As a child, my first experience visiting downtown Long Beach was filled with danger and excitement. My mother was taking me to the YMCA building for my first swimming lesson. This structure, even from a child’s perspective, was a beautiful four-story brick edifice directly fronting Long Beach Boulevard, the City’s main north-south thoroughfare. While standing at the pool with my class listening to the instructor, I became bored and decided to jump in the deep end to start swimming on my own.
Located directly across from the old YMCA, CityPlace is a mixed-use development and a jump-start for Long Beach Plaza. Long Beach Plaza was an attempt to revitalize a declining downtown, and seized the typical modern planning cues by consolidating several existing blocks into one super block, internalizing most retail shops and transforming the exterior elevations into windowless facades. Completed approximately twenty years ago, “The Plaza” gobbled up some of the City’s best quality buildings, which were comparable to popular Old Pasadena, and was virtually an immediate failure. During the same time period, the YMCA building I remembered followed similar cues, and was demolished to make way for a new modern structure tucked behind a bermed suburban landscape and a surface parking lot.
CityPlace straddles both sides of Long Beach Boulevard, with the bulk of the project located on the west side, and is bounded by Pine Avenue to the west, Elm Avenue to the east, Sixth Street to the north and Third Street to the south. Currently a significant amount of the retail component, comprising close to 450,000 square feet, has been leased and is open to the public. Of 341 housing units, a large number have completed framing, and a few sites are still awaiting construction. Developers Diversified Realty or DDR is the developer of the eight-block CityPlace. In addition, DDR is the developer for The Pike at Rainbow Harbor, a 369,000 square foot retail waterfront development located just a few blocks south of CityPlace. At over 800,000 square feet of new downtown retail, the City is clamoring for precious retail sales tax dollars.
CityPlace is worthy of review from both an urban design and architectural perspective, not only for its attempt to re-urbanize the site but also for its effort to integrate conventional suburban retail tenants, such as Wal-Mart, Albertsons, Nordstrom Rack and Sav-on into an urban setting. This tenant mix is clearly not focused on the 3000-plus high-end residential units currently under construction downtown, but towards the middle-class that comprises most communities throughout the nation, including Long Beach.
Reintroducing streets and defining a block structure has been one of project’s strongest attempts to urbanize the site and stitch it back into the traditional street grid. These new streets, with broad sidewalks and consistent street amenities, such as trees and light standards, tie together the variety of buildings that border and define the public realm. They make for more walkable-scaled blocks for pedestrians and also assist in dispersing vehicles.
However, the site is only linked to areas that benefit the project: some streets run through the site while others do not. Fifth Street links to the west, then shifts south solely to accommodate the ground floor area prescribed by a major tenant. Wal-Mart, in this case, is unnecessarily driving urban design, though the store’s footprint neatly fits in a 350′ x 400′ traditional downtown block. If more floor area was required, then a multi-level store similar to one recently opened in Baldwin Hills should have been executed. Multi-level big box stores do attract shoppers – a two-story Target in Pasadena is one of the chain’s top grossing stores. Similarly, the Promenade extension does not align with the existing street south of Third Street, which draws thousands of people to its Farmer’s Market, amphitheater and access to the Convention Center and shoreline.
Regrettably no alleys were reintroduced into CityPlace, even though an intricate alley network exists throughout downtown. Without alleys, service access for retail buildings is forced to front public streets. The west side of Long Beach Boulevard is primarily designated for back-of-house activities, thus generating hundreds of linear feet of screened loading zones, killing any pedestrian interest along the sidewalk and creating a terrible first impression for passengers disembarking the BlueLine. A much better solution is utilized within the project itself, just east of the Albertsons Grocery store, where loading is virtually concealed from view.
Most of the existing multi-level parking structures were salvaged from the previous enclosed mall. This created numerous challenges, such as concealing the structures from the sidewalk and street. This challenge is best met on Pine Avenue, once downtown’s premier retail destination, where the garages are behind ground floor retail with housing above. It is a tragedy that this approach was not consistently utilized throughout the project. Portions of the east-west streets (Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth) have hundreds of feet of exposed parking structure deterring a sense of urban vitality and safety for pedestrians. Parking garage stalls facing sidewalks could be replaced at the ground level with neighborhood related retail, as has been done in Old Pasadena. On the east side of Long Beach Boulevard a surface parking lot is fairly well concealed from the street by twenty-five foot deep retail buildings.
The worst atrocity is the public plaza located at the southwest corner of Fifth Street and the Promenade extension, which has surface parking to its south side and an exposed parking garage on the west. As Fifth curves, the terminating element for westbound travelers is the parking structure. The plaza itself is a leftover crumb of land, hard, cold and void of any water features. Since it is on soil, this space should be filled with ardent landscaping. In its current configuration, the plaza appears to be an incomplete building site rather than a public space and development may ultimately be the best use of this void. Equally troubling, CityPlace fronts Sixth Street with two blocks of blank big box walls and a multi-level parking garage. The project has turned its vitality away from the northern portion of downtown, an area desperately in need of a catalyst to initiate capital investment and revitalization.
Traditional blocks in downtown Long Beach have various parcel widths at 25′ multiples, such as 25′, 50′, 75′ and 100′, with consistent depths defined by the mid-block alley network. These varying parcel sizes have generated buildings of assorted widths and heights, creating a variety of scale along the street edge. CityPlace has best executed this building pattern on Pine Avenue between Third and Fourth Streets, where new construction is integrated between two existing buildings: the eleven-story Farmers and Merchants Bank and a two-story former bank building completed in the 1960’s. This block is most representative of the eclectic structures located along the retail portion of Pine Avenue.
