Long Beach Heritage sent questionnaires to all of the candidates who have declared their intentions to run for mayor of the city of Long Beach in 2014. We received responses from Bonnie Lowenthal, Doug Otto, Jana Shields and Gerrie Schipske which are quoted below. The questions we asked dealt specifically with historic preservation issues that we thought were important for the future of the built environment in Long Beach. This article is not intended as an endorsement of any of the candidates. 

Question #1: How will you fund the position of Historic Preservation Officer, vacant for 5 years now, if you are elected Mayor of Long Beach? 

Lowenthal: “It is in the best interest of the people of the City of Long Beach that Historic Preservation be a strong part of city philosophy and government. Long Beach has shown a commitment to historic preservation by developing the historic element, separate from the General Plan, but as a complement to it. Long Beach has also developed a preservation element and an historic context statement. We must continue this commitment by hiring an individual to continue these efforts. Many cities have a Planning Liaison and hire consultants to do the work of a preservation officer or, in the case of Pasadena, have a whole division devoted to Design and Preservation. If we were to refund that position, it could be done through applicant fees. Another possibility is that a fund could be established for the use of civil penalties associated with improper building/construction in historic districts. The bottom line is that we need to develop a system of incentives as well as penalties to establish this goal.” 

Otto: “The re-funding of this position would be a top priority of mine; although the position would not necessarily be full time and could be combined with other responsibilities. However, no one-time monies should be used to fund this important position, rather monies should be considered from the general fund or a department’s fund. The job of the Historic Preservation Officer has been important to this city because Long Beach has reaped significant benefits including added property values and national recognition by emphasizing its historic buildings and neighborhoods.”

Shields: “I have lived in Willmore City since 1996 and have restored an historic 1923 building located adjacent to Drake Park. In those days the preservation officer was a valuable resource in communicating with us the guidelines and requirements for restoring our building. Doing future city budgets like they have been done in the past will not free up funds to restore the preservation officer. With 2014 being an election year, funds magically appeared to mask the true deficit spending of the present Council. Funds have not been put aside for promised pensions. Currently the City owes $1,000,000,000 in unfunded pensions. That means more cuts in the future to fund escalating pension deficit. Structural pension reform is the core of my platform and is the only way future pensions will be sustainable and funds will be freed up for restoring City services. Without real pension reform, City services will continue to be cut in the future.”

Schipske: As the author of three books on Long Beach history, I am acutely aware of the need for restoration of the position of Historic Preservation Officer and as Mayor I will put the position back in the budget. Funding can be derived from a number of sources: community development block grants, developer fees, oil surplus, etc.

Question #2: What are your plans for restoring the Mills Act, a tax relief program for owners of historic properties in Long Beach? 

Lowenthal: “Cities that have a Mills Act Program fund it generally through a two-tiered applicant fee: 1) the first is a small fee to determine if a home qualifies, and 2) the second is a higher fee that would fund the ongoing ten year contract with the property owner. The fees would fund the program for monitoring of compliance of the program (I own a Long Beach Mills Act home which was monitored this past year).”

Otto: “The Mills Act always sent a message to property owners in Long Beach that the city’s historic character and pride of ownership were important. Reestablishing this program would result in very small revenue loss to the city. However it would send the message that Long Beach is a good steward of its historic resources and that the owners of historic homes deserve to be helped. While the administration of the act would require some staffing/monitoring, the cost would be minimal and worth it. Responsibility could be shifted to property owners for follow up monitoring thereby saving money. The act should be limited to designated landmarks or properties determined to be contributing to historic districts in which they are located.”

Shields: “I am not familiar with the details of the Mills Act.” 

Schipske: I am placing an item on the Council agenda in February requesting that the City Manager provide an update on the status of Mills Act utilization in Long Beach, noting that the City of Los Angeles has a detailed website encouraging residents to apply for this tax savings.

Question #3: Do you think that the buildings of the present Civic Center should be retrofitted for earthquakes and reused?

Lowenthal: “Safety for employees and visitors must be balanced with historic preservation. Because the civic center is a little seen example of the architectural style, “Brutalism,” it is worth studying in a comprehensive manner to see if it can be safely retrofitted within the economic means of the city. It needs to be looked at thoroughly and by independent firms so that the city council can adequately assess and evaluate it. And if they make a decision before the next mayor and council are seated there needs to be a mechanism so that the decision can be reconsidered. It is disrespectful of the electoral process to make lasting decisions that might create long term debt and bad policy by tying the hands of the incoming elected government team. The city of Long Beach needs exemplary architecture, and the local architects should be involved in the decision making process, as well as the original architects and engineers, some of whom are still in Long Beach. Think adaptive reuse!” 

