COVER STORY : Keeping Tourism Afloat : Long Beach Pins Its Future on Splashy Waterfront Development

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At the edge of the vast asphalt desert that separates downtown Long Beach from the shoreline, a lone tattoo parlor and a weathered, domed building stand as the sole survivors of an era when the city reigned as the busiest tourist spot in Southern California.

This desolate place, visible from the 14-story City Hall building to the north, serves as a painful reminder that not since the heyday of the bustling Pike amusement park has Long Beach been able to woo the tourists it once did.

But city leaders hope to change that with an ambitious, $557-million waterfront development covering a 310-acre area that includes land once occupied by The Pike.

City officials envision that in about 10 years, tourists, conventioneers and Long Beach residents will stroll along sprawling, richly landscaped waterfront walkways, board historic ships from floating docks, dine in one of many restaurants overlooking a new harbor--created from a dredged Shoreline Lagoon--and discover undersea wonders at a $100-million state-of-the-art aquarium, the project's centerpiece.

Visitors could picnic in lush parkland, stop for dessert at a sidewalk cafe, catch a dinner cruise or shop in quaint retail outlets before dancing the night away at a club.

The ultimate goal of the Queensway Bay development, said City Manager James C. Hankla, is "to re-establish Long Beach as the largest and most compelling waterfront tourist destination in Southern California."

The mood of the attraction promises to be far different from that of The Pike, which closed in 1979. For starters, there won't be a roller coaster or fun house. There won't be showmen like motorcycle daredevil Reckless Ross and maverick dentist Painless Parker.

The south side of the harbor, near the Queen Mary, will have an outdoor amphitheater, where concert-goers can watch performances under the stars. There also will be musicians and mime troupes.

The plan is patterned after a successful waterfront development that turned a blighted urban harbor in Baltimore into a bustling tourist attraction.

And with the aquarium, Long Beach officials have selected an attraction that draws millions of visitors every year in other cities. So many cities have built aquariums, in fact, that an Associated Press business writer dubbed the 1990s: "the spawning of the Age of Aquariums."

City officials estimate that the Queensway Bay project would create 3,500 jobs and pump about $275 million a year into the Long Beach economy. And residents would gain an attraction that costs nothing to visit.

"You can walk around and enjoy the waterfront and not spend one penny unless you want to," said Phil F. Infelise, a retired banker who chairs the Queensway Bay Citizen Advisory Committee, which meets with residents to promote the plan.

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By connecting shops, promenades, restaurants and the new harbor, the city intends to link downtown with the shoreline, a connection that was lost when landfills moved the shoreline hundreds of feet south.

City officials launched the project after Walt Disney Co. decided three years ago against Long Beach as a site for a proposed $3-billion theme park.

"Disney's enthusiasm for Long Beach showed us that there is a substantial opportunity here that we should not allow to pass by," Hankla said.

The ambitious plan does have its critics. Some see the development as a costly gamble for a city grappling with severe budget cuts and struggling to raise millions of dollars for such projects as making the city more accessible to the disabled and upgrading an overtaxed 911 emergency system.

"We haven't sufficient financing to run the city's existing services properly," Long Beach resident Thomas Murphy said at a recent City Council meeting. "(The project) will create even more economic problems, adding another white elephant to the costly and impractical decisions that were so prevalent with our past elected officials."

The development, according to estimates by its architects, would require about $125 million from the city, about $40 million from the Port of Long Beach and nearly $400 million from private investors and developers.

The City Council unanimously approved the Queensway Bay plan in March, and has chosen a company to oversee a bond issue to pay for the aquarium. The bond issue will not require voter approval. The bonds would be repaid through income from parking, admission and concession fees. Officials also have ordered an environmental impact report and have begun securing the necessary permits.

A $120-million expansion of the Convention Center, now considered part of the initial phase of the Queensway plan, was finished in July. The renovations nearly tripled the size of the exhibit hall--from 88,000 to 224,000 square feet--and the meeting room space--from 21,000 to about 61,000 square feet. The expansion puts the Long Beach center among the 10 largest in the state, officials said.