In contrast, the massing further north on Pine Avenue is far too consistent. The building between Fourth and Fifth Streets is literally a “crew cut” structure, a redundant four-story monolith with only minor variations in parapet heights. Presuming this is a response to City regulations of a four-story maximum height, a more successful approach would have been to vary the building heights, based on the City’s traditional 25′ platting module, with certain areas two or three stories high and others four or five stories, to average a four-story height.
CityPlace is a stucco behemoth, due to a lack of diversity in finish materials. A tremendous opportunity was overlooked by not introducing other materials to articulate and vary the scale of the project, and to provide greater identity to individual retail stores. A successful infill retail project is located directly south on the eastern side of Pine Avenue. Here the buildings are clad in smooth trowel plaster, glass, and metal siding accented with wood and metal storefronts. Human scaled materials such as tile and brick veneer should have been sparingly used, particularly at retail entries. The use of various signage such as blade, window, awning and cut letter signs is an improvement to the common generic Plexiglas box signs. Successful lighting types and techniques have contributed to the variety and provided an overall perception of safety. Paint, the most economical means of identifying individual storefronts has also been carefully utilized. Other affordable applicable materials that could have been used include cementitious siding to create horizontal, vertical, board and batten and panelized patterns.
The conventional method to locating openings, particularly those in wood frame construction, is to stack them. This is the simplest approach to solve shear wall and exterior ventilation issues. Regrettably, on a development of CityPlace’s magnitude, the relentless piling of same size and type of windows augments the appearance of a monotonous project executed by a single hand. A few key buildings should have had staggered and varied window openings to increase the sense of diversity.
In the retail component of the project, buildings at street intersections have been executed reasonably by locating detailed entrances at corners. As the housing continues to complete the framing stages, there is no indication, other than minor parapet pop-ups, of elements such as towers or other architectural devices to accent corner conditions. This is another lost opportunity to vary the appearance of buildings.
Downtown Long Beach is composed of an eclectic mix of historic and modern buildings spanning every decade of the last century. Architectural styles include Spanish Revival, Craftsman, Victorian, Streamline Moderne, Art Deco and Modern. Sadly the retail component of CityPlace has adopted an abstract Deco design motif throughout, and though the residential component is still under construction, deco details are also emerging. This continuous repetition of style is out of character with the rest of downtown and not only detaches itself from adjacent urban fabric but also identifies CityPlace as an isolated mega project.
The downtown is in dire need of ownership opportunities to increase a populace of stakeholders dedicated to improving the entire urban core, which is currently experiencing an urban renaissance. Coupled with the thousands of office workers already within walking distance, the introduction of housing into this vast area will support retail, especially during the evenings and on the weekends, by activating and providing a sense of security at the street level for pedestrians, ultimately transforming this neighborhood into a 24/7 environment. CityPlace will have 341 units of housing, with approximately eighty percent dedicated as rental and the remainder “for sale”. However, the single-loaded stacked flat appears to be the only housing type currently utilized for the project. Though the density of the project is reasonable for downtown, greater density could have easily been absorbed into the site. This could have been achieved by continuing the housing form used to conceal parking garages and blank big box retail walls. These liners could have fronted sidewalks, with direct access to the ground floor units via stoops, similar in approach to the brownstones that permeate cities located in the eastern portion of the United States. The introduction of thirty-eight lofts, a typology already popular downtown, should have been implemented at a much greater scale, particularly at the street level where it can accommodate live/work opportunities with the potential for ground floor retail. Other downtowns have buildings with expansive ground floors that are temporarily partitioned for lofts and later converted to retail. Other housing typologies such as town homes and courtyard housing should have been integrated into CityPlace to entice a variety of urban dwellers.
Converting the Long Beach Plaza Mall into a mixed-use project consisting of retail and housing is a dramatic improvement. Regrettably many opportunities have been lost, sadly with solutions clearly executed in other portions of the project. Who is to blame? The developer and team of consultants ultimately respond to market forces and at times prefer to proceed with the least common denominator. Concern should be focused on the City of Long Beach, for its failure to understand the downtown’s fundamental and complex characteristics and to apply appropriate solutions consistently throughout the project. Municipalities must serve as visionaries and guardians of the overall quality and nature of downtown, while still spurring economic development. Where and how the process failed are questions that remain unanswered.
Excellent urban form is about cogent public open space structure comprising of streets, parks and plazas, and serves as a constant as building use and form evolves over time. When such urbanism is established, as in downtown Long Beach, its pattern must unequivocally be reintegrated to best serve the public and it’s future. This process of integration has started to occur at CityPlace but unfortunately is not complete. Good urbanism is also about a diverse architecture with a multilingual approach to building style and a strong sense of permanence that can allow quality structures to adapt into many uses over it’s lifetime. CityPlace has from this perspective been the most disappointing. The majority of the project has been executed by a single firm, which has contributed to tremendous monotony.
Fortunately, the opportunity also exists to surgically improve sections in the future. Urbanism is not static but evolves over time. However change should not take the unsustainable approach of scrape and build every twenty years. As the downtown continues to develop and mature as a 24/7 environment, the community and market forces will hopefully drive incremental improvements to CityPlace. Opportunity exists to incorporate additional retail and housing, not only to conceal parking and bland facades, but also over some of the big box stores. If executed by different design hands these changes will add a needed layer of diversity, breaking the project into a smaller scale. The next evolution will need not be as dramatic, and hopefully, when the time arises, City officials will get it right.
The original YMCA brick structure remains only a fond childhood memory; subsequently, the YMCA has recently retreated to a significantly smaller facility on the north side of Sixth Street fronting directly on to CityPlace. Sadly it is facing a dead two-block long blank wall and exposed multilevel parking garage. I wonder what impressions my four-year-old son will formulate while walking with me through CityPlace.
Photographs by author. Graphics by Juan Gomez-Novy.