What Removing a Freeway in West Long Beach Could Look Like—And Why It Must Happen
Renderings courtesy of Melendrez. Graphic by Baktaash Sorkhabi.
I’ve been talking a lot about park equity and the importance of safe, greener spaces lately, especially when it comes to West and North Long Beach, a conversation that hasn’t been led or driven by me but largely about the community.
When I wrote about the Terminal Island (TI) Freeway removal project over two years ago, I thought it was pretty straight forward—but somehow, even the Press-Telegram didn’t understand the impact of the project, calling it “one of Southern California’s largest freeway removal projects” when, in fact, it was (and remains) the only freeway removal project in SoCal.
And it should be reiterated as to why community leaders and designers—led by City Fabrick founder Brian Ulaszewski since 2010—have been seeking to strip West Long Beach of what has been named one of the top “Freeways Without Futures” in the nation and described as a “perfect example of obsolete infrastructure”: it has been a blight on a neighborhood that sees some of the least amount of park space in the entire city.
Even more, the project has been formally adopted not only into the City’s Mobility Plan—which makes it law—but also into the City-sanctioned West Long Beach Livability Implementation Project approved by Council last week after the Planning Commission gold-starred its implementation in November of 2015.
The project is complicated though, for obvious reasons, and I wouldn’t be shocked if City Fabrick and crew are holding out for the City to update its Land Use Element and Urban Design Element roadpmaps, which were brought up earlier this year in February. The drafts for both the LUE and the UDE will be maps for how developers can create things in the city and where—in other words: it legally dictates how and what developments can be made in the city, affecting everything from parking to density.
This isn’t to mention the TI project meets some goals from the General Plan’s Open Space Element (to “buffer sensitive communities” and “add open space for underserved communities”) and its meeting of multiple goals from the Sustainable City Action Plan (more trees, more active transportation, more green space, more community gardens).
What does all this support mean? It means that a plethora of community meetings have been held and that outreach has come across one consensus: the freeway not only can be removed but should be removed because the community wants it.
So why the battle that was coming from the trucking industry and rail giant BNSF when the project was presented? And will this affect the progress of the project as it faces Council for approval next week?
West Long Beach residents have a paltry acre per 1,000 residents or what amounts to about a soccer field. This makes West Long Beach legally deemed “park poor,” particularly compared to the East Side, a portion of Long Beach that averages a staggering 16.7 acres/1,000 residents thanks to the massive 650 acre El Dorado Park.
Taking a look at the project, it’s not hard to see that it’s simple—and I’ve elaborated on this before.
The existing northern length of the freeway, following the development of the 20-mile long Alameda Corridor and the still-underway modernization of the Intermodal Container Transfer Facility (ICTF) by Union Pacific Railroad, is redundant. Not only do shipping companies use it less and less, the traffic itself matches those of 4th Street along Retro Row (some 13,700 AADT). And if plans for ICTF follow through, you can drop that down to 8,700 AADT–less than the traffic 3rd Street receives in the quiet neighborhood of Alamitos Beach.
According to the bid sent out two years ago, the “TI Freeway Transition Plan will define the community’s vision for replacing an underutilized freeway to mitigate pollution impacts to address long-standing community health concern” while giving “qualified candidates the opportunity to produce a plan for one of the most heavily impacted communities in Southern California.”
They are not exaggerating when calling West Long Beach “heavily impacted”: west side residents have a paltry acre per 1,000 residents or what amounts to about a soccer field. This is far below the National Recreation and Parks Association’s standards for a Healthy City, set at a minimum of 10 acres of parks for every 1,000 of its residents. In fact, it’s legally deemed “park poor,” particularly compared to the East Side, a portion of Long Beach that averages a staggering 16.7 acres/1,000 residents thanks to the massive 650 acre El Dorado Park.
With overwhelming evidence that suggests accessibility to green space not just encourages physical activity but actually contributes to the overall health of a community (lower rates of respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, on and on), this project is both reasonable and ethical in its development given that it will increase park space on the West Side by some 50% with the addition of 20 to 30 acres of park space. This is not to mention the elimination of many trucks passing by west side schools, specifically Cabrillo High, Reid High, and particularly Hudson Elementary, which sits toe-to-toe with TI’s edge.
The success of other removal projects—including San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway and Central Freeway removals as well as those in Portland (Harbor Drive Freeway), Boston (Central Artery), Seoul (Cheonggye Expressway), and other cities—mirror the benefits in regard to of freeway removals. Dissenters against such projects claim but are ultimately proved wrong in the following areas:
- The traffic congestion feared by having a lesser roadway capacity can be absorbed by alternate routes (the aforementioned Hayes Valley in San Francisco, where part of the Central Freeway was removed, is a prime example of this);
- Fewer people use their cars when roadway capacity is lessened;
- The removal of certain spans of roads does not mandate nor necessarily guarantee a needed shift in the entirety of transit paths;
- And the excessive right-of-way paths can be altered into public, open space that generate activity on multiple levels–communal, civic, commercial–rather than simply diminish transit
In the end, the trucking industry and BNSF don’t have much ground to work on when trying to dissent against a relatively low-traffic freeway being turned into green space for a marginalized neighborhood. Thankfully, our City Council feels the same way.
After all, surely the truckers will enjoy taking their lunch in a park rather than a concrete straightway, right?
Time to move onward and upward.