Long Beach Mayor Garcia on Measure M, General Plan Update & L.A. River Revitalization

Robert Garcia

Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia is currently guiding the city through an update of its Land Use Element, pursuing an aggressive lineup of sustainable energy and water initiatives, and promoting the construction of housing so badly needed throughout the state. On top of these local efforts, he also joined the LA Metro Board of Directors in January, where he will help steward the agency's $120 billion investment plan for connective infrastructure throughout Los Angeles County and the whole of metropolitan L.A. And at the state level, he represents the city of Long Beach in a collaborative effort with neighboring cities to address issues specific to the lower part of the Los Angeles River during the $1.3 billion effort to revitalize the entire channel. Garcia joins VX News to draw out the integral relationship between these local, regional, and state efforts, and his commitment to ensuring that Long Beach always contributes its fair share to the region, the state, and the nation.

As a relatively new Metro Board member, and with L.A. County’s Measure M funding as a resource, what are your priorities for rail and mobility infrastructure?

Robert Garcia: Measure M is very significant: It’s the largest local infrastructure revenue measure that has ever existed in the United States, and it will allow us to create a world-class rail system in Los Angeles County.

The expansion of our rail system into new parts of Los Angeles County is really important. Our overall policy agenda is to create a multimodal transportation network across the county that is focused on rail, but also includes bus service and pedestrian-friendly streets. We’re also investing about $1 billion into upgrades of the Blue Line, which is the oldest line in the system.

Recently, we’ve worked a lot on security to ensure a safe rider experience. For the first time in Metro’s history, we transitioned from a single-agency approach, through the Los Angeles Sherriff’s Department, to a multi-agency approach: We now have Long Beach cops patrolling Long Beach Metro stations and rail, and L.A. cops patrolling L.A. Metro stations and rail. The results have been positive.

What transportation improvements does the city of Long Beach expect to receive from Measure M expenditures?

The improvements to the Blue Line are really important to us, because that line has been in need of modernization. Measure M also includes substantial dollars for our goods movement corridor along the 710 Freeway. The ports, of course, are really important to the economy and to Long Beach.

Perhaps the most tangible benefit for us, like for many cities, is the direct funding for local streets and highway projects. We’re going to get $7-8 million every year of local return dollars from Measure M. That is going to help us a lot.

But I also want to emphasize that any investment in the regional transportation system is an investment in Long Beach, and vice versa. I think that’s true of every city in the county, but Long Beach in particular is the largest city in southeast L.A. County, and the second largest in the county as a whole. People who live in Long Beach may work anywhere, and people may work in Long Beach and live in another part of the county. Investment anywhere in the system is good for Long Beach.

In our last issue, we interviewed Michael Kodama about the West Santa Branch Rail Corridor. What’s the significance of that southeast corridor becoming more connected through rail? 

This project covers a lot of smaller cities between L.A. and Long Beach that don’t have a lot of access to rail or multimodal transit. To create a direct rail link going through these cities and connecting them to Union Station would be pretty significant. You could live in South Gate or Downey, jump on the train, and head over to either Long Beach or Downtown Los Angeles in 20-25 minutes. That’s going to lead to big change.

How far along is the city in updating the Land Use Element of its General Plan, and what lessons have you culled from other cities in the region that have engaged in that process?

We are nearing the end of the update process; the public input period is coming to an end. Over the next few months, the update will go through the Planning Commission and then to the Council.

My consistent position has been that we need to be smart about where we build housing. I’ve always been a supporter of density where it’s appropriate—for example, I promoted building out Downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods. I also support building along key transit corridors, like the Blue Line.

We need to have an honest conversation about where we can actually build housing. Oftentimes, folks get into the weeds about whether suburban parts of the city should become denser. I just don’t think it’s a good use of our time or energy to focus on those areas—because the truth is, those neighborhoods are already built out. There’s no land.

Moreover, we need to understand that suburban neighborhoods are suburban for a reason. It’s part of what gives those communities character. We want to keep our suburban neighborhoods as residential and family-oriented as possible. The trade-off to that is that we have to support building density and housing in key portions of the city.

A lot of times, housing advocates will say, “You should be building everywhere.” Well, we can’t build everywhere. There’s no land to build everywhere. So why are we getting wrapped up in that discussion? Let’s focus on where we actually have land and can afford to build, and let’s build a great, dense community there. Let’s put our energy into what’s possible. Our master zoning document allows some great building downtown and along transit. We’ve got thousands of units under construction right now, and a lot of them are buildings going vertical.

Pivoting to environment policy, elaborate on your clean energy priorities for both the city of Long Beach and the region.

