By: Erika Paz and Tiffany Mankarios
Long Beach State President Jane Close Conoley was eager to expand the university into downtown with the Broadway Block, a project designed to provide 24 affordable student housing units and classroom “flex” space. However, those plans were squashed in June 2020.
“For a couple of years, I had a styrofoam model on my desk about what this is going to look like,” Conoley said. “So I was very excited about walking through the courtyard and being able to see our students.”
According to university officials, the project failed to come together due to poor communication, a change in university staff, a switch in project developers and a lack of funding, exemplifying its complexity.
“But I remain very committed to finding affordable housing for our students,” Conoley said.
The Broadway Block project began when the Ratkovich Properties, a development company, reached out to the university in an effort to offer student housing and classroom space in the city’s downtown neighborhood. The proposal was approved by the Long Beach City Council in 2017 with the idea that the university partnership would help revitalize that part of the city.
Around the same time, the university had a second prospect for housing in the same area, for which the city awarded $1 million to aid the development. This project had many names as it developed, but it was most commonly known as University Village. Along with housing and classrooms, University Village was going to provide retail space and a small food hall.
While both projects were in partnership with CSULB, each was managed by a different campus representative.
“I think we made a management mistake. We had two different people,” Conoley said. “I don’t think we were communicating as well and as often as we should have been.”
University Village, whose responsibility belonged to CSULB’s Associate Vice President of Research and Sponsored Programs Simon Kim, came to a halt after the developer ran out of money, according to Conoley. This happened despite the $1 million grant CSULB received for the project.
“It’s very difficult for developers because nobody’s lending money,” Scott Apel, CSULB’s chief financial officer, told the Daily Forty-Niner in March. “And definitely nobody’s lending money for commercial properties … because nobody knows if anyone’s going to go shopping again.”
As the Broadway Block project progressed, it was sold to a new developer, Onni Group. Meanwhile, the vice president of the Division of Student Affairs — and the campus representative for the Broadway Block — left the university.
That departure meant that university administration was scrambling for information on the project. After meeting with the city’s director of economic development, Conoley and others realized that the project had been sold and any leverage to ask for affordable housing was gone.
Ratkovich Properties and Onni Group did not respond to requests for comments on this story.
The California Department of Housing and Community Development defines affordable housing as “no more than 30% of gross household income with variations.” Based on the median household income for Long Beach, which is $61,610, housing costs should not exceed $1,540 per month to be considered affordable. For students, this number is lower.
Housing costs include rent or mortgage payments, utilities, property taxes and insurance.
While the market price for the Broadway Block units is still unknown, the most recent apartment complex to open in the Downtown Long Beach neighborhood, The Oceanaire, provides an example of the starting rates for apartments in the area. Even with a pilot moderate-income housing program, the proposed rent for a studio begins at $1,841 a month — a stark difference from Conoley’s $556-per-month ideal.
“The new developer had not agreed to put aside apartments at affordable rates. So we said, ‘Well, what’s the point?’” Conoley said.
That’s when CSULB officials decided to step back from the Broadway Block project.
“We had never made any commitments to them, there was no document signed and there wasn’t a [written] agreement for a specific number of units,” Apel said.
Despite working with the developers and city officials, Apel feels there is good reason for not signing any agreements.
“We don’t spend any money on speculative real-estate development because we use tax money and student fees to pay most of our bills,” Apel said. “We spend all of that money on educating our students… Our number one priority is educating people. We have to be very careful about the money we use to do that.”
The project continues, but without any connection to the university, and without any promise to provide affordable housing options.
So after years of anticipation and a grant from the city, Conoley and the university were left empty-handed.