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    In Depth / Perspective

    Economics + LB Activism = Redevelopment Agency Buying Site With Historic LB Mosaic For Open-Space Promenade Display

    Mosaic Mural(March 4, 2005) -- A developer has chosen on economic grounds not to pursue putting a seven-story a mixed-use building on a narrow strip of land abutting the 3d St. parking garage now displaying the historic LB Mosaic from the vanished LB Municipal Auditorium.

    LB's Redevelopment Agency board then voted to approve an RDA/City Hall staff recommendation to buy the land ($1 million) and develop it primarily as the open space terminus of The Promenade.

    The turn of events, apparently prompted by economics, represents a de facto victory for taxpayers who opposed City Hall's original plan, maintained their opposition on the merits despite being brushed-off by much of City Hall officialdom...and ultimately succeeded in reversing City Hall's former position.

    Among community-members prevailing in the end: Ana Maria McGuan, a member of LB's Cultural Heritage Commission who opposed RDA's former plans to have the giant WPA-era, taxpayer-funded Mosaic Mural ensconced in a street-level, publicly-accessible courtyard/alcove....with 39 townhouse/condos and first floor retail basically built around it.

    Also prevailing: downtown-area neighborhood advocates Bry Myown and Carol McCafferty who testified at City Hall's Mayor-chosen, Council approved Planning Commission. With Ms. Guan unavoidably out of town on business, Ms. Myown and Ms. McCafferty were nearly the only voices speaking for the community...and faced their own City Hall's forces arrayed against them. The issue this time was LB's historic Mosaic, but it was symptomatic of how other downtown development decisions were made over the past decade.

    Mosaic Mural
    Photo source: U.S. National Archives
    The 1938 Mosaic Mural is taxpayer property, one of the largest public art projects of the Roosevelt-era.

    Locals recall that it was visible from at least a mile away inland (some say further) on Long Beach Blvd. when it loomed over the northern end of the former LB Municipal Auditorium at the beachfront.

    A Observation Deck allowed visitors to view it close-up.

    The Mosaic Mural was painstakingly assembled by multiple artists during some of the darkest days of the Great Depression.Mosaic Mural
    Photo source: U.S. Nat'l Archives

    Mosaic MuralMs. McGuan bristled at the notion of having a City Hall-approved private development surrounding the historic public artwork.

    She raised concerns that over time and with inevitable property-turnovers, the historic mural might become less visible and less publicly accessible.

    Mosaic MuralSince 1982, the Mosaic Mural has been relegated to an exterior wall of a City-owned parking garage on Third Street. RDA staff endorsed building a seven story project basically around and over the Mosaic Mural, incorporating it into the private development within a recessed alcove/courtyard where City Hall said it would be illuminated 24/7 and visible and accessible to the public from the sidewalk, with ownership of the Mosaic Mural retained by the City with easements and multiple conditions on its display.

    Ms. McGuan thought this was a bad deal for the public and said so. She dissented on a LB's Cultural Heritage Commission vote which granted a "Certificate of Appropriateness" to the plan. Bristling at displaying public artwork as part of a private development, Ms. McGuan launched an internet-amplified petition drive, urging relocation of the Mural to a publicly owned site.

    "The 1938 W.P.A. Long Beach Mosaic Mural...the largest 'texturalized' mosaic in the country, must remain in a public place or building, free and unencumbered for all Citizens to enjoy...Please, relocate the Mural to a public place as recommended by the 1969 Resolution of the Long Beach Municipal Arts Commission, an advisory to the City. Please continue to honor their advice and allow the Mosaic Mural to be viewed by the greatest numbers of citizens, children and visitors," she said on her petition webpage. By the end of September, roughly 100 people had electronically added their names...including (Ms. McGuan said) Mayoral candidate Doug Drummond.

    Meanwhile, 1st district Councilwoman Bonnie Lowenthal, in whose district the Mosaic Mural and proposed condominium development are, sent a memo on Sept. 29 to City Manager Jerry Miller and Redevelopment Bureau Manager Barbara Kaiser:

    The location of the Long Beach Mosaic WPA Mural is a matter of great concern to the Willmore Heritage Neighborhood Association Board of Directors which is an active preservation group of First District constituents. At last night’s meeting, the board indicated their wishes that the mural be moved, if at all feasible, and placed near its original location at the performing arts center, facing north, as it did when it was a part of the Municipal Auditorium.

    If this is financially feasible, I would suggest that the space currently occupied by this mural be developed with some sort of public art installation that will anchor the northern Promenade area and the proposed Urban Pacific Development as the WPA mural currently does.

    I am supportive of this proposal and would welcome your response at your earliest convenience.

    Six weeks earlier, in an August 12 letter to the Cultural Heritage Commission, Councilwoman Lowenthal, wrote:

    I am writing in support of the efforts made by Urban Pacific Builders to incorporate the WPA mural into their 3rd Street project, and in particular, ensuring public access to the mural is maintained due to its historical significance to the community. I have followed the progress made by URB in response to requested changes to the project, and I am very impressed that URB has made those requested changes.

    As you know, historic preservation is very important to me, and I appreciate your efforts to that end.

