtown Long Beach four years ago and ask myself what has made this such a great place to live.
Having lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for much of my life I had ventured to Long Beach only a handful of times – and rarely to downtown. I knew the city was home to Snoop Dogg, the Queen Mary, the Grand Prix, and little else. About 5 years ago I began a search to buy my own home in southern California, however I knew I wanted to live in an urban setting – I had spent a summer during college in New York City on an internship and fell in love with the vitality of urban living. I had my criteria: mid- or high-rise condo, large south facing balcony, and within walking distance of a local pub and corner market. My search took me from a new condominium development in downtown Anaheim (yes, there is a downtown Anaheim!) to a converted loft in downtown Los Angeles. In my naivety I had not thought of Long Beach as a place to look. By coincidence during my search I was asked by my boss to organize a tour for the staff highlighting new residential development projects in downtown Long Beach (I worked at a planning consultancy at the time). It was on the tour that I discovered a whole new aspect of Long Beach, and two months later I was living in a 5-story mixed-use building downtown – with my own south-facing balcony. And that local pub? I could now walk to at least a dozen! But as much as my decision to move downtown was based on the proximity to shops and eateries, and the beach, just as much was based on what I thought downtown could be: a bustling, diverse neighborhood with pedestrian-friendly streets and great public spaces. I was making a long-term investment. To my surprise those changes are happening much faster than I anticipated – with impetus and resources coming from public, private, and non-profit entities.
Over the last four-years the city, using redevelopment and general fund monies and state and federal grants, has witnessed the opening of Promenade Square (Can we change the horribly bland name please?), the refurbishment of the Promenade between Ocean Avenue and Broadway, the creation of a new dog park, the construction of separated bike lanes on Broadway and 3rd Street, and the ground-breaking of a new courthouse. In 2011 the city also implemented its Bike-Friendly Business Districts program (a project I was involved with as a volunteer) to encourage merchants and their customers to choose bikes, not cars, for short trips. A highlight of the program has been Bike Saturdays, a rewards program for people that bike to local businesses.
Several non-profits have also invested their time and money into making Long Beach a better place to live by organizing events that help bring the diverse community together. Two non-profits that come to mind are Long Beach Cinematheque, which has put on outdoor movie screenings in the expansive Press-Telegram Building parking lot, and We Love Long Beach, which has hosted community get-togethers at parks throughout the city. The contribution of these and other non-profits have been integral into establishing a culture of community.
However, no amount of public investment can transform a downtown on its own. The true bellwether of a successful downtown renaissance is whether the private sector responds by investing their money as well. It appears that they are doing just that in downtown Long Beach. Recent businesses opening downtown include Fingerprints (which moved from Belmont Shore), Berlin, Congregation Ale House, and Beachwood BBQ and Brewing. Berlin coffeehouse is also in the process of installing a parklet that will convert two curbside parking spaces into a raised seating area with planters and trees. These business are catering to a demographic that urban planner Richard Florida calls the “creative class” – knowledge workers, intellectuals and artists that play an outsized role in the economic growth of cities. These people tend to prefer urban centers that offer diversity, social gathering places, and arts and culture. There is some debate as to whether or not an increase in “creative class” types correlates to increased economic growth. However there is little doubt that these new businesses have further enlivened downtown and are a key piece in making it an attractive place for visitors and residents.
This brings me back to the announcement last week that Armory Park would become a reality – after several years of lobbying by Brian Ulaszewski. This is the type of project that will make downtown Long Beach a better place to live – now we just have to make sure that people of all ages can safely bike and walk to the new park. (Here’s a crazy idea: Add a separated bike lane to 6th and 7th Streets similar to what was done on Broadway and Third Street.) So why am I enthusiastic that downtown will continue on this path. The simple reason is that when cities provide more parks and open space, make streets enjoyable to walk along, and give people the choice to not drive, they make their neighborhoods better places to live. When residents see the benefits of these changes they will demand more. That’s why I invested in downtown Long Beach and am happy I did.Livability