The Convention Center last month hosted its first major convention since the expansion, a three-day League of California Cities conference. About 2,500 municipal officials attended from throughout the state.

The aquarium proposal is the key to the development, critics and proponents agree.

"The crucial part of the plan is bringing in private sector dollars, and the way to do that is to have a major attraction like the aquarium," said City Councilman Alan S. Lowenthal. "It's going to knock people's socks off, and people will be clamoring to do business in Long Beach."

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The aquarium gained significant momentum this summer when Kajima International Inc., a Japan-based developer, agreed to head up its planning. Kajima built an $84-million aquarium in Tampa, Fla., that is scheduled to open in the spring.

Last month, the city's Redevelopment Agency allocated $2.3 million toward the design of the aquarium. Kajima, which is not being paid for its work at this stage of the development, will use the money to pay a team of designers to begin drafting plans.

Two firms that worked on the Tampa aquarium--Esherick Homsey Dodge and Davis, and Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum--will serve as architects. Boston-based Joseph A. Wetzel Associates Inc., which also worked on the Tampa aquarium, will design the exhibits.

Officials expect construction to begin in September, 1995, and are predicting a 1998 opening.

But many longtime residents such as Murphy, who once owned a Western-style nightclub on The Pike, remain skeptical about waterfront redevelopment proposals. They can cite a succession of ill-fated attempts to redevelop The Pike land.

The amusement park, which had become overshadowed by more modern attractions such as Disneyland, closed in 1979 in anticipation that a Downey-based developer would build a $365-million complex of high-rise condominiums, hotel rooms, stores and offices. But the developer could not reach an agreement with the amusement company that leased the land.

In 1984, the Planning Commission approved a plan by Dominion Property Co. of Santa Monica to build three high-rise residential towers on nine acres at the old Pike site. The deal fell through, officials said.

Four years later, Los Angeles developer Wayne Ratkovich proposed a $1-billion plan for a "city within a city," a complex of ocean-view condominiums, shops and offices. But after a two-year legal battle between the developers and environmentalists--who contended that the city approved the project without studying its impact on traffic and air quality--the recession had hit and funding for the plan dried up, city planning officials said.

Disney entered in 1990, like a fairy-tale prince to rescue the city from its economic slumber. But its plan for a theme park fell through the next year. Although the project drew criticism on several fronts, officials said the deal finally collapsed because Disney executives could not persuade the Legislature to amend the state coastal laws to allow 250 acres of landfill in Long Beach harbor waters.

After Disney decided to pull the plug, the city scrambled to find a replacement.

Long Beach hired Ehrenkrantz & Eckstut Architects to pattern a plan after the successful Inner Harbor project in Baltimore. The firm was paid $225,000 by the city and $490,000 by the Port of Long Beach.

After nearly three years, the architects unveiled a five-part project to be built over 10 years. The city would pay $124.9 million for infrastructure costs, such as roadway improvements and parking structures. The Port of Long Beach would kick in $41.8 million to build a new, 478-slip marina.

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Long Beach officials are hoping to avoid the pitfalls of the earlier development proposals by encouraging several investors to become involved during various stages, rather than trying to put up a massive development all at once. By avoiding major changes in the coastline, they also hope to avoid the issue that doomed the Disney plan.

"Dealing with many smaller developers gives us more flexibility," said Robert Paternoster, the city's director of building and planning who was recently named project manager for the Queensway Bay plan. "The project builds on itself."

Hankla and Paternoster said they are negotiating with some developers and retailers who are interested in the waterfront project, but they would not disclose details.

In recent years, cities large and small have turned to aquariums in an effort to boost their economies.

Since 1990, aquariums have opened in New Orleans; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Corpus Christi, Tex.; Camden, N.J., and Newport, Ore. The National Aquarium in Baltimore added a dolphin pavilion, and the granddaddy of these attractions, the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, more than doubled its size. The Florida Aquarium in Tampa is set to open in 1995.

By mixing family entertainment with environmental education, even aquariums in cities that have few other tourist attractions are reporting attendance figures of more than 1 million. The top marine museums average about 1 1/2 million visitors a year--about triple this year's expected attendance at the Queen Mary--and some approach 2 million.

"People love to watch these denizens of the deep," said Harrison Price, whose Torrance-based company conducts feasibility studies for museums and theme parks. "And it's a generally inexpensive outing at a time when inexpensive things have got an edge."

But the results have been mixed. In Camden, officials are struggling to keep their aquarium afloat after attendance dropped from 1.1 million in 1992 to about 600,000 last year. Several staff members also were laid off and the operating schedule was reduced from seven days a week to five days.

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In Norwalk, Conn., the city has taken over payments for the Maritime Center, a facility featuring an aquarium, museum and movie theater. So far, the city has paid about $18 million toward the debt, said Jack Miller, Norwalk's director of finance. "Ours is not a disaster story, but we have had our birthing pains," he said.

The aquarium-building trend, which Price compared to the growth of theme parks triggered by Disneyland in the 1950s, began in 1981 with the National Aquarium in Baltimore. That attraction transformed the city's waterfront.

"Baltimore is a case study in urban renaissance," Price said. "The city was an absolute drag before this happened, and now new construction is abounding."

The $3-billion Baltimore project, far more costly than the Long Beach proposal, has been developed in stages over 30 years. Baltimore city spokeswoman Barbara Bonnell said the development has created 35,000 permanent jobs and brings about $550 million to the city annually.

Other aquariums are being planned in Southern California, and experts say the demand will be limited.

"I think in the greater L.A. and Orange County area, the first city to develop a major aquarium will get major visitor response," Price said. "It could work in one city. If it got funded, it could generate an operating profit, but it would take some dough to do it."

So far, Long Beach seems to have taken the lead, lining up a developer and setting a construction date.

The Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro, the Los Angeles area's only aquarium, is planning a $50-million expansion that would triple its 20,000 square feet of exhibit space. Officials from the aquarium, which is largely an educational and research facility with no large-scale exhibits, said they are meeting with consultants but do not have a specific plan for construction.

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The Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles is planning a 100,000-square-foot aquarium. Museum officials said they are negotiating with some possible developers but would not discuss details.

Some critics have pointed to Marineland, the Palos Verdes theme park and marine research center that closed in 1987, to support their claims that a local aquarium cannot succeed financially.

However, Marineland was a different type of institution, with unique problems, officials said. The 33-year-old park needed millions of dollars in renovations, coupled with high overhead costs for its research and performances featuring killer whales and dolphins--which the Long Beach facility will not have.

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc. bought the park and moved its two star attractions--the killer whales--to the company's other marine park at the time, Sea World in San Diego. Without the whales, the company said at the time, Marineland could not attract enough visitors to justify keeping the park open.

Many Long Beach residents said they hope the Queensway plan will be successful. Others say they worry that taxpayers may get stuck with the bill.

"A lot of people like the idea, but they hope the city's not going to raise taxes to get this," said Ella Collins, a North Long Beach community activist and member of the Queensway advisory board. "They're just not sure if it's going to work."

Infelise, the advisory board's chairman, insisted that the project will create jobs and tax revenue that will benefit the entire city.

Lowenthal, the councilman, added: "It's exciting because we're creating this. It won't be Disney; it will be Long Beach. And when that idea catches on it will being back a real spirit."

Queensway Bay Development

Cost: $557 million in public and private funds.

Area: 310 acres.

Key features: Aquarium, new harbor, pier, outdoor amphitheater, waterfront shops, restaurants.

Economic Impact: 3,500 permanent jobs and an additional $275 million in the local economy.

Timetable: Completed in 10 years.

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