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Richardson calls for community, industry collaboration in ‘West Side Promise’

Release Date: 2023-08-05

by Jason Ruiz

Aug 5, 2023

Mayor Rex Richardson laid out the details Friday of his proposed plan to drive economic investment and equitable investments, as well as to decrease pollution and increase open space, in West Long Beach, something he called as part of last week’s 2024 budget reveal.

Richardson’s “West Side Promise” proposes a 10-year investment plan to explore what steps can be taken to revitalize West Long Beach’s economy and housing supply and make it more climate resilient. And it calls on community organizations, industry leaders and the city to “show up” for the underinvested portion of Long Beach.

Community leaders filled a meeting room on the campus of the Villages at Cabrillo Friday morning to hear the details of the plan that would create business improvement districts, bringing affordable housing and new businesses to the area, and establish a “Promise Zone” that could help drive grant dollars to West Long Beach.

The area lacks basic necessities like full-service grocery stores, banks and pharmacies, and its residents’ proximity to the Port of Long Beach and the 710 Freeway has contributed to increased disease and mortality rates.

“I don’t think that’s OK. We’re a big city, and we can take on big challenges,” Richardson told a room filled with community leaders, elected representatives and residents Friday.

All hands on deck

A big part of Richardson’s proposal requires people to come together to help improve West Long Beach. Tapping into state and federal relationships to help fund projects is one challenge, but designing programs and projects will require community support and the help of organizations that have developed trust within those communities.

Rep. Robert Garcia pointed to the $737 billion Inflation Reduction Act, which seeks to invest in clean energy and climate change initiatives like eliminating heat islands, something West Long Beach is prone to because of its lack of open space. That, combined with Richardson’s proposal to create a Promise Zone, could bring federal funds to the area.

“We will do whatever we can to bring all the resources we can here,” Garcia said to the room.

Local institutions could play a part in Richardson’s plan to revitalize the area. Long Beach City College is looking for space to build a new public safety training center, which could train students for careers in police and fire service. That could be located in West Long Beach.

Affordable housing production could be buoyed by potential partnerships with LBCC and the LBUSD, both of which Richardson called on in his state of the city address to examine how surplus land or underutilized sites could be used to speed up housing production.

Nonprofits pledged to help create job opportunities for residents and even help install solar panels on low-income family homes.

There were some people who expressed doubt that any changes would come from the plan, noting that similar processes have been completed in the past with little results to show.

In a brief exchange with a resident Friday, Richardson acknowledged the skepticism and said he saw the same in North Long Beach, where he served two terms as a council member. The area faced similar issues of underinvestment and blight.

Some large projects took more time than people expected, but they’re under construction now, Richardson said, pointing to the area’s business improvement district, a new zoning plan and a massive reconstruction of the Artesia Boulevard Corridor that broke ground in February after nearly a decade of planning.

“It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy if you believe these things can happen. It becomes an expectation and a standard,” Richardson said of trying to change the culture of expectations in the area.

‘We should have clean air’

Theral Golden has lived in the West Long Beach area for over 50 years, and the thing he’s most concerned about is the health and well-being of his community, specifically when it comes to air quality.

West Long Beach notoriously has some of the worst air quality in the nation because of its proximity to the Port of Long Beach, oil refineries and other pollutant-producing industries, which has resulted in abnormally high rates of asthma and cancer among residents and a life expectancy about 14 years less than residents of East Long Beach.

Clean air “shouldn’t be a promise,” Golden said.

“Nobody should lose their life or their longevity because of pollution,” Golden said. “They don’t have the right to negotiate our lives away.”

He understands that commerce must happen, but he pointed to the port as the main thing this study should look at if the city wants to improve the health of community members.

Golden said a solution could be to have the state build two additional ports somewhere else in the state, far away from population centers, to take trucks off the roads and freeways in West Long Beach and decrease pollution levels.

Christopher Chavez, deputy policy director for the Coalition for Clean Air, said there are some less dramatic fixes in the works that need deeper investment. Clean trucks to move goods in and out of the port complex have had a slow rollout, but there’s optimism that it can be sped up.

Chavez said the city and the port could help facilitate that by helping to ensure that the charging facilities needed for electric trucks are in place. The city can also directly help improve air quality by building more green space and making sure that its zoning is aligned with its climate goals and that it doesn’t renew leases for known polluters.

A big one is the city’s trash burning facility, known as “SERRF,” where the city has incinerated waste for decades and converted it into electricity. West Side residents and activists have called on the city to shutter it because of the toxic ash they say adds to the cocktail of pollutants that residents already suffer from.

After a state law stripped the facility of its recycling credits in 2022, the city began looking for new options for the site. A request for proposals for the space is closing soon, and officials think there is a potential for it to be converted to an organic recycling center, which the region needs to comply with a new state law by the end of the year.

“For folks skeptical about this process, I get it,” Chavez said. “There have been a lot of promises made to this community.”

The Green TI 

One of the projects that residents of West Long Beach have seen rise and fall over the past 15 years is an effort to convert a portion of the Terminal Island Freeway into a parkway to serve as a buffer between the community and industry.

The City Council voted earlier this year to study if the segment between Pacific Coast Highway and Willow Street could be turned into park space instead of what some say is an underutilized truck route to the port that puts students and residents in close proximity with deadly diesel emissions.

Richardson’s budget proposal includes $150,000 to help pay for the planning and design of the idea, and it’s being matched by the port. It’s unclear how much the actual project could cost to construct, but planners who have worked on the proposal have likened it to a greenbelt built in Wilmington to similarly separate homes from its port complex. That project cost $55 million in 2011.

Mario Cordero, the executive director of the Port of Long Beach, said the port needs to be open-minded in this process when it comes to opportunities to provide more green space for the communities that neighbor the port complex.

Cordero couldn’t say how much of an effect losing the freeway would have on port operations, but he did note that the port has invested hundreds of millions into moving cargo by rail and that could help if the TI Freeway does eventually get converted to a greenbelt.

“We may not be so dependent on it in the future,” Cordero said.

Who would pay for it is another question, but Richardson said the funding should come from somewhere other than the city’s coffers.

“I think it’s a huge opportunity to restore a community and create some open space and it should be a priority for the federal and state governments and the port,” Richardson said.