After Years of Decline, a California Port City Sheds Its Past

The port city of Long Beach, Calif., has long struggled to revive its downtown core, which steadily deteriorated as the Navy pared down and eventually closed its decades-old operations there by the late ’90s, with military contractors following.

The once-active naval community, where ships were regularly serviced and docked, became a place that, not too long ago, fewer people cared to visit, especially after dark.

“Downtown was really a no-go zone during nighttime,” said Richard Talbot, a market researcher who was hired in 2002 to help create a revitalization plan for the city’s retail district, centered on its main thoroughfare, Pine Avenue. It would be one of several plans, studies and updates commissioned in recent years.

“There were many attractive Art Deco buildings, but derelict,” Mr. Talbot recalled. “Businesspeople didn’t want to go downtown. There was homelessness. There were drug deals on many corners.”

Today, on some of those same corners, bulldozers and construction cranes work almost nonstop to transform Long Beach’s 1.38-square-mile downtown and outlying areas into a more vibrant urban center. Roughly three dozen projects, valued at around $3.5 billion, are underway or in the pipeline in one of the country’s largest continuing downtown redevelopments.

“The downtown is being reborn and recreated,” Robert Garcia, the mayor of Long Beach since 2014, said. “A lot of people view Long Beach as the kid sister to Los Angeles. It’s finally stepping into the national stage, and I’m really excited about the transformation.”

The whole world will get to see Long Beach’s shiny new self soon enough as Southern California prepares for the 2028 Summer Olympics and Paralympic Games. Los Angeles has been chosen as the host city, and several events are expected to take place in Long Beach.

The changes to Long Beach — about 25 miles south of Los Angeles — began in earnest more than 15 years ago. The city began buying up nearly four dozen properties, including vacant lots and derelict buildings, through its redevelopment agency. The total purchases, over an area of about 25 square miles, were part of a more than $100 million spending plan that included improving infrastructure and beefing up the police force, said Patrick H. West, the city manager.

“We purchased liquor stores, parking lots, motels and apartments that were gang hangouts — 911 hot spots, according to the police — and relocated the displaced tenants,” Mr. West said.

The properties were later resold to developers, and new zoning regulations were put in place about five years ago to help speed up construction and building conversions.

“We became a land banker,” Mr. West said. “The objective was to change the neighborhood and blight, not to regenerate dollars.”

As a result of these efforts by the local government, many developers have been eager to do business in Long Beach, and companies like Virgin Orbit and Mercedes-Benz have found new homes there.

“We’ve got the welcome mat out,” Mr. Garcia said. “We’re constantly meeting with folks, hosting forums for development interest.”

Jason Silver, the director of development for Ledcor Properties of Irvine, Calif., said changes in the review process for developments were enabling work to commence in around half the usual time.

“The city streamlined the process under one management,” said Mr. Silver, whose company is a co-developer of residential projects in Long Beach with Anderson Pacific of Chicago.

One of the residential projects, a rental building with 223 units called the Current, was completed in the summer of 2016. And construction is set to begin by this summer on the 315-unit Shoreline Gateway East Tower, which at 35 stories will be one of the city’s tallest buildings.

More projects could come later. “We’re keeping our feelers out in the Long Beach area,” Mr. Silver said.

The developments downtown and beyond are expected to add around 4,000 residential units over the next few years, from condominiums and rentals to student and faculty housing for California State University, Long Beach.

More than 200 units classified as affordable housing are under construction, although Josh Butler, the executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Housing Long Beach, would like to see more. “Only a paltry amount of affordable housing is planned for the area,” he said.

Several infrastructure projects are also in the works. One of them, the 605-foot-long Seaside Rainbow Bridge, a walkway connecting two ends of the expansive Long Beach Convention Center campus, was just completed. And numerous commercial spaces are set to open, including much-needed hotels.

“We believe the Olympics will be a game changer for us,” Mr. West said. He expects at least five new hotels across the city over the next few years, just in time to house the throngs of visitors that will descend on the area.

Among these new hotels will be a 29-story glass high-rise by the Seattle-based American Life, now under city review. Gregory L. Steinhauer, American Life’s president, said he hoped to break ground next year on a site adjacent to a planned redevelopment of the city’s civic center.

“In our biased view, we’re at the 50-yard line of Long Beach,” he said of the location.

At the heart of the city’s revitalization plan is the Long Beach Civic Center, where a $520 million overhaul is taking place. Development began in 2016 and is scheduled for completion in 2019. It will include an 11-story City Hall, offices for the Port of Long Beach and a main public library. Also planned: a plaza with underground parking, a retail marketplace and upgrades to the city’s oldest park, Lincoln Park.

Construction is by Plenary-Edgemoor Civic Partners, a development consortium, on city property fronting Ocean Boulevard, another main thoroughfare. (The buildings are all designed to be seismically safe and sustainable, using solar power and rainwater storage systems.)

Plans for Queen Mary Island, described by the city as “a year-round social epicenter,” are also in the works. A $250 million entertainment and hotel complex is rising on 65 waterfront acres, next to the Queen Mary, a celebrated ocean liner. This project features new stores, restaurants, sports venues, and attractions like rooftop surfing pavilions, a roller coaster, a zip line and indoor ice climbing. There is also an amphitheater for live performances.

The retired ocean liner, which has been moored in Long Beach since 1967, is getting a much-needed overhaul, too.

And changes are planned for another tourist site, the Aquarium of the Pacific. An expansion there, expected to be completed by early next year, will give this attraction an additional 29,000 square feet that will include a new area for exhibits, an art gallery and an “immersive theater.”

Howard Kozloff, a managing partner of Agora Partners, an urban real estate advisory firm based in Los Angeles, said Long Beach “was wise to invest in its public spaces, like the aquarium and Queen Mary Island.”

“There’s a big realization that cities have to market themselves, so they need to provide those kinds of spaces,” Mr. Kozloff said. “Having active and vibrant public spaces is a way to differentiate yourself from your competitors.”

City officials are also quick to point out Long Beach’s comparatively lower real estate prices, its temperate climate, its waterfront and its proximity to international airports.

“It’s an affordable alternative for office and residential, compared to Orange County and L.A.,” said Michael Moskowitz, a managing director of Ensemble, which has had several developments in the city and has plans for more.

Ensemble’s new residential projects will be geared toward professionals working in the area, he said. Each will offer a mix of unit sizes, from studios to three-bedrooms, with ample parking and close access to the commercial center. Its 94-unit Serenade Modern Flats, for example, is near the new civic center, while the Sonata Modern Flats is across from the convention center.

“I don’t think we’ll have much trouble renting,” Mr. Moskowitz said.