Twenty-five years ago downtown Long Beach wasn’t the safest place to hang out. Back then, wandering a city known for its heinous crimes was an unwise choice for even the most street-savvy urban enthusiast. Nowadays, however, there is evidence of a major transformation occurring in the urban core of Long Beach, a change that portends a promising future for the 5th largest city in California.

A few miles to the south of Long Beach is downtown Los Angeles, a booming city with a posh entertainment complex. With such a powerful competitor, one might assume Long Beach to be dead in the water. To the contrary, vibrancy abounds on Pine Street, the city’s major arterial spine for retail and entertainment venues. Taking a page from the infamous Gaslamp District in San Diego, Pine Street features a walkable, outdoor dining corridor that attracts a healthy dose of locals, convention attendees and visitors. There is also a fervent nightlife for the under-30 crowd drawn to the urbane sophistication of the area.

Pine Street in Downtown Long Beach

The Long Beach Downtown District Features Myriad Examples of Restored Architecture and Adaptive Reuse

Indeed downtown Long Beach is blessed with many variables serving as a catalyst for its success. As the 36th largest city in the U.S., it possesses one of the world’s largest shipping ports – a boon to local economic activity. The downtown waterfront is a prized amenity, featuring a pier crammed with dining and entertainment and the infamous Queen Mary ocean liner in the distance. The Aquarium of the Pacific, a sprawling complex located along the water, is one of the most heavily trafficked tourist destinations in the state. The Long Beach Convention Center adds to the economic fortunes by bringing thousands of visitors to the area annually.

A Distant View of the Historic Queen Mary Ship from the Long Beach Pier

Boosting downtown fortunes has been surge in interest in downtown living, a trend supported by the influx of more than 2,300 new residential units in the center city core since 2002. Long Beach locals are quick to attribute the downtown resurgence to a beefed-up law enforcement presence. From beat cops on bikes and on foot to private security personnel adding eyes on the street, perceived safety is evident in the central business district.

Credit also is given to the Downtown Long Beach Associates for deploying a cadre of safety guides to regularly patrol the business district streets. These efforts have led to significant reductions in crime over the past 10 years, thereby increasing the comfort levels of visitors, residents and business owners frequenting the area.

Amid these promising revitalization efforts are concerns that the city’s momentum may grind to a halt due to California’s morbid economic scenario. While tax increments and shipping port funds steadily flow into the city, the dark clouds center on the paucity of critical redevelopment funding for the area. These shortages result from raids of local redevelopment agency coffers to correct statewide funding shortfalls, a situation that will likely temper progress for decades.

The Promenade Section of Downtown Long Beach Features Mixed Use Housing and Retail

One threat to the downtown social fabric however is an emerging division between socioeconomic classes. While historically low-income in its residential demographics, recent years have featured an influx of wealthier residents, particularly in some of the posh high rises along Ocean Boulevard. Differences in lifestyle are clearly visible. The affluent residents prefer drivable destinations over nearby walkable amenities. Social urban outlets such as hip-hop clubs typically incite discomfort among the well heeled.

Another challenge facing downtown Long Beach is a lack of retail identity consistent with community interests. On one hand, Long Beach exudes a rich culture; on the other, the evolving socioeconomic status creates a daunting task to match brand-strategic retailers to a constantly shifting market. To bridge this gap, Long Beach Downtown Associates has spearheaded public participation forums designed to educate areas residents and businesses on the realities of the retail market.

Despite its growing pains, Long Beach has a unique convergence of economic, social, and cultural factors that bode well for its downtown and for turning the tide of this town into a top tier central-city.

Michael Scott is the Editor of Urban Engagement Webcity. He can be reached at michael@vdowntownamerica.com

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