Paddles gliding through the water of the Queensway Bay. Gondoliers in colorful outfits, singing love ballads as they shuttle passengers back and forth between the Downtown Long Beach waterfront and Queen Mary Island. A picturesque scene. But Long Beach’s plans for a cross-bay gondola are less quaint and more high-tech.
On March 12, the city council voted to initiate a feasibility study, with the goal of determining whether the city could benefit from a gondola lift connecting downtown with the Queen Mary as well as other potential stations along the way. “To some it seems like ‘pie in the sky,’” 2nd District Councilmember Jeannine Pearce, one of the item’s co-sponsors, said in her opening remarks. “But we know that dreaming big is really important, and we know that this is a creative idea that other cities like San Diego, L.A., are really exploring and taking seriously.”
This is not the first time the idea of a new cross-bay connection, designed especially to attract tourists, has been floated around. Former Long Beach Harbor Commissioner Alex Bellehumeur has worked on several proposals over the years, including a monorail-like project across the Queensway Bay Bridge and an aerial gondola, just like the one the city council is considering now.
The initial idea of a monorail train called “The Wave” was floated in the early 2000s, but eventually dissolved, mainly because there were questions about the practicality of the project and concerns that the bridge might not be able to carry the added machinery. “That was a really exciting project as well, but not nearly as efficient as the aerial tram,” Bellehumeur said. “The aerial tram will actually accommodate more people at a much lower cost.”
While the original “Wave” was abandoned, its name prevailed and the team around Alex Bellehumeur continued to work on the project, despite several setbacks along the way. According to Bellehumeur, his team – which includes co-chair Clay Sandidge, a tech consultant, grant writer Robert Ardolino of Urban Innovations and Al Moro, former chief harbor engineer at the Port of Long Beach – had already secured $4 million in grant funding for the project between 2004 and 2005. They were forced to table it and return the funds when the Queen Mary’s operator, Queen’s Seaport Development, declared bankruptcy in 2005.
The turbulent history of the Queen Mary put Bellehumeur’s plans on shaky ground in the past, but he didn’t lose hope that the project would get off the ground one day. “I know it will. I’ve never had any doubt about that in my mind,” he said. “Interest was never killed; it was always there. It was just a matter of timing.”
With a new operator in charge of the Queen Mary, renovations underway and plans to turn the island into a full-fledged entertainment park on the books, the timing is as right as it will ever be, Bellehumeur mused. “When the aerial tram comes in, it’s going to skyrocket the potential of the Queen Mary Island,” he said, referring to a shipside development planned by Queen Mary leaseholder Urban Commons. “It’s going to be enormous.”
“Old Town,” as Bellehumeur calls the district of Pine Avenue north of Ocean Boulevard in Downtown Long Beach, has also been in desperate need of support, he said. “Those businesses have been taking a beating ever since the Pike project went up and diverted much of their business,” Bellehumeur explained, referencing the Pike Outlets. “It needs a shot in the arm, has now for a very long time. What this will do is to tie Old Town directly from the Queen Mary all the way up to the Aquarium, on over to the Pike, up to the Blue Line Station.”
The gondola’s route and stations have not been finalized yet, and the project is still in its early stages. But an executive with Urban Commons, which took over the lease of the Queen Mary in 2016, said the company has received support and encouragement from city staff and some businesses adjacent to the planned route. Among them is the Hotel Maya, which has expressed interest in becoming one of the gondola’s stops.
“We haven’t really had a granular discussion of all the details that would have to be resolved if the gondola was in place,” Dan Zaharoni, Urban Common’s chief development officer, told the Business Journal. “We just know in our discussions with city leaders and city staff that they’re very interested in working with us.”
For Urban Commons (UC), the new transit option would take some pressure off parking structures on the island, especially with the expected increase in visitors once the area has been transformed into the major tourist destination the company envisions. UC even paid for an initial feasibility study to see whether the project was possible from an engineering standpoint.
“We’ve always thought about a gondola from the very beginning,” Zaharoni said. “It’s no secret that ingress and egress off the island is a critical challenge for development. So developing different ways to get people on and off, whether it be by air, by water or by roads, has always been a big part of our focus.”
The gondola, Zaharoni said, would not only make Long Beach’s skyline more recognizable; it would also serve as a standalone draw for tourists eager to experience a ride 400-feet above the city and Queensway Bay. “Even when you’re on the top of the Queen, you certainly have a nice view of the skyline, but it would be nothing compared to being 400 plus feet in the air,” he pointed out. “Other than the cost, I don’t think that you can come up with many cons.”
Funding sources have not been identified yet. Assistant City Manager Tom Modica estimated the cost of the initial feasibility study at approximately $100,000, and some of the costs are likely to be shouldered by Urban Commons, which is the lead on the project. The city’s contributions, Modica explained, could come from different funding sources, including transit and tidelands funds. Funding for the gondola may come from grants, outside agencies such as Metro and public-private partnerships, options that will be explored as part of the study.
“I’m very supportive of the feasibility study,” Mayor Robert Garcia said at a recent city council meeting. “I have been supportive of this concept as it’s been back and forth in different iterations over the years. But I think it’s a great way of connecting the pieces of Long Beach that need greater connection and greater transit opportunities.”