Otto: “Long Beach has a history of tearing down its city halls. Nevertheless, I am told that the current city hall is not earthquake safe and that the cost of making the building safe exceeds the cost of new construction. If that is the case then I am not opposed to master planning a new city hall complex extending from Pacific Avenue to Magnolia Avenue and from Ocean Boulevard as far inland as 3rd Street. While the current City Hall is reflective of a certain period of our history, its historical character isn’t worth preserving in light of the apparent need for a safe structure. However, I think it is critically important that such an effort could be the first step in revitalizing the west side of downtown, be a very public process and not city hall centric.”

Shields: “Since the present mayor is determined to ramrod through a new Civic Center before he leaves office, this is a mute point. However, I think the old courthouse should be torn down and a multistory building be built on the site. The present library site would be better used as a multistory building. The present City Hall should be preserved. The main reason for tearing it down seems to be that some don’t like the architectural style. It does represent a legitimate style that merits preservation. The multistory buildings replacing the library and old courthouse could be designed to complement the old City Hall.”

Schipske: I am the only Councilmember to call for exactly that. It is fiscally irresponsible that the City did not do an RFP to determine the real costs of retrofitting rather than demolishing the structures.

Question #4: Do you value the importance of the Historic Districts in Long Beach and how would you develop a timeline for the completion of updated guidelines for those districts?

Lowenthal: “I have owned and lived in three historic homes in Long Beach: one in Bluff Park (1905), one in Willmore (1913), and my current home in the Carroll Park Historic District (1907) which has the Mills Act. In each location I have been active in the associations in order to encourage historic preservation and promote related education. I have also been an active member of Long Beach Heritage and attended many events to promote preservation through the years, most recently serving as a guide for a home tour in an historic neighborhood. I am not aware that there are any published guidelines for historic districts here in Long Beach. There should be a set of general guidelines taken from the Secretary of Interior standards, and then tailored to the needs of each historic district.”

Otto: “The establishment and expansion of Historic Districts in Long Beach has been very important for not only stabilizing neighborhoods but creating pride in neighborhoods and a sense of history. I think that the neighborhood associations should be enlisted in the completion of the updated guidelines for those districts. There are many positive benefits if the neighborhood associations are given greater responsibility and a better understanding of the guidelines for their districts. Also, there are many human resources with knowledge of historic issues in Long Beach that can be utilized.”

Shields: “Being a resident of Willmore City, I value the historical districts. For us, it has been a real struggle to get the guidelines updated for Willmore, but we are very persistent. My focus as mayor will be to restore working relationships and commissions and input groups at all levels between City Hall and the people. The energy for updating the guidelines for each historical district needs to come from the people affected by those guidelines. The City’s responsibility is to have the process functional.”

Schipske: I do value them and actually attempted to help the Cliff May/Ranchos owners establish their homes as a historic district. I believe with the restoration of a Historic Preservation Officer and an empowered Historic Preservation Commission we can set out a timeline for the completed guidelines.

Question #5: Do you believe that historic buildings which are not located in Historic Districts should be protected from inappropriate remodeling or demolition? What would you do about this ongoing problem in our city?

Lowenthal: “I strongly believe that we should be aware of the historically significant buildings within the City of Long Beach. I fought the demolition of the Pacific Coast Club and the Fox West Coast Theater. I have worked to move historic houses from one site to another to prevent demolition. When I was on the City Council, I brought in an agenda item that asked for a citywide survey of buildings over 50 years of age. That, unfortunately, was never done. Because it is a large undertaking with a lot of staff time, it could be accomplished by tackling a neighborhood at a time, particularly those with a lot of demolition history. The State of California Office of Historic Preservation (I was on the Commission) has grants available to certified local governments to fund local programs. A survey could be funded through this source.”

Otto: “It is important to define what historic buildings are. They must be either designated landmarks or contributing structures within Historic Districts. While historic preservation is an important value in our community I am sensitive to people’s property rights as are many people in our town. The Secretary of the Interior’s standards should be applied and under these standards interiors are not protected.” 

Shields: “Being an old building is not sufficient criteria for preserving it. Concerted effort needs to be put forth to identify old buildings that are historically significant, no matter where they are located in the City. This needs to be a cooperative effort between interested citizens and City Hall. A preservation officer would be a vital element in accomplishing this task. The energy of a citizens’ task force would be needed to push for this to be completed.” 

Schipske: "Yes to the first part of the question. As Mayor I would establish the office of Historic Preservation."