This is Part II of a series. For Part I, which explores the two proposals and the history of the civic center rebuild, click here. For Part III, which explores City staff’s recommendation, click here.
Many, particularly Mayor Robert Garcia and Councilmember Suja Lowenthal, are lauding the building of an entirely new Civic Center (CC)—and for good reason: the current CC is a cold, monotonous space, with towering Brutalist (or what some call Late Modern: your choice) architecture that does not engage, a leaky library garden rooftop that is no longer explorable nor lush, a park that has become a saddening second home for those without roofs, and a lack of space that forces the City lease 112,500 sq. ft. of space offsite to house its employees.
To add onto the criticisms, supporters of the new CC state that the current building is seismically unsound, increasing the danger of those within and around it—hence why there was first an RFQ then an RFP process the City underwent to examine new possibilities.
Of course, there is always another side to the tale. One that involves preservation: we are talking about a building designed by famed architects Edward Killingsworth, Hugh Gibbs, and Don Gibbs (along with Kenneth Wing and others), built in 1977 and harkening to an era of architecture that no longer exists. One that involves environmental impacts: we are talking about tearing down a building—environmental impact 1—to put another one up—impact two. One that involves necessity: hundreds of millions of dollars being invested in a space that will largely be used by the Port and City Hall and continues to focus massive infrastructure on the Downtown core rather than the city as a whole.
Whether one agrees or dissents, they are the vocalized concerns of many citizens and architects and historians—and they are, in the least, definitively worth examining, as exemplified by now-graduated Columbia architectural engineering grad student Talene Montgomery in her masters thesis. And this thesis even has Mike Conway, the City’s Business and Property Development Director, taking notice.
Yup: Ms. Montgomery took on Long Beach’s CC in the name of tackling the needs set forth in the recent proposal put out by the City for a new CC while also showcasing that razing the entirety of the current CC isn’t necessary. She wants a retrofit. At a 1/3 of the cost being proposed by the two organizations battling out to win the contract for the new CC. And without killing precious library space, as the two other proposals do.
“‘Retrofit’ is interpreted here not only as a technical means of updating the existing structures to meet seismic requirements, but implies a social and urban ‘retrofit’ of the complex as well,” Montgomery wrote. “Built at a moment when Long Beach’s downtown was itself in dire need of a retrofit, the City Hall and Main Library complex represent a civic effort to revitalize the city.”
The graduate is not without her philosophical or historical points: just as the 1977 tower was constructed to encourage development downtown—its 14-story height was implemented in the hopes that other tall buildings would arise, which they did—the retrofit she proposes seeks to encourage a much-needed civic and pedestrian energy.
Even more, Montgomery notes how the 1933 earthquake largely destroyed the then-City Hall structure and, rather than rebuild, Long Beach retrofitted. However, following the urban decay that mimicked World War II all too eerily, a new form of architecture took place: tabula rasa urbanism, or otherwise summed up as the idea that you tear down anything that doesn’t work within your current mindset. (I made this note, even when being critical of the current CC.)
Her major plan?
First, push the boundaries of the inlaying walls of City Hall outward to their pillars’ edges, adding some 75,000 sq. ft. of additional space while fulfilling the RFP requirements.
Or, in her far more technical terms: “The tower’s seismic retrofit involves stitching together the outermost columns of the articulated external cores together to transform the structural steel frame into a ductile vierendeel tube.”
Secondly, turn the berm-ed edges of the library into glass walls, allowing a view down into the library from the street while also permitting light into the current dungeon by pushing their concrete walls toward the interior and away from the edge (think Cliff May rancho home gone underground). Even more creative is the fact that she’s taken the fact that our City currently uses the space as a tactless storage unit for city “sculptures”—unused bike racks and art works—and wants to turn it into a new drought-resistant sculpture garden to wander through.
“The ambition is to transform the hidden institution into a recombinant library and community space that acts as an interior extension of the urbanism of the street.”
As for Lincoln Park, Montgomery first proposes to remove the access ramps that lie on the east and north sides of the park in order to have the perimeter of the park connect continuously with the street. And that amphitheater? Eliminate it entirely (it wasn’t part of the original plans) but “preserve the geometry as an open colonnade to connect the park and complete the unfinished plaza frame.”
This is not to say that Montgomery doesn’t see the many issues with the current design. She notes that, like many CCs, the architects’ visions were never fully realized and the state that is currently wrests in was realized incrementally, “riddled by compromise” and “as a whole feels fragmented and incomplete.” But more importantly:
“Yet the linked pair of structures [City Hall and the Main Library] realized by the 1977 plan are historically significant to the city, and should be considered for retrofitting as the city moves into its next chapter of downtown redevelopment… The civic center’s public offerings—the plaza, park, library and tower—should be preserved as a part of the city’s history, and as a challenge to the outright demolition of the complex. The decision to intervene in precisely these territories of significance is also a challenge to preservation’s prioritization of the exterior as an absolute and highest value.””
Even those who question the phallic-like structure of the building (including myself), wondering why anyone would dedicate a tower to power, Don Gibbs said he thought the opposite:
“I thought everybody should look down on the council.”