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After years of decline, a California port city sheds its past

The port city of Long Beach, California, has long struggled to revive its downtown core, which steadily deteriorated as the Navy pared down and eventually closed its decades-old operations there by the late '90s, with military contractors following.

[NEW YORK]The port city of Long Beach, California, has long struggled to revive its downtown core, which steadily deteriorated as the Navy pared down and eventually closed its decades-old operations there by the late '90s, with military contractors following.

The once-active naval community, where ships were regularly serviced and docked, became a place that, not too long ago, fewer people cared to visit, especially after dark.

"Downtown was really a no-go zone during nighttime," said Richard Talbot, a market researcher who was hired in 2002 to help create a revitalization plan for the city's retail district, centered on its main thoroughfare, Pine Avenue. It would be one of several plans, studies and updates commissioned in recent years.

"There were many attractive art deco buildings, but derelict," Mr Talbot recalled. "Businesspeople didn't want to go downtown. There was homelessness. There were drug deals on many corners." Today, on some of those same corners, bulldozers and construction cranes work almost nonstop to transform Long Beach's 1.38-square-mile downtown and outlying areas into a more vibrant urban center. Roughly three dozen projects, valued around US$3.5 billion, are underway or in the pipeline in one of the country's largest continuing downtown redevelopments.

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"The downtown is being reborn and re-created," Robert Garcia, the mayor of Long Beach since 2014, said. "A lot of people view Long Beach as the kid sister to Los Angeles. It's finally stepping into the national stage, and I'm really excited about the transformation."

The whole world will get to see Long Beach's shiny new self soon enough as Southern California prepares for the 2028 Summer Olympics and Paralympic Games. Los Angeles has been chosen as the host city, and several events are expected to take place in Long Beach.

The changes to Long Beach - about 25 miles south of Los Angeles - began in earnest more than 15 years ago. The city began buying up nearly four dozen properties, including vacant lots and derelict buildings, through its redevelopment agency. The total purchases, across an area of about 25 square miles, were part of a more than US$100 million spending plan that included improving infrastructure and beefing up the police force, said Patrick West, the city manager.

"We purchased liquor stores, parking lots, motels and apartments that were gang hangouts - 911 hot spots, according to the police - and relocated the displaced tenants," Mr West said.

The properties were later resold to developers, and new zoning regulations were put in place about five years ago to help speed up construction and building conversions.

"We became a land banker," Mr West said. "The objective was to change the neighborhood and blight, not to regenerate dollars." As a result of these efforts by the local government, many developers have been eager to do business in Long Beach, and companies like Virgin Orbit and Mercedes-Benz have found new homes there.

"We've got the welcome mat out," Mr Garcia said. "We're constantly meeting with folks, hosting forums for development interest." Jason Silver, the director of development for Ledcor Properties of Irvine, California, said changes in the review process for developments were enabling work to commence in around half the usual time.

"The city streamlined the process under one management," said Mr Silver, whose company is a co-developer of residential projects in Long Beach with Anderson Pacific of Chicago.

One of the residential projects, a rental building with 223 units called the Current, was completed in the summer of 2016. And construction is set to begin by this summer on the 315-unit Shoreline Gateway East Tower, which at 35 stories will be one of the city's tallest buildings.

More projects could come later. "We're keeping our feelers out in the Long Beach area," Mr Silver said.

The developments downtown and beyond are expected to add around 4,000 residential units over the next few years, from condominiums and rentals to student and faculty housing for California State University, Long Beach.

More than 200 units classified as affordable housing are under construction, although Josh Butler, the executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Housing Long Beach, would like to see more. "Only a paltry amount of affordable housing is planned for the area," he said.

Several infrastructure projects are also in the works. One of them, the 605-foot-long Seaside Rainbow Bridge, a walkway connecting two ends of the expansive Long Beach Convention Center campus, was just completed. And numerous commercial spaces are set to open, including much-needed hotels.

"We believe the Olympics will be a game changer for us," Mr West said. He expects at least five new hotels across the city during the next few years, just in time to house the throngs of visitors that will descend on the area.