Op-ed: Making good on Long Beach’s promise of environmental justice

This illustration depicts the Wrigley park that the Riverpark Coalition envisions as a new green space in West Long Beach. (Courtesy Riverpark Coalition)

Co-authored by Juan Ovalle, president, Riverpark Coalition; Laurie Angel, boardmember, Riverpark Coalition; and Dr. Alex Norman, advisor, Riverpark Coalition

Fourteen years ago, the City of Long Beach promised its environmentally disadvantaged western residents a verdant new dawn: It was to be a green belt of recreation and life-giving open space, an emerald chain of parks, all connected by the bike path and equestrian and walking trails, along a revitalized, less industrial, habitat-restored Los Angeles River. Visualizations from the plan were nothing short of dazzling.

On April 6th, the residents of our mostly working class, mostly minority communities will find out if it ever truly was meant to be, or if indeed it was all just a sham—promises never intended to be kept, just dangled before a people resigned to the circumscribed quality of life they have known for so long.

That is because on April 6th, the crown jewel of remaining vacant property along the river, the key to the collection of promises known as the Long Beach RiverLink Plan (and incorporated for many years into regional LA River master planning and reaffirmed unanimously by the Long Beach City Council in 2015) will find its way to the proverbial chopping block, as far as the residents are concerned.

The 14-acre parcel, where many of us remember a golf driving range years ago, at 3701 Pacific Place (most of the triangle between the LA River, the 405, and the Metro Blue Line), will come before our City Council for a final decision: Will it be preserved for a future park, with state and county funds already set aside for that purpose, or will it be rubberstamped for development as yet a further encroachment by the concrete and asphalt industrial wasteland constricting our historically devalued lives?

Specifically, a company called InSite wants to turn this prime, promised parkland into a multi-story self-storage facility (to tower over adjacent neighborhoods) and long-term RV storage lot. InSite’s vision would quite literally usurp long-promised and desperately needed LA River open space for a place where a privileged few can pick up their $200,000 RVs, to leave our city for the far grander open space of the great outdoors.

Let us be crystal clear about what is at stake here: On par with police reform and the righting of economic inequality, this is one of the highest impact equity issues in our city today.

You may not know it, but Long Beach is truly a tale of two cities: The east side is lush with greenery, from well-tended front lawns of suburban single-family residences to a cornucopia of expanses of grass and trees, including vast parks like El Dorado, Recreation, and Heartwell, while the west has nothing close to comparable.

The differential in recreational and open space infrastructure investment between east and west is staggering when quantified: The east, according to City data, has nearly 17 acres of parks for every 1,000 residents, while the central- west and North Long Beach have just 1 acre for every thousand and the southwestern section has just 2.7 acres for every thousand.

This lack of historical investment should be no surprise. It is a pattern we frequently see in urban areas—historically the minority and working class populations have been shoved off by redlining and other restrictive housing policies to the least desirable, most polluted, industry-​adjacent tracts of land.

It is no different in Long Beach, where our western communities suffer from heightened levels of cancer, asthma, heart disease, and other ailments in part as a result of proximity to heavy industry, including goods movement to and from the port, nearby oil refineries, and land contaminated by decades of oil extraction, refuse storage, and other toxic uses.

The numbers, when one compares urban western Long Beach to the suburban east, bear this out: Using census data correlated by zip code , the west has double the percentages of Black and Latinx residents as compared with eastern Long Beach.

Its working-class is far larger, with a percentage of those with a college degree just half that of the east. Our median household income is just $50k per year, compared to nearly $78k per home to the east, and our homes house more people.

Furthermore, our rate of friends and neighbors subsisting below the poverty line is fully 8 percentage points higher than that of the east, at 22% versus 13%. All told, nearly two-thirds of Long Beach residents, over 300,000, live in the park-poor west, while just under 170,000 live in the park-rich east.

This is the very face of historical injustice ingrained upon the physical face of our city.

The Long Beach City Council has one last opportunity to begin a serious project of righting this wrong on April 6th. While smaller projects over the years, like Deforest Park, the Dominguez Gap, the Wrigley Greenbelt, and the Drake Chavez Greenbelt were steps in the right direction, the numbers still do not lie: We need to leap in the right direction, before it is too late.

What we do not need are excuses. Excuses like, “It costs too much.”

For one thing, nothing costs too much in a city with immense sources of revenue like Long Beach, from a global port to tourism and tech to oil extraction to some of the highest rates of taxation. “It costs too much,” is really just a way of saying something is not a priority.

More to the point, however, we have met with the City Manager’s office, and even they admit that it does not cost too much: The fact is, the money is right there, ready to be utilized, at a public agency known as the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers & Mountains Conservancy (RMC) and at other state and county sources. The RMC has over $80 million, just waiting for a city like Long Beach to cooperate and use it.

Regional park development experts have stated to us and our fellow ‘river park’ campaigners (the Riverpark Coalition) that there is no parcel in the region which qualifies for more sources of grant funding. And this accounting does not even consider the enormous amount of money about to pour into our city and region from the federal government, from both the recent recovery bill and a likely infrastructure bill this year.

Simply put: There are no excuses! There has never been a more golden opportunity to fulfill the promise of decades of LA River planning, all of which designated this land for future park development.

The Riverpark Coalition, an organization of volunteer community members, has made it our mission to see that that promise is fulfilled.

We have been joined in this effort with enthusiastic letters of support from Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, Congressman Alan Lowenthal, the Sierra Club, and the Audubon Society, and over a thousand members of the community who have signed our petition.

They all get it. The time is now. We have waited far too long.

From the Long Beach RiverLink Plan of 2007, unanimously readopted by the City Council in 2015, to Speaker Rendon’s brainchild the Lower LA River Revitalization Plan (2015) to the newly published 2020 LA River Master Plan (which calls this land a “planned major project” for a park) and even all the way back to the original 1996 LA River Master Plan (the first of many plans to refer to this as the future “Wrigley Heights Park”), the promises have been made.

They have been made over and over again.

The time has arrived for promises made to become promises kept.

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