New Faces in Long Beach

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Formerly derelict facades are frugally restored by Gwynne Pugh Urban Studio.
John Linden/Courtesy Gwynne Pugh Urban Studio

Prada, Fendi, and Louis Vuitton may resort to starchitecture to lure moneyed customers to Rodeo Drive and Madison Avenue. But what can high design do for a pet store, a nail salon, or a store called simply “American Clothing”?

Plenty, the city of Long Beach hopes.

For decades, four low-slung, ordinary commercial buildings at the corner of Anaheim Street and Long Beach Boulevard have been decaying along with their surroundings. The city identified the buildings as both a symptom and a cause of a cycle of blight that qualified the area for federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding.

Long Beach Development Services put out a request for proposals two years
ago to give the corner a new look, funded by CDBG money.

“Our idea is to look at corners or nodes where potential business development can happen,” said Alem Hagos, the department’s grants administration officer.

Santa Monica–based Gywnne Pugh Urban Studio won the contract. Work was completed late last year.
 

Before: Existing streetfront as seen from a light rail stop in Long beach.

The resulting design respects distinctions among the buildings and their 10 or so stores while attempting to solve common problems. Principal Gwynne Pugh eliminated cluttered signage, peeling paint, and other signs of neglect. He banished roll-down security gates, which, he said, made the area seem unsafe.“It looked like nothing was happening there,” said Pugh. “At some level, it’s about the ‘broken windows’ theory.”

Pugh took a different approach to each building. The second and fourth buildings from Anaheim Street got whimsical paint jobs of turquoise and purple. Pugh extended the facade on the third in a move reminiscent of an Old West storefront. As a unifying element, Pugh designed a steel canopy that spans the four facades.

“There’s a joyful vibrancy about those storefronts,” said Pugh. “It was about taking the fabric of the buildings that was there and enhancing it, as opposed to trying to change their essential nature.”

On a blank wall along Anaheim Boulevard, Pugh commissioned graffiti artist Hector Calderon to install a mural that will, he hopes, not only create visual interest but also discourage tagging.

The design work required a level of creativity that often comes only from financial constraints. Pugh had a design and construction budget of $404,000.

“We asked too much for the budget [we gave them],” said Hagos. “Somehow they were able to come up with ideas to make things better.”

Though upgrades are strictly cosmetic and largely two-dimensional, the project’s benefits are intended to radiate beyond the buildings’ footprints.

The area lies across the street from a Blue Line light rail station, making it something of a welcome mat for commuters. While other commercial buildings throughout Long Beach—and all along the vast low-slung boulevards of the Los Angeles Area—are too numerous for such extensive upgrades, city officials hope that Pugh’s design will inspire landlords to make modest investments.

“It’s a substantial improvement; at the same time, we’re not doing something crazy,” said Hagos. “We found if we invest in that corner, it will generate more business around the area.”

This potential for community-wide inspiration makes the project worthwhile for Pugh, even if his firm’s contributions are only cosmetic and the profit margin slim.

“While I enjoy designing buildings from the ground up, it’s a really interesting challenge to work with the neighborhood, to take its best qualities and really create character,” said Pugh.

Long Beach residents may still need to travel for their leather handbags and silk scarves. But now they have something arguably more important: an inviting place to get a pet, a pedicure, or a pair of Levi’s.

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