Long Beach Wetlands Survive a Proposed $320 Million Development Project
Developers’ Classic Jobs vs. Environment Argument Fails to Convince City Council
Just days before the Christmas holiday, wetland-loving folks in Long Beach, California received an early gift: their hard work had fended off a proposed $320 million development that would have harmed the increasingly vibrant Los Cerritos Wetlands.
Photo courtesy Save Los Cerritos Wetlands
Both sides of hotly contested plans to build a boutique hotel and upscale shopping plaza along prime Long Beach waterfront, and adjacent to an already embattled wetlands, piled into Long Beach City Hall on December 20 to lay out their positions for and against the ambitious multi-million blueprints.
Quaintly dubbed Second+PCH by high-paid PR mavens (a reference to the corner of the proposed site, 2nd Street and Pacific Coast Highway), the arguments that night were familiar to political veterans.
It was jobs vs. the environment once again, a classic narrative that has echoed throughout the area’s many land use battles over the years.
The developers, led by the wealthy David Malmuth, handed out free Second+PCH t-shirts to their allies in attendance. The group was not shy about garnering support for its project. Facebook fans of the proposed outdoor mall who were enrolled at Cal State Long Beach could even win free iPads. Apparently the youth vote mattered. Rumors circulated that Malmuth had bussed folks in from outside Long Beach to fill the seats that evening.
The opposition was equally determined, if less cash-flush. Led by the Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust, these bird-watching greens, many of them with graying hair and an uncompromising spirit, gave their supporters anti-Second+PCH stickers to slap on their chests in dissent. The lines in the sand were drawn.
The nature advocates were concerned with the development’s impact on the local Los Cerritos Wetlands, which is home to more than 120 bird species, including a nesting spot for the endangered Belding's Savannah Sparrow. They raised concerns about traffic congestion, increased runoff, and the precedent the development would set for other landowners in the area.
“We just want a fair process for everyone,” Elizabeth Lambe, executive director of the Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust, told me. “The project [is] simply too dense to be located next to a wetlands area.”
Fortunately, for those concerned with protecting the critters that rely on the wetlands for existence, they had the law on their side as well as a veteran attorney named Mel Nutter who was set to uphold it.
When it comes to coastal land use policy in California, Nutter is a bit of a legend. Picture Ralph Nader with a pearl white beard. Nutter served as the chair of the California Coastal Commission for three years and sat on the board of the State Coastal Conservancy during his tenure there. He understands coastal land use law as well as anyone in the state of California. Better yet, he is intent on upholding it.
David Malmuth and team weren’t quite as concerned with local zoning ordinances as Nutter and the wetlands advocates. Known as the Southeast Area Development and Improvement Plan (SEADIP), Long Beach’s own Local Coastal Plan (LCP) for this parcel of land was developed in order to comply with the 1976 California Coastal Act.
Long Beach was prescient in how the community envisioned their city being developed along the coast, with high-rise and denser buildings closer to downtown and smaller structures down the coastline.
This is exactly where Malmuth had a squabble with the Wetlands Trust and its legal counsel. Malmuth, who boasted of including the entire community in the planning process for Second+PCH, had blatantly disregarded SEADIP and its height restrictions of 35-feet. Malmuth insisted on constructing a 12-story high rise that consisted of a 100-room hotel with an additional 275 residential units also included.
Not only was Malmuth’s vision of a 12-story building not in compliance with SEADIP, the site was also not zoned for residential use.
"We view it as a great community gathering place on a pedestrian scale," David Malmuth told the Los Angeles Times just days before the City Council vote. "We created a project that allows people to walk and to enjoy views of the water in a social environment ... That kind of experience doesn't exist in that part of town."
But that wasn’t the experience the majority of folks who packed Long Beach City Hall that night wanted for their community.
“I mean, what’s important for future generations,” one young man whispered to me while David Malmuth made his drawn-out case in front of the City Council, “Access to wetlands and healthier bird habitat, or another over-priced shopping center? We don’t want Long Beach to become Orange County.”
Other property owners across the street from the proposed development also opposed Malmuth’s plans on the grounds that they would not be given the same leniency when they decided to build on the land they own. As such, Mel Nutter told the City Council the Second+PCH development was not likely to be approved and that changing the LCP in the way the developers sought would not fly with the Coastal Commission, the agency ultimately in charge of approving the project.
"I cannot recall a single instance in which the Coastal Commission approved a major amendment without first requiring significant changes," Nutter bluntly told the council. “I suspect it will be litigated,” he added.
After hours of tense, sometimes tiresome debate, the City Council ultimately voted 5-3 to reject the Long Beach Planning Commission’s approval of Second+PCH, much to the dismay of Malmuth and his team, who had spent eight years and millions of dollars developing their proposal. Now the waiting begins. It remains uncertain if Malmuth will return with alternative development plans for the property.
“It’s just that this was too big,” Lambe of the Wetlands Trust said. “It was spot zoning at its worst and it would have set an awful precedent for development in the area. We were looking down the road and didn’t like what we saw. It’s time for a sincere community-based master plan for the area, one that takes into consideration the entire wetlands.”