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How Do You Sell Downtown Long Beach?

Yesterday also was Bisnow's The Future of Downtown Long Beach. About 200 attended our event, held in some terrific raw space at 200 W Ocean Blvd, which owner Milan Capital Management plans to reposition as creative office space. Our first panel focused on public policies that have set the stage for a live/work/play environment in the city's Downtown.

Long Beach Vice Mayor Suja Lowenthal opened our program with some remarks about what the City's done to enhance the bones of Downtown. Certainty in the planning process, pedestrianism and mobility make appealing places to live, work and play. She says the City's worked hard on Downtown visioning initiatives such as an upgrade of the Downtown Plan as well as an adaptive-reuse ordinance, turning the area into an urban innovation center. "Ten, 15 years ago you wouldn't have said that about our Downtown." Coming highlights include improvements on Pine Avenue--the City's main street--and a future outlet center at The Pike.

According to Downtown Long Beach Associates CEO Kraig Kojian, these policies have been integral parts of creating a strong urban center. Beyond that, he says, it's the job of an org like DBLA to take that policy and "execute ground-floor and street-level plans and programs that help protect investment that you'll be making into the Downtown." Kraig says the draw for Downtown Long Beach relative to the demographics has changed. Millennials are gravitating here because they want an authentic downtown. We're seeing them move from the outskirts of Orange County to Downtown Long Beach because they want that original, urban experience."

Long Beach director of development services Amy Bodek (holding up her silhouette to illustrate that government done right is invisible) explains that the Downtown Plan allows developers to come in without having to do individual environmental reviews on all of their projects. "That allowed us to encourage development faster and capture the cycles faster." The code flexibility of the adaptive-reuse ordinance helps contribute to Downtown's  burgeoning residential. Some 5,000 units have been built since 2004, with another 5,000 to come in the next five to six years.

Long Beach Transit CEO Kenneth McDonald notes that in most cities, TOD development goes vertical. In Long Beach, however, they're looking at the horizontal connection with business and development. "Any great city has to have that development in the early processes, so that transit becomes a part of the fabric of the commercial growth of the city." In Long Beach, where cars have been king, the challenges are education and exposure to transit. Long Beach Transit runs a Passport system that has pegged more than 2 million rides over the past year, taking passengers to various interesting points throughout the city.

Hilton Long Beach general manager Greg Keebler says many of Long Beach's hotels are renovating now that funding has become more available, and catering their improvements to a much more hip, urban style. “You have to make it as cool as possible.” Boutique lifestyle hotels do very well, and the major chains are adapting new food and beverage concepts. Greg, who also sits on the Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau board, says one thing that makes the city unique is that convention-goers can immediately rub elbows with local residents. “Our convention attendees are dining at BO-beau's right next to local folks.”

Stepp Commercial president Robert Stepp served as our moderator. His firm specializes in multifamily and focuses exclusively on Long Beach. There's a lot of velocity here, he says. In addition to being a broker, he's also an investor in some development deals in Downtown Long Beach.

Our panelists also discussed Long Beach's plans to redo its civic center, a big bunker that was built in the late 1960s. Amy says the City's been going through a process to open it up and make it more accessible. The City Council will select one of two proposers by year-end who will build a brand new 15-acre complex. "They're going to put streets back through this megablock" and build a new City Hall and library, along with private development that will include residential and a hotel. Kraig gave a nod to the City's current administration, including five new City Council members plus a new mayor, for quickly embracing the transformative project.