LONG BEACH CIVIC CENTER: GOING BACK TO THE FUTURE … AND THE RUMORSBy Theo Douglas
Like a mortgage we’ve periodically refinanced, Long Beach Civic Center’s travails have been duly amortized over the past 35 years: how when it rains, City Hall’s underground staff parking area has sometimes resembled a waterfall. How the public gardens atop Main Library—the legally-mandated successor to Lincoln Park—leaked from Day One, thanks to an improperly-installed moisture barrier. (It was fixed in 2010—33 years after opening.) And how the Long Beach Municipal Band grandstand facing Main Library became, during construction, a blank grassy slope instead.
But what about the good news for this monumental use of concrete, an ostentatious wedding of 1950s British Brutalist architecture with the less-threateningly-named Postmodernism?
Despite sometimes looking as if it had been designed by Darth Vader, this group of buildings sprang instead from Long Beach’s greatest architectural minds of the day, including father-son team Hugh and Donald Gibbs; Edward Killingsworth, and Kenneth S. Wing. (Wing and Killingsworth also worked together on our 1960 Superior Court building, which could be demolished sometime this decade.)
A long time in coming, their collaboration won architectural honors after opening to the public in 1977. But somehow, the moment those black, extruded aluminum sliding doors slid open, and certainly once the water for those rooftop gardens was turned off—in an ill-fated effort to stem the leaks—our opinions of Civic Center, like our opinions of downtown, seemed to keep heading south.
TODAY, CIVIC CENTER IS A PLACE where the homeless live and die, and where we go to have our bicycles stolen, as much as it is a destination to admire fine architecture.
The questions of how this much-reviled edifice could be restored in reputation and superstructure, how it might be re-envisioned, and why it matters at all, will be taken up Monday at 7 p.m. in the belly of the Aquarium of the Pacific, at a panel discussion hosted by the Long Beach/South Bay chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and Long Beach Heritage.
The latest in its The Future of Long Beach Discussion Series, the experts will consider “What are the possibilities for our Civic Center?” Featured prominently will be the august architect Donald Gibbs, who had a large hand in designing Civic Center.
But one of the panelists, local historian and preservationist Maureen Neeley, indicates there is a slightly different rationale for conducting this discussion.
“[The city hasn’t] openly said they’re going to do anything and that’s really why this forum came to be—there are rumors flying all over the place,” says Neeley, 2007 Long Beach Heritage Preservationist of the Year. “I don’t even want to repeat them. But when you have this many rumors it seems like something must be happening.”
Maureen Neeley will consider Civic Center with fellow panelists Gibbs, Ken O’Dell, partner at MHP Structural Engineers, and Studio One Eleven Senior Principal Alan Pullman to consider Civic Center.
“Once you know where you’ve been you can figure out where you’re going,” says Neeley, who confirms only what we’ve been hearing since 2008.
The big rumor, which I reported in 2008 for the District Weekly, was then—and apparently still is—the possibility of a so-called public-private partnership between the city and private developers, wherein private developers might scrap what we have, build us a new City Hall and possibly some retail along Ocean Boulevard, then sell or lease City Hall back to us. Or something like that.
But these are rocky financial times for cities throughout California, and Fourth District Councilman Patrick O’Donnell says the city should put its police and fire departments far ahead of a new Civic Center.
“Somebody’s living on another planet,” says O’Donnell, who earlier this year completed a successful campaign for a third term that began as a write-in. “I’ve knocked on a lot of doors this year and not once did somebody say to me, ‘Hey we need to build a new City Hall.’ If it’s a conversation about the current City Hall, fine. If it’s a conversation about a new City Hall, I scratch my head.”
Tom Modica, the city’s Director of Government Affairs and Strategic Initiatives, confirms the possibility of a public-private partnership, presented in 2008 by none other than Mayor Bob Foster, but says the game to make it happen is definitely not afoot.
“That’s been talked about, and the Mayor has mentioned it and put it out there as an idea and a concept, doing a P3 as a model similar to the [Governor George Deukmejian] Courthouse,” Modica says. (In cityspeak, a P3 is a public-private partnership, using just the first letter of each word.) “It was a very good model, and one of the first courthouses built under that model. This has been a concept that people have talked about, but only on a conceptual level. To my knowledge, there’s nothing that’s concrete and planned and ready to go.”
Despite representing the most unflinching look at Civic Center in decades—if you overlook the time in 2008 when the city wanted to close Main Library—Monday’s discussion will feature just one City representative. Second District Councilmember Suja Lowenthal is slated to deliver introductory remarks. (Lowenthal did not respond to a request to comment for this story.)
Following the panel discussion, members of the public will be invited to submit written questions, much in the style of a candidate’s forum.
“We’re really not making a statement about it, other than what I say in my blog: ‘Understand what you’re tearing down,’” Neeley says. “Because you’ll see through Alan [Pullman]’s presentation the number of awards our Civic Center won. For taking a chance, for doing something so new and different.”
According to O’Donnell, the chances architects took 30 years ago have made Long Beach an architectural destination.
“It’s called Brutalism?” the councilman asks, making sure he’s architecturally correct. (He is.) “And my understanding is that people from Europe come to look at it.”
Europeans coming to Long Beach to see something we built in the 1970s? We must have done something right.
If you go: The Long Beach/South Bay chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and Long Beach Heritage present “The Future of Long Beach, A Discussion Series: What Are the Possibilities for Our Civic Center?”
7-8:30 p.m. Sept. 10, Ocean Theater, Aquarium of the Pacific, 100 Aquarium Way, Long Beach CA 90802
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