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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 WetlandsLocal residents, environmentalists oppose plans to build a boutique hotel and shopping plaza on the Los Cerritos
Wetlands, which is home to more than 120 bird species and is a nesting spot for the endangered Belding's
Savannah Sparrow.

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.”

 

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Comments

I don’t understand how Long Beach, an “International City” can’t have a decent shopping center. The location for this project was excellent considering 2nd street vibrant activity, a needed remodeling at Marina Pacifica and the Marketplace.
It seems that the City of Long Beach keep concentrating their efforts in downtown, and I don’t see that becoming a reality anytime soon.
It’s embarassing for our city not to count with a decent shopping mall.
Lakewood, Cerritos, Westminster and Huntington Beach has better shopping areas than LONG BEACH….really? It’s time for a change and think ahead.

By David A. Galingo on Fri, March 09, 2012 at 11:31 pm

Mr. Malmuth, in your own words stated to the press,“There is no next. The project’s done.” Please read YOUR OWN WORDS AGAIN UNTIL IT REGISTERS IN YOUR NARROW MIND. The City Council voted 5 against, three for. There is no translation needed, no next. Your project in many instances was clearly ILLEGAL (that’s against the law) and you are smart enough(maybe) to know better than to blatantly design a project that would make the three strikes law a shut-out game in your case. Good-bye from the majority which has clearly spoken. We the people would also very much appreciate it if you cease and desist dangling candy in front of Councilman DeLong who votes and supports anyone can put in campaign treasure chest irregardless of what impacts it brings. Take that final look in your rear-view mirror at the welcome to Long Beach sign for the last time as drive out of Long Beach NOT TO RETURN.

Councilman DeLong I am so ashamed of your overall dismal performance including your assinine remarks you made prior to the defeat of this project on December 21. You have continued to cave in to rich developers who will finance your campaigns for your own selfish political gain. This is the kind of behavior that gets cities across in big trouble. Between going against the voters on this project and on the Home Depot project, us voters have a pretty good idea what your intentions are and obviously where your heart is not for the very electorate that elected you to the city council in the first place. Its further testament to the mere fact you voted for this development while almost in the same breath observing the elimination of our fire engine 14 and hook-and-ladder-truck 14 from active service which incidently are in the middle of your district without any objection at all. Being pro-increased density-even if you now that the laws are written against packing people in like sardines in a can may be all fine and dandy in our ever growing population but one also has to increase basic public services like fire and police to be sufficient when needed. This contradiction is highly symptomatic of a career politician who cares only about his own well-being and not that of the constituency around him. You and David Malmuth ought to join corporately in the federal fencing development coming soon along the international border south of here where maybe this type of political conduct is either more acceptable or condoned by that type of thinking because it is not so here in Long Beach.

By Ward Johnson on Tue, February 07, 2012 at 1:08 am

This is wonderful news for the Long Beach wetlands! Though the quote, “We don’t want Long Beach to become Orange County” is extreme. I understand what the statement implies—Orange County wears a visage of strip malls and an overabundance of bland land development. But this person clearly does not know Orange County at all to make the statement that Long Beach values the environment more.

Maybe this person could try riding his bike around the Back Bay in Newport Beach which makes a circle of 10.5 miles, or he could take the trail that goes from the bay to the mountains for a total of 22 miles. The Upper Newport Bay preserve is one of the last major stopping points left for yearly bird migrations. You can find more information here: http://www.newportbeachca.gov/index.aspx?page=555

There’s also the Environmental Nature Center located in Newport Beach which is home to a LEED Platinum building and incorporates two and one half acres of land for educational purposes.

Ultimately the list of Orange County’s nature goes on and on. People should seek out the nature they wish to find in Orange County before they stereotype it as a shopping mall wasteland.

By Andrea Dumovich on Fri, January 27, 2012 at 10:52 am

This version of the development plan is shot. It was a HUGE victory for us. Of course, we’re likely to see another proposal of some kind down the road for the property, likely to come from Malmuth. But to get the majority of the City Council on board, as well as wetlands advocates, SERIOUS changes will have to be made. We’ll see what happens.

By DeAnne on Tue, January 24, 2012 at 6:24 pm

Hi
This is my photo!  Thanks for publishing!

Camie Dean

By camie dean on Tue, January 24, 2012 at 6:16 pm

This development isn’t a squashed deal yet, in Jan 2012 the developer went back to the City of Long Beach trying to revive the huge development plan, here is the article:
http://www.lbpost.com/news/staffreports/13054

By Cindy on Tue, January 24, 2012 at 6:01 pm

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