Meet Michelle Molina, the Millworks Matriarch on a Mission to Urbanize Long Beach.
It is safe to say that Michelle Molina is the epitome of cool. It goes beyond the little strip of color that makes her just enough badass but not to the point of being unapproachable. It goes beyond the fact that you’ll find her stepping outside of Fingerprints with a coffee in one hand and a Vampire Weekend record in the other.
It’s the fact that Michelle is punk meets new urbanism, eschewing the ideals of her own generation—she was born on the cusp of the switchover from Baby Boomers to Gen-X—in favor of a reasonable, livable philosophy.
And she is unapologetic about it.
“I can’t wait to build a building and not create a single parking spot,” she said pointedly while standing outside Molina Healthcare’s renovated Press-Telegram Building downtown. “This is urban living: people need to be forced to learn how to use their bike, public transit, and their feet. Every business should make it difficult to park if you want to change things.”
Michelle—in partnering with Olympian and former Long Beach Bike Ambassador Tony Cruz—wants this philosophy to run rampant throughout Molina Healthcare: she wants to see employees biking everywhere—which is why she has set aside a ton of two-wheel Townies for employees to use as they see fit.
While standing in front of the renovated Press-Telegram building that Molina Healthcare now owns with her own Townie, Michelle laments about people who ride their bikes on sidewalks—“My biggest pet peeve and they’re setting a bad example for my kids. You can’t play both sides of this: you either act as a car and ride or act as a pedestrian and walk your bike”—people who complain about being slowed down in their car due to bikes—“This is a business district: you want people driving slow”—and telling Molina workers as they come in and out that they are able to rent bikes.
Michelle, like anyone intoxicated happily by the Millennial belief in new urbanism, is forthright about her beliefs. Much to the disdain of many in the city, Millworks (a development company that specializes in “socially responsible investment”, where she is managing partner) refused to create additional retail in the renovated spaces she was taking over on Pine between 6th and 7th.
“It’s a little risk-taking since so many people are immediately against it: ‘Oh no, no new retail!’” Michelle said. “But it’s because I want people out on the streets. Eyes on the streets. Look—“ she said while pointing to a crew of folks standing at the corner of 6th and Pine, heading south—“Those are all Molina people, those are my people.”
Call it Draconian or call it progressive, Michelle has no qualms in “forcing” employees to engage in healthier behavior—which goes beyond just getting them out onto the street for their lunch break. It is about, as she put it, “altering the lifestyle and keeping it urban.” It means making it difficult or even outright uncomfortable for them to drive while making it easier to car share (Molina has a free shuttle that bounces between their multiple Long Beach locations so as to keep people out of their cars) or bike.
Michelle admitted that making it easy meant a bit of work—even while having to abandon people who, in her eyes, just weren’t following through. Take, for example, Molina’s bike share program. Michelle had dreams a few years ago to join in on the City’s bike share program with Bike Nation but realizing that promise and after promise was going unfulfilled, had to create her own. That bike share program, Long Beach’s true first, was launched at when the Grand Prix race track was opened for bikes and walkers. Even more: the program offers perks (people who car share are also provided perks) while tracking how people use the bikes, so Molina can refine the program to benefit employees best.
“I have to make it easy for my employees,” Michelle said. “I have to make it safe. I have to make it possible—that’s why I am on the DLBA board. I believe in taking action and not partaking in this chasm between doers and talkers. You can’t just go on Facebook and bitch and moan and expect things to get done.”
Part of making that easier was the hiring of the aforementioned Cruz. For Michelle, Tony understood how the idea of “wellness” supersedes hardcore bicycling or just exercising here and there. Ultimately, she convinced Molina Healthcare that the company would benefit from having someone like Tony helping employees maintaing healthy lives in and out of work, physically and mentally.
“The whole idea is this: there is no economic benefit to this whole thing,” Michelle said, flinging her arms towards the renovations Molina has taken on, “without people on the street. So how do you get them on the street? It’s easy for me to grab my car so you have to make it more difficult. You know that’s the whole key, right?”
That key was not an easy one to use to unlock people’s otherwise rigid beliefs including her belief that “Downtown is allergic to Jamba Juice.” Michelle said she had to spend week after week walking up and down Pine to assure people that how she was approaching this situation was key for reinvigorating Pine Avenue. Knowing every single empty space, every single filled space, Michelle and her crew feel confident that the new urbanism direction they are taking Pine will help downtown flourish in the likes of DTLA and Williamsburg.
“A lot of people would go, ‘Commuting on your bike is scary because I’m going to be on the street with cars and I am scared of change and this is how I’ve always done things,’” Michelle said. “And it’s detrimental. It’s not conducive toward making a better future—”
“Michelle, is that your bike?”
Michelle turns around to run into a longtime Long Beach reporter, strolling down Pine.
“Of course it’s my bike,” Michelle said.
“And you rode it from home? How far is that?” he asked.
“Ten miles round trip.”
“That sounds dangerous. And that sounds like a story.”
“It’s not dangerous. And if that’s your story, then there’s no story because you haven’t educated yourself. Ride a bike.”
Can we get an amen?