Mayor Ernie Kell and a planning commissioner engaged in a spirited exchange Tuesday over whether the city has an obligation to put multistory housing in all of its neighborhoods, even those that do not want it.
Such housing has come under increasing attack from residents and some city council members, who insist that mostly poor people have moved into the developments, creating a increasing in crime.
Anthony Tortorice said at a joint meeting of the City Council and the Planning Commission this week that Long Beach city officials must stop shoving high-density housing into the center of town, where parks and schools are already overloaded but where there is little community resistance, he said.
"Our land-use policy has turned into a political document that promotes economic segregation," Tortorice said. "We have got to break that pattern."
The city must spread growth equally, Tortorice said, even if some neighborhoods complain about it.
The mayor, who rarely takes a strong public stand on such issues, disagreed. "We have many, many cities inside of Long Beach," the mayor said. "We have some very high income neighborhoods, and if we don't protect them, people will leave and go elsewhere."
Moreover, Kell said, politicians risk being voted out of office if they don't listen to their constituents. "If you put high density in the 5th District, Les Robbins will not be here long," the mayor said. "Ernie Kell will not be here long."
The 5th District, on Long Beach's northeastern tip, is a middle-class neighborhood of retired people and families who have resisted development.
As for Tortorice's claim that government has an obligation to "equalize" the density and quality of housing and other city amenities, Kell said, "They tried that once in Russia, and I don't think that worked too well."
The discussion grew out of the second meeting between the city's planning commissioners and councilmen over what to do with a controversial plan to build multistory apartments along the city's major streets.
That policy was enacted one year ago as part of the city's major policy document, or General Plan. Planning officials and a special citizens group helped put together the policy after years of research and discussion.
They hoped that it would appease neighborhood groups that had been insisting that there be no more so-called "cracker-box" developments of multistory housing in their neighborhoods. But now some of those same neighborhoods are complaining that they don't want the developments along nearby streets, as well.
During the past year, the City Council has passed several moratoriums on such developments. The debate escalated this fall when Councilman Wallace Edgerton won a moratorium on development in his waterfront district. Edgerton asserted that development was bringing poor people into the area and creating crime. Housing activists for the poor and a developer have sued the city separately, claiming the moratorium discriminates against them.
Last September, the council asked the Planning Commission to reconsider the policy of allowing growth along the city's corridors. Tuesday's meeting was the second attempt at a compromise between commissioners, who generally favor salvaging the plan, and the council.
Some council members have called for abandoning the plan entirely and putting the brakes on growth in Long Beach. The first joint meeting, in October, deteriorated into bickering between Edgerton and Tortorice.
Officials Tuesday discussed a Planning Commission report with possible modifications to the corridor development policy. Most of the changes called for design modifications to blend developments into neighborhoods, according to Planning Director Robert Paternoster.
The report proposed that most new development of big apartment houses be contained in the downtown area. It also recommended that the city consider such design standards as the distance between buildings, the height of buildings, the quality of design and how they blend into adjoining buildings.
Only Tortorice denounced the proposals. "The effect of all the suggestions here is to slightly reduce density," but it would restrict the supply of housing to poor and middle-class people, he said.
Kell, like most of his colleagues on the council, greeted the suggestions with lukewarm enthusiasm. "We're heading in the right direction, and that's downzoning," he said.
Planning officials expressed relief after the meeting at how civil the councilmen were, given the bitter tenor of past debates on the matter. "I thought they were going to kill us," said Planning Commission Chairwoman Patricia Schauer.
Paternoster was pleased that the policy still appears salvageable. "I had fears (the council) would scrap it entirely," he said.
However, no action was taken on the proposals.
"We go back and forth," Councilman Thomas Clark complained during the meeting. "We appear to be swinging on the issue of affordable housing and density. If you have affordable housing, you're going to have density. We've got some good ideas here, but we need to resolve that issue."