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Taking Back the Streets

A few years ago, residents of historic Alamitos Beach near downtown Long Beach organized to clean up the decaying area. Now the community is thriving.

July 07, 2002|KAREN E. KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Alamitos Beach, an oceanfront community of historic bungalows, 1920s-era four-plexes and '60s apartment buildings just east of downtown Long Beach, is on the mend.

Drive Bonito, Esperanza or Falcon avenues, and you'll find at least one painting or remodeling project on every block. Neighbors are out, sprucing up their gardens and sweeping their driveways.

A few years ago, an Alamitos Beach renaissance was unimaginable. With economic recession, military and hospital closures and aerospace downsizing, Long Beach and its small, historic communities suffered in the late '80s and early '90s.

Property values declined and buildings went into foreclosure, then languished in the hands of financial institutions that managed them loosely from afar. Drug dealers, prostitutes, gang members and beach bums quickly took advantage of low rents, and a series of domestic-abuse-plagued flophouses sprang up as well as party houses where residents would rent floor space at $5 a night to vagrants.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 17, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 10 inches; 387 words Type of Material: Correction
Ownership method--A July 7 Real Estate story about Alamitos Beach incorrectly stated that purchasers of "own your owns" buy shares in a cooperative rather than a specific unit. In fact, "own your owns" are a form of common interest subdivision in which the individual owner gets an undivided interest in the project and the right to occupy a specific unit.
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For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 21, 2002 Home Edition Real Estate Part K Page 7 Features Desk 2 inches; 74 words Type of Material: Correction
Ownership method -- A July 7 story about Alamitos Beach misstated that purchasers of "own-your-owns" buy shares in a cooperative. In fact, "own-your-owns" are a form of common interest subdivision, regulated in California by the Davis-Stirling Act, in which the individual owner gets a deed entitling him or her to an undivided interest in the project and the exclusive right to occupy a specific unit.

This is the environment that Mike Wilson and his girlfriend, Dionne Degenhardt, confronted in June 1998, when they pulled up to their newly purchased, 14-room Spanish Colonial Revival at Bonito Avenue and 1st Street.

"We sat across the street, watching a really scary guy selling crack right on the corner, and we were close to tears," Wilson said. "We thought we'd just made a horrible, horrible mistake."

Although they had looked at the home a couple of times before buying, they hadn't realized how bad the neighborhood was until the day they moved in. They had fallen in love with the historic home and seen its potential as an investment because of the nearby beach.

Today, Wilson and Degenhardt's duplex, Esser House, is a Long Beach Historical Landmark. It was built in 1929 for $9,000. The couple paid $240,000 for the 3,000-square-foot house (they rent out one side and live in the other) with oak floors, a three-car garage, a Spanish-tile fireplace and a view of the Queen Mary. They say it's worth twice that much now.

The ocean-breeze-cooled neighborhood is close to the revitalized downtown Long Beach, and new resident Drake Cruz says he never hesitates to walk to dinner or the local drugstore after dark.

The dramatic change, residents say, is due to a determined group of neighbors, led by Wilson and Degenhardt, and a cooperative and proactive City Hall.

"We began to fight back, and we worked with the police to document heroin sales and gang warfare," Wilson said. The Alamitos Beach Neighborhood Assn., headed by longtime resident George Romo, encouraged the passage of a nuisance-abatement ordinance that carried a maximum $5,000 fine--enough to light a fire under absentee landlords and get them to clean house.

Residents like Wilson and Romo laugh when they hear that the top complaints to police today are about skateboarders on the sidewalks and noisy helicopters.

"Crime is down by about 80% from what it was several years ago," said Rick McCabe, a legislative aide to Long Beach Vice Mayor Dan Baker.

The 10-block area bordered by Alamitos Avenue on the west, Cherry Avenue on the east, 4th Street on the north and the Pacific Ocean has had no murders or rapes reported during the past 18 months, according to Long Beach Police Department statistics.

In 2001 and the first quarter of 2002, there were eight robberies, 11 residential burglaries, 26 stolen cars and seven bicycle thefts.

Residents are now concerned about parking, crumbling sidewalks and high density, McCabe said, issues that reflect the neighborhood's age.

Luxury hotels and high-rise apartment buildings constructed along Ocean Boulevard during the 1920s, like the elegantly restored 16-story Villa Riviera, included no parking facilities because they were close to the Los Angeles Red Car line, which had a terminus in Alamitos Beach. And zoning laws were lax in the 1950s and '60s when a plethora of 20-unit apartment buildings was developed throughout the area with only a carport or two required in back.

The result is a parking nightmare, said Brent Heflin, broker-owner of Brent Heflin Properties. "It's not unusual for people to drive around for an hour looking for parking at certain high-impact times," he said. The city is working on reducing red curbs and converting some blocks to slotted parking to try to lessen the crunch, McCabe said.

The lack of garages has not dampened the area's popularity, however. "Property values have taken a big jump in the past year or so," Heflin said. "Especially as potential buyers have been priced out of [neighboring] Belmont Shore and Bluff Heights, they have been pushed over to Alamitos Beach."

For years, Long Beach was the last "affordable" oceanfront community between Santa Barbara and San Diego, with bungalows just a block or two off the water going for $200,000 or less. While Alamitos Beach still offers the rare bargain, Long Beach has revitalized much of its crumbling image in recent years, Heflin said, and prices have gone up accordingly.

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