    Councilwoman Lowenthal's chief of staff, Niki Tennant, told at the time that the key point of consistency in both letters was Councilwoman Lowenthal's concern for ensuring public access to the Mosaic Mural.

    The condominium project's developer, LB-based Urban Pacific Builders, told us at the time that it was publicly neutral on the Mosaic Mural controversy and it wouldn't resist moving it if that's what city officials really want...although managing partner, Scott Choppin, said his firm went to considerable lengths to display the Mosaic in a respectful, arguably improved setting. Among his points:

    The courtyard/alcove display area would be open, visible and publicly accessible from the sidewalk, enclosed on three sides and on top of the mural as it was at the Municipal Auditorium...except that at the Muni Auditorium, one had to walk inside and walk to an Observation Deck to get a good look; with the proposed development, visitors could walk up to the Mosaic Mural from the sidewalk the mural, lighted 24/7 at the developer's cost; the developer also agreed to maintain the Mosaic at the firm's expense with the City retaining the ability to do maintenance work itself and charge the Homeowners Association for it.

    On October 6, 2005 the issue careened into a public collision at LB's Planning Commission, a Mayor-chosen, Council-approved body. With Commissioners Leslie Gentile, Nick Sramek, Charles Greenberg and Morton Stuhlbarg present (Charles Winn, Matthew Jenkins, Mitchell Rouse absent or excused), the Planning Commission took up a request to approve city staff's site plan review and vest a tentative tract map for the seven-story mixed used development with 39 residential units and ground floor retail. The Planning Commission minutes document in painful detail:

    Jamilla Vollman [City Hall Community Dev'ment Dept.] presented a slide show plus the staff report recommending approval of the requests since the project complied with the standards of PD-30 while adding quality dwelling units to the housing stock downtown and creating no significant environmental impacts.

    Barbara Kaiser, Redevelopment Agency Bureau Manager, said that significant open and green space was planned for the Promenade. Commissioner Greenberg suggested that signage be used to explain to visitors the historical significance of the mural.

    Scott Chopin, Urban Pacific Builders LLC...added that the City would have the right to step in and restore the mural if it was not maintained by the homeowners association as conditioned. Mr. Chopin also listed the steps designed to enhance the existing mural such as lighting, signage, maintenance and protection, and public access.

    Allen Burks, Environmental Architecture...said they had been denied a nighttime gate to prevent vandalism to the mural.

    City Attorney Mais explained that the difficulty dealing with homeless issues on private and public property.

    Carol McCafferty...said she preferred that the mural be at the Performing Arts Center, where it could be more easily viewed by the public.

    Bry Myown...agreed that the mural would not be accessible enough, and suggested it be moved to the original location or sold to a public entity willing to display it.

    Ms. Kaiser said the RDA was studying the feasibility of moving the mural although it was an expensive proposition.

    Commissioner Greenberg said he felt it would be architecturally incongruous to put the mural in front of the Arts Center.

    Commissioner Greenberg then moved to approve the Site Plan Review and Tentative Tract map, subject to conditions, including an amendment to eliminate the ‘if feasible’ note from the reference to storefront in the plaza area. Commissioner Stuhlbarg seconded the motion.

    Commissioner Gentile commented that the property presented a challenge with the need to preserve and display the mural, and she appreciated the bold and successful use of progressive materials in the project.

    Commissioner Sramek agreed, lauding the developer’s concern for public access to the mural.

    The question was called, and the motion passed 4-0 [with Commissioners Winn, Rouse and Jenkins absent.]

    Urban Pacific Builders is a respected firm, honored at a LB Area Chamber of Commerce gala celebration with its the developer's managing partners receiving commemorative awards from LB Mayor Beverly O’Neill and Chamber Chair Lou Anne Bynum.

    In early February 2006, RDA staff received a January 27 notice from developer Promenade Lofts Partners, LLC/Urban Pacific Builders, LLC stating it was withdrawing from the project. The developer cited factors including a prevailing wage requirement, increased construction costs (Hurricane Katrina and higher oil prices) and the project's design ("most specifically the number of units dictate to us by the planning department [which] does not allow enough units to carry the significant amount of fixed costs on this deal...").

    The developer said it had expended over $750,000 on the project and didn't make its decision lightly. "[We] believe in this deal and downtown Long Beach. Nonetheless, we cannot move forward with the economics of this project being what they are," wrote the firm's managing member Scott Choppin.

    Mosaic MuralA memo signed by RDA Executive Director [and LB Community Development Director] Pat West (and co-signed as approved by City Manager Jerry Miller) accompanying a Feb. 27 RDA governing board agenda item stated that "[i]n addition to enhancing the development of The Promenade, purchasing the land will protect public access to the mural for future generations."

    RDA Boardmembers agreed...and voted to allocate $1 million to purchase the land for that purpose. "The current fiscal year budget for the Downtown Redevelopment Project Area included $1 million for construction improvements to The Promenade but this work will not take place until next fiscal year. The current year's funds can be redirected toward this purchase," RDA/city staff's memo said.

    The end result is worth applauding...but ought to give LB voters pause. In the coming Mayoral and Council elections, some now seeking votes were invisible...and some accept dangerous cliches about making City Hall's development process more "business friendly" (quicker and slicker) for developers, stacking the deck further against grassroots LB residents whose views may make better public policy on the merits.

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