The Remaking of Long Beach: How a Breakwater is Like a River

Breaking Good
Breaking Good | Photo: Turbojoe | Flickr: Creative Commons License

The Los Angeles River is, as Curbed LA put it recently, "newly hot." (It's been hot for some time, and some of the best writing about the river is on KCET's Confluence pages.)

But there's another monument to intervention in the landscape about to be reconsidered -- the two-and-half-mile breakwater paralleling the coast between the mouth of the San Gabriel River and the mouth of the Los Angeles River at Long Beach.

If recreation for many is the goal, the future of the breakwater could be as significant as the future of the river.

The Long Beach City Council seems to think so, having voted to fund $2.25 million of a $3 million study to determine what degree of intervention -- including removal of the breakwater -- might restore the city's strand to something like the playground it once was. Before 1949, the beach from the Rainbow Pier to Alamitos Bay was the city's biggest tourist attraction, known for its surfing spots, its good fishing, and the quality of its ocean bathing.

Not lately. The breakwater so tempered the waters off Alamitos Beach and Junipero Beach and along Belmont Shore that on most days the Pacific is a placid as duck pond and just as likely to be fouled. The five miles of white sand beach remain, but sadly diminished as a place to play and often empty in even the summer as inland residents travel to better beaches in Orange County.

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That could change. According to the Press Telegram, Long Beach expects approvals from the Army Corps of Engineers to begin a study of alternatives to the breakwater in its current form. Tom Modica, city director of government affairs and strategic initiatives told the Press Telegram, "We expect to have an agreement by the end of this year and for the study to start the first quarter of 2014."

The study could be completed by 2017 or even earlier, if the Corps comes up with its share of the cost soon.

Local enthusiasm for breaking up the breakwater is tempered by the anxieties of residents who live in the breakwater's shadow in the Belmont Shore and Peninsula neighborhoods southeast of downtown Long Beach. A wilder bay without a breakwater worries property owners, who prefer the status quo without waves.

Long Beach city officials worry about restarting the city's once vibrant tourist economy, now that the Navy, shipbuilding, and aerospace manufacturing have gone. Waves might help.

The breakwater study -- like those that have defined the renaissance of Los Angeles River -- will have to deal with both kinds of worries. At its best, the Corps could demonstrate that modifications to the breakwater would bring benefits to homeowners and surfers, city council members and tourists, taxpayers and beach goers.

After all, that's what has happened along the banks of the river, where competing interests for urban recreation and suburban flood protection have -- so far -- been balanced.

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