At Metro, we have been aggressive on the electrification of our bus system. We’ve done the same in the city of Long Beach: Long Beach has electric buses in use right now, and we are expanding that conversion.

Long Beach has also done a lot of clean energy projects that are not transit-related. Some are things that I believe all cities should be doing: solar projects, electric charging stations, and electrification of port equipment. We’ve also gone beyond that with more aggressive things: we converted the entire city to LED streetlights; we are doing a number of exciting stormwater and energy projects; and of course, the electrification of the transit fleet, beyond even the buses, is a big deal.

Separately, we’re doing a lot at the Port of Long Beach. The port is about to adopt a Clean Air Action Plan—a renewal of the last 10-year plan—which calls for aggressive emissions reduction measures to get to zero-emissions trucks by 2030, and terminal operations by 2035. That is being heard now, and we expect it to be adopted in November.

Local governments throughout the state, including the County of Los Angeles, have expressed interest of late in community choice aggregation. Are CCAs of interest to Long Beach, and can they truly help grow the renewable energy marketplace?

The community aggregation model is an interesting opportunity, but I’m not sure we’ve completely defined its benefits yet. It has seen success in some communities, and faced challenges in other communities. There’s a lot to gain in terms of sustainability if it’s done right, but it also comes with high risk.

Most of the communities that have tried it so far are on the smaller; for a city the size of Long Beach, it would be a very complex system change. So, we’re interested, but we’re not rushing into it. For now, we are watching the county’s process, and completing an extensive report that will come before City Council in 2018. We’re doing our homework before making any moves in that direction.

At the VerdeXchange 2017 Conference last January, you and County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl spoke about regional approaches to water resiliency and stormwater. Supervisor Kuehl announced that she intended to craft a stormwater funding measure for the 2018 ballot. How has that effort evolved over the course of this year?

The measure is still being developed, and we expect that as we get closer to the date when the Board of Supervisors will decide whether to actually put it on the ballot, we’ll know exactly what’s in it. We’re very interested in those conversations, being located where we are, both on the coast and at the bottom of the Los AngelesRiver.

Water reuse and water quality, of course, are going to be very important parts of the measure. We need to treat stormwater as it comes into and out of the L.A. River, and as it goes into the ocean. It’s also important to us in Long Beach that we capture any trash in the water and clean up the coast.

On that VX2017 panel, you spoke about the promise and challenges of the L.A. River revitalization program for Long Beach and southeast cities. How far along is the planning for the improvement of the L.A. River, and what are your and Speaker Rendon’s priorities for its lower part?

We in Long Beach are very supportive of the Speaker’s and the Legislature’s efforts. The city is part of the state’s Lower L.A. River Working Group developing a revitalization plan specific to the lower part of the river, and we have also been actively participating in conversations with the Gehry team, including Frank Gehry himself, who has visited Long Beach to look at the river. I think there will be a lot of movement next year as far as unveiling what the master project will look like, and we’re excited about that.

The obvious problem is that there’s a huge funding gap that, at some point, the Legislature or the federal government will have to address. In the meantime, I think there is an opportunity to start doing some smaller demonstration projects as well as connection projects, so we are very involved and excited about that.

Speaking of the federal funding gap, comment more broadly on the local-federal relationship Long Beach has now, and what the city needs or expects from the administration. 

To be honest, there isn’t much of a relationship. In my first few years as mayor, there was a lot of dialogue between the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Obama administration. That has shifted in the last year with the Trump administration.

We continue to work with federal agencies when possible: We have ongoing projects with the Justice Department, the Labor Department, and the Transportation Department on a number of issues, and that work continues. Still, I would love to see a stronger commitment from the administration to issues that are important to mayors.

When you join us again at VerdeXchange 2018 in January, what progress do you hope to share on your priorities?

As far as I’m concerned, the biggest priority for any mayor in California is the same: housing and homelessness. There is a statewide crisis going on, and cities and the state both have failed to address it. Society as a whole has failed to address it. This is not a new problem; it may be growing, but it has been around for a lot longer than anyone in office now has been there, and it’s only getting more difficult to address.

Everyone knows that we’ve got to build housing. Some cities, like Long Beach, are doing so. But a lot of cities are not. There are some cities that, year after year, are building zero units of housing. A lot of repercussions stem from this imbalance.


All California cities are mandated by the state to build a certain number of units every year. Most cities never meet these targets, but Long Beach tries to do our part; I just wish other cities would do the same.

"I believe all cities should be doing solar projects, electric charging stations, and electrification of port equipment. Long Beach has also gone beyond that." —Robert Garcia