L.B. Mayor Robert Garcia’s First Year: Looking Back (and Moving Toward More Parks, More Safety, and a Cleaner Long Beach)

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Photo below by Brian Addison. This post first appeared at LongBeachize.

Long Beach’s youngest mayor, Robert Garcia, sat in his office today to hold a small gathering for what many would call an earmark in his career. Today marks Garcia’s first full year in office as mayor and the Latino politician often described as perpetually optimistic did not change his color.

“I feel like I am the quarterback of Team Long Beach,” Garcia said. “And it’s because we have a great City Manager, great employees and great departments. It’s because we have a council that is working together and believes in big ideas. I think it’s because we have active and engaged commissioners and community. It’s been everyone.”

Call it a humblebrag or call it genuine humility—either way, it’s a definitive step away from former Mayor Bob Foster’s aggressive austerity, with Garcia becoming Long Beach’s biggest cheerleader (as well as the City’s most tech-savvy with his obsession over utilizing social media to get his message out). Garcia’s positive insistence on working on a level that incorporates corporate attitude as much as it does communal activity could be the largest single contributor to the mayor’s solid year, particularly when it comes to livability.

Livability was one of four major focuses for Garcia when he began formally address his agenda last year; others included Economic Development, Education and Civic Innovation.

While the latter three areas are givens for any politician, the former is not. Mind you, it has become a buzzword of sorts for politicians over the past few years—along with “green” and “bike-friendly” and so on—but never has it been such a particular focus for a Long Beach mayor. (Garcia joins Garcetti as probably the state’s most aggressively new urbanist idealists, with heavy focuses on parks, alternative transportation, biking, climate change, decreasing water usage… He even called the recent proposal by Caltrans to widen the 405 “unacceptable” and plans on suing Caltrans.)

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In the past year, Garcia has overseen the signage of an agricultural ordinance (this morning) and the commissioning a soon-to-be released climate report. We have the lowest unemployment rate (7.7%) in five years. Our waters have never been cleaner. He’s raised $5.5M for internships across the city. Water usage is at its lowest since 1956. 20 miles of sidewalks have been re-paved and 3.3 miles of pedestrian paradise-ness has been paved along the beach. Homeless has been reduced by 18% this year (not an easy thing if you’ve ever addressed homelessness head-on).

And when it comes to bikes’n’parks, Garcia is the unequivocal champion.
$8M have been invested in parks across the city, with a strong focus on West Long Beach.

This is absolutely key because, as we previously noted, 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 only encourages physical activity but actually contributes to the overall health of a community—lower rates of respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, on and on—West Long Beach is need of some green TLC.

Two major projects will contribute to that.

Firstly, the Terminal Island (TI) Freeway removal project that will increase park space on the West Side by some 50% with the addition of 20 to 30 acres of park space, mot 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.

Secondly is the west-adjacent Drake/Cesar Chavez Parks expansion with its two soccer fields, river walking paths, a community center, a skate park…

“That project will break ground in December or January,” Garcia said. “That will dramatically increase park space along the river and West Side… We have the first and second phase funded.”

Call it a humblebrag or call it genuine humility—either way, Garcia takes a definitive step away from former Mayor Bob Foster’s aggressively austerity, becoming Long Beach’s biggest cheerleader. Garcia’s positive insistence on working on a level that incorporates corporate attitude as much as it does communal activity could be the largest single contributor to the mayor’s (mostly) solid year, particularly when it comes to livability.

Revamping and engaging the Los Angeles River is also tied into this project’s larger scope—and has been an effort of many groups and people. From finding ways to fix the gap that disconnects bicyclists and pedestrians from exploring the river’s full length to beers brewed to raise money to restore the river to Garcia and Garcetti’s collaboration to work together on the river.

After all, Garcia called the river an “environmental wonder” and there is reason for that: it is. According to Garcia, he will join Garcetti this upcoming fall for announcements regarding the river that he was unable to relay at today’s event.

Now onto bikes.

Garcia hasn’t been unclear about his stance that bikes are good for everyone (and he has been definitive on the fact that public transit needs to veer away from its bus’n’train centric operation to a “people-moving” operation that includes walking and biking). But most interestingly is his stance on putting cops on bikes to create a more leveled perspective on police.

Following the national headlines made by the LBPD officer-involved death of 20-year-old college student Feras Morad earlier this year, tension between certain neighborhoods and the LBPD have increased. Garcia even admitted that “scrutiny and distrust” within some neighborhoods toward the LBPD existed

Echoing his op-ed, Garcia noted that “the Chief has acknowledged that this is a very difficult time nationally for policing and I want to begin by saying that our police officers are doing a great job and we have one of the finest police departments anywhere in the country. But we also know that policing is evolving so there is a renewed focus on community policing. We have instituted a variety of new training modules, investments in equipment, community meetings and outreach that are looking to strengthen that bond between community and our police department.”

Part of his plan to take on such an endeavor? Get more cops on bikes. For Garcia, powerful police officers cruising in equally powerful pieces of metal that can reach deathly speeds increases the negative perception of cops. Putting them on bikes makes them “more human.”

When you tack onto all this the fact that the budget he’ll be presenting in two weeks to City Council will have a surplus of $600K rather than a projected deficit of $1M, Garcia’s optimism and humanist approach isn’t just talk; it’s working.

“It’s not big—we still have to keep our belts tight,” Garcia said. “But I’m looking forward to presenting the budget because we’re doing things in a way we’ve never done before.”

We’re looking forward to it, Mayor.

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