The following the first part of a series of excerpts from a wide ranging interview with Keith Bohr, the mayor of Huntington Beach, California, conducted by OC Voice editor John Earl last November.
Part One: Goals for the next year, New Urbanism and transportation.
Tomorrow: The proposed Poseidon desalination plant.
Q: Where do you want to lead the city and where do you see it going in the following year?
I will preface everything by saying that I am just one of seven. I can try to steer a little bit and set some tone but I need at least three others to agree with me.
When I came on the council it was about generating revenues. Of course, you should do everything you can to keep down costs, but with my background in development and with the city in redevelopment it’s about increasing your sales tax, your bed tax from the hotels and the property tax.
That goes to projects. So you look at the Strand [hotel]finishing here [in downtown] … You’re going to have the new retail stores. In the spring you will have the Strand Hotel, The TOT (transient occupancy or “bed” tax) to go along with the rest of the hotels that are operating now. [Get] Pacific City started again. You have 517 condos and the hotel, which is about 250 rooms, and the retail that goes along with that and restaurants.
Bella Terra Phase I has been completed since I’ve been on the council; we just approved Phase II, which they’re calling the Village at Bella Terra, which will be 700 units and about 140,000 square feet of retail.
We’re hoping to provide all the opportunities we can for people, including myself and my wife not to shop at Westminster Mall and South Coast Plaza and Fashion Island. So the more we do that the more we capture those tens of millions of dollars that leak out of Huntington Beach every year. And the extent that we can [we want to] provide something that nobody else has and that makes them come down to Huntington Beach and spend money.
The Home Depot just opened on Garfield and Magnolia at the old K-Mart site. Those are good for about $300,000 a year in sales tax. The third hotel for the Waterfront between the Hilton and the Hyatt; due to the economy, that’s been put off for a year or two….Everything will probably skip a year or two due to lack of funding, but we [the city] don’t want to be the cause. We will do everything we can to get them through the entitlement process as quickly as possible and keep the integrity of the design and the process itself. My speech is usually, if we can do something in 3 months versus a year, that’s more jobs and property tax assessment, sales tax and bed tax that we get.
How long will it take before the city gets back from the hotels what it has given them in subsidies?
They do the projects over the 25-year period, so I think that the Strand itself is something like $80 million over the 25 years. Where that breakeven point is I don’t know. But we bought all that land so long ago, mostly before the parking days when you had the parking fund and we broke that land up to the point where we transferred it. So that was paper debt, right. So it’s even better than what it sounds on what we get on the return. And it’s great that the hotels are all different price points and have different amenities, so they compliment each other.
New Urbanism. The city is eager to implement its New Urbanism vision, but has yet to complete its evaluation of the newly proposed Beach-Edinger Specific Plan, which would drastically change land use for large sections of land west and south of the Beach-Edinger intersection, creating synergy between existing and future developments like Ripcurl, Village at Bella Terra and Murdy Commons, all mixed use, high-rise, high density projects.
Q: The council seems to be favoring, the proposed new Beach and Edinger strategic plan has off a debate about whether Huntington Beach is an urban community or a suburban community. How do you assess the feelings coming out of that debate?
The suburban part is [from] the people who moved here to be in a single-family home. We’re not going to change any of that. The single-family neighborhoods are still single-family neighborhoods. The Beach and Edinger corridors weren’t single family neighborhoods. Those are strictly commercial. But if you look up and down Beach Blvd., specifically from PCH to Edinger to the 405, you have had vacant lots and marginal retail strip centers for decades now. And for those to turn—given the setbacks [and due to] parking it doesn’t make sense for them to develop. They don’t have the depth and the capacity, but if you allowing building residential above [on top of], it will start making economic sense. It will probably take 20 years to get there … So Beach Blvd. is about staying the status quo, or even [going] backward—or providing a vision and looking forward to make things turn over in a positive way to make us earn revenue. But they have decided that you can’t support five miles of strip retail. So concentrate on the major intersections and Ellis and at Warner and in between let it become residential.
What are the benefits of this proposal and why are people so angry about it?
I think change is always scary. We’re trying to give an incentive for development there. What can get us the best retail? And what studies show is that if you have this urban environment that has 24/7 year round customers, versus just seasonal customers, that helps the retail survive. And actually these mixed use models show that there’s less car trips taken when you have mixed use…Will we have more traffic at that intersection than there is today? Yeah, because Montgomery Ward’s is closed [now]. We’re not getting any benefit now. So obviously we’re going to improve revenues because we have zero [revenues] today from Montgomery Ward’s.
In the past we had to slowly watch Huntington Center go by the wayside. Now Levitz is closed. Michael’s is talking about going out. We lost the grocery store….People are complaining—or I will complain, why do we have $1.5 billion in infrastructure needs [in the city] that we can’t pay for? The answer is because we’ve been a bleeding retail tax community. Most cities have double the amount of retail sales tax as they do property tax. We’re the opposite. We have twice as much property tax as we do retail tax…How do we at least stop the hemorrhaging if not reverse the flow?
Costco, for example, in Fountain Valley, generates about $180-200 million in gross revenues; $180 million or $160 million of the $180 million [whichever it is] come from Huntington Beach residents. That kills me. It’s terrible…that they’re using all of our tax dollars to pave their streets and do their infrastructure [in Fountain Valley]. That’s part of the reason for the tourist destination center idea [in Huntington Beach], to bring up the TOT tax and take advantage of 8.5 miles of beach because people come from out of town, stay at the hotels. That’s just short of $7 million from the hotel bed tax. When the other three hotels come on line, we should get at full build out, probably 7-10 years from now, double that.
Do you think that the plan can be implemented without eminent domain?
It will have to be because we’re not going eminent domain. The market will have to dictate and say if you give me enough density I can consolidate and buy properties, we can do it. But we know that nobody is going for eminent domain projects anymore. Those days are gone…
Do you think there is a type of environmentalism in Huntington Beach in which people care about their own quality of life but not the overall picture? This [new strategic plan] is an improvement, with less traffic, less global warming, etc., but that doesn’t seem to be the concern of a lot of its strongest critics.
I don’t know how much of it is an environmentalist [view] versus slow growth versus no growth versus (just) “change scares me.” And let’s say there are more trips with this [new strategic] plan [as critics have claimed]. The good news about being at the location is that you’re only going to impact one or two major intersections when you go to the freeway. That’s [for] somebody who works in Los Angeles but loves to live in Huntington Beach, who doesn’t want to live five miles down by the beach and have that extra 20 minute commute both directions. So he’s going to compromise and live right where the restaurants and movie theaters are. And this is a younger group. This isn’t you or me. This is me 22 years ago, [but] it’s not me now. I live in a single family home too. Most of the people [who are] complaining are single-family people, older people that—they can’t understand why anybody would live in a 500 square foot studio. Are you nuts? Nobody is going to live there. Well, you’re not going to live there, I’m not going to live there, but young professionals are. They can’t afford buy a house yet. They don’t want to be tied down yet.
That’s their lifestyle, and that’s what’s going to change as we saw with the gas prices; even though they’ve come down now, that’s a temporary thing. Whether it takes six months or three years, we’re going to be back up in the three or four dollar range. And so people will be having smaller cars. Will we get to the no car thing? That doesn’t really happen until gas is expensive enough and parking is expensive enough and there’s public transportation. There’s a bit of a chicken and egg there. You know, what forces you to do that. A lot of people still drive into Manhattan. Three-hundred bucks to park my car and traffic? So this is kind of force that to a certain extent [is driving the change].
There’s a lot of bad traffic around the Bella Terra area and it is hard there for pedestrians. There Wwhat about making these developments fit in with the city’s larger transportation plans?
OCTA has the Go Local program. We’re participating with Westminster, Fountain Valley and Stanton in how we use that railroad track to eventually connect to Metrolink. The question is, how can we, say from Edinger [going] south create a trolley that loops somehow and takes people down to the beach? Does it come up Newland or Bushard or some other way?
You’re not talking about a train coming down–
It would probably stop at Edinger.
Down Main Street?
No. That’s been built upon. It’s residential. That’s not going to happen. But to the extent that you go north, why not? The train track is there and the train comes on it only about three times a week for lumber right now.
But Union Pacific had not even been spoken to by the city about that at the time the council decided to study that idea as part of its participation in the Go Local program.
Well, it’s all about study. Do you want to use these OCTA monies to study the feasibility of a train route? That’s where you start.
Why doesn’t the city even consider the idea of Personal Rapid Transit ( a computerized above street transit system that utilizes small pods on demand) ?
It comes down to the economic feasibility, which has to do with ridership, which has to do with density and the way we’re spread out. My guess is that we don’t fit it yet. But we’re open to looking at everything. There’s never been any homework behind it to say this is how it would finance itself, this is how it would work. It just seemed very preliminary to me. I think we’re all open to what makes dollars and cents and what works.
Part II will appear on May 9